In honor of Autism Awareness month, I'm posting an article I wrote a while back after seeing a bunch of reports on autism. The information in this article by no means applies to all autistic individuals, but it does offer a different perspective on autism.
Enjoy reading, and please feel free to leave me a comment on what you think!
THE TRUTH ABOUT HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM
Autism is a term that covers an entire spectrum of disorders, including Asperger’s Syndrome. People with an autism spectrum disorder can have symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The most severe symptoms are found on the low end of the spectrum or low-functioning autistics. People with mild symptoms and those with Asperger’s Syndrome are classed as having high-functioning autism.
A lot of the resources that can be easily found apply to mid- to low-functioning autism. Unfortunately, many people take that information and assume that it also applies to high-functioning autistics. It generally doesn’t. Below are some truths about what high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are really like.
Autism is not the unfeeling and lonely place that many non-autistics think it is. In reality, it is a wonderful place of freedom and innocence. People with autism, both children and adults, enjoy being alone. They like the freedom from stress that being alone gives as well as the creative thoughts that flow uninterrupted by outside distractions. Yes, when in a group an autistic may seem unaware of their surroundings and completely oblivious to what is being said. However, be aware that they may be listening intently to every word and know exactly how many people are in the room.
Autistic people generally have trouble making eye contact when being spoken to. It is not because they aren’t listening, rather they are probably listening very intently. The face, especially the eyes, provides a lot of confusing information for those with autism. While a non-autistic may seek visual cues to add to the conversation, a person with autism tends to be distracted by them and miss every word that is said. By looking at the wall or the floors or even closing their eyes, the autistic person is able to concentrate on what is being said rather than trying to process all the information the face is giving.
When an autistic sits unmoving in a room full of people, don’t assume they are being anti-social. Instead, realize that they are probably observing everything that is going on around them. Autistics are the world’s greatest observers of life. Rather than participating, they are more like people at a zoo watching the monkeys play. The only difference is, the monkeys in this case are non-autistics.
One of the most misunderstood things about autism is the body language. Rocking can be comforting in a stressful situation, but it can also be a sign excitement. Flapping the hands can be a sign of happiness or a signal that the person is becoming agitated. Sitting curled up in a chair can be comforting, but sometimes it is just more comfortable for the autistic person to sit that way. These are just a few examples of the body language. The important thing to remember is that although society may view these behaviors as unacceptable or inappropriate, they are a part of being autistic. Demanding that the person with autism give up these behaviors is like demanding a non-autistic to give up their sense of humor or some other part of their personality.
Many “experts” on autism constantly suggest ways to cure autism. That sounds wonderful, but there is one problem: autism is not a disease. Saying that autistics need to be cured is like saying non-autistics need to be cured of being themselves. No sane person would want that, so why must a person with autism be cured of who they are?
Autism is not a devastating disease to be cured. Autism is a different way of life. Quirky, eccentric, different, and odd are all terms that have been used to describe people on the high end of the autism spectrum. Keep in mind that none of these words mean stupid or mentally handicapped. To the contrary, many people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have average or above average intelligence, though their test scores may not show it. People on the autism spectrum do not test well. The questions on the test may not explain things fully enough for them or they may suffer from severe anxiety about taking a test. If you can get the autistic person to relax and talk to you, most likely their intelligence will shine through, and you’ll be amazed at just how much they know.
One symptom many autistics exhibit it developing an obsession with a particular object or topic. They may become so fixated on one particular thing that everything they say and do revolves around it. They tend to want to learn everything possible about that topic and can become somewhat of an expert on their topic of choice. The topics can change every few days or they may stick with a topic for years. Though it may seem bizarre to non-autistics, this fixation on one area is a safe way for the autistic to express their intelligence. By sticking to one thing and learning everything they can about it, the autistic is able to carry on a conversation about that topic and feel smart.
Much of the information readily available on autism describes the difficulties and challenges of living with an autistic. They suggest ways to keep your autistic child from “escaping” from a room or the house as well as ideas for essentially baby-proofing the house for your autistic child. These suggestions are also for autistic adults. While extra precautions may need to be taken for people with mid- to low-functioning autism, there is no need to turn the house into a prison for most people on the high end of the spectrum. Many high-functioning autistic children can learn not to play with the stove, stick objects into outlets, or run into the street.
If your autistic child tends to wander, don’t automatically assume that he or she will runaway and lock them up. Instead, observe the child while they wander. Let them have the freedom to roam the backyard without someone constantly beside them. If they start to wander into the street, call them back, but don’t assume that you can never let the child have freedom. Teach them the dangers of traffic just like you would any other child.
If the autistic child has a fascination with electrical appliances, let them learn with supervision. Teach them about safety with appliances, but don’t severely restrict their access. They will never learn if you won’t let them.
Just like any other child, one with autism must be taught that certain things are dangerous. They must be taught not to talk to strangers and how to get away if someone tries to kidnap them. Teach them that police and firemen are there to help them and to call 911 if there is an emergency. It may take longer for the autistic child to learn, but most likely, they will learn.
Don’t deprive autistic children of a normal childhood just because they are autistic. If your family goes to the amusement park, seriously consider taking the autistic child as well. They need to know that they are loved, just like any other child. Excluding them from family activities will have a deep emotional effect on the child. They may not always be able to express their emotions, but all autistics have the same range of emotions non-autistics do. Some may have an awareness that they are different from everybody else, but try to treat them the same way their siblings are treated. No one likes to be treated differently from their brothers and sisters.
Yes, autism can be a challenge for parents, but is it really any more of a challenge raising an autistic child than a non-autistic child? If you listen to the “experts” it is. If you listen to them, your life will much more difficult and stressful than if you listen to your child with high-functioning autism. Raise them like you would any other child, but make special allowances when and where necessary. Take the autistic child to Grandma’s house, but allow them to go to a different room if they need to instead of forcing them to remain with the family. Sometimes, that alone-time is the only thing standing between a peaceful visit and a complete meltdown of the autistic child.
If the autistic child has trouble with flashing lights and loud noises, like those at a carnival or an arcade, they will let you know. It may not be in words, but they will find a way to tell you that those situations are something they need to avoid. You just have to be willing to listen to the child no matter how they communicate.
There are no specific guidelines for how an autistic child or adult will communicate. Sometimes they are verbal forms of communication, sometimes it is non-verbal. It is different in each case, so you must learn to communicate with the person and be patient if they have trouble expressing their needs or what they are feeling.
Autism does not mean that the person will never be independent or lead a fairly normal life. It just means that they view things in a unique way and do things differently. So rather than deciding that autism is some kind of dreaded scourge that needs to be eradicated, try to understand it and see autistics as the special people that they are.
Copyright 2005 by E. A. West