Posted by: suekenney | April 28, 2012

What Does Autism Look Like?

We’re almost to the end of Autism Awareness Month.  I thought I would write a bit more about autism, in hopes of raising at least one more person’s awareness of what it is.  And I will be revisiting this topic in the future, for sure.

As I said in my previous post, autism is not one disorder, but a whole range or spectrum, going from very mild to very severe.  Typically, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by three core areas:  difficulties in social interaction, difficulties in communication, and tendencies to engage in repetitive behaviors.  But every individual on the spectrum is different, and each one’s particular symptoms may be wildly different in each of those core areas.  For instance, one individual may have some social difficulties but no difficulty at all in communicating, while another may not be able to talk intelligibly but can communicate in other ways (such as sign language), while a third may be severely challenged both socially and linguistically, with some cognitive delays and other medical conditions as well.  Some people with autism will be able to live and function very well on their own as adults, while others will always need a lot of support.

I used to think of it as ONLY a handicap.  Having read a few things written by people with ASD, I’m no longer so sure.  Many autistics, though having trouble relating socially, are real whizzes at math and science – Temple Grandin being one notable example.  She has made the point in some of her writings that where would the world be if everybody was a touchy-feely kind of person, and no one had the cool, logical mind needed for much scientific research?  She sees it as not so much a disorder as a different way of looking at the world. 

Not that she was saying that every scientist has autism.  But we need to be aware that many characteristics that can be plugged into the autism spectrum can also be found in many “neurotypical” people (to use a big scientific word).  I myself do not have autism; but I look at the descriptions of autistic people and find a lot of overlap.  I’m not so great socially, for instance; sometimes I have a hard time just looking other people in the eyes for more than a few seconds.  What I’m trying to say is that autistic people often look and act just like a lot of non-autistic people, and vice versa.  A professional diagnosis has to come from something other than just looking at the outward behaviors.

Just saw a TV ad – for insurance, though the ad never really went into how insurance worked into all this –  just a man against a mottled blue background, speaking about his four-year-old son who had just been diagnosed with autism.  The man, “Jimmy,” related how he had had all kinds of dreams for his son, and then, with the diagnosis, had to realize that, whether his son ever achieved those dreams – whether his son ended up depending on him for the rest of his life – the boy was still his son, and still very much loved.  And in the end, isn’t that all that matters?  These kids with autism – they’re just kids like every other kid – they are just as worthy of being loved and cared for as every other kid.  They might think a bit differently; they might struggle more with communication or social skills.  But they are people, and very precious.

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