“When I was younger I would get embarrassed when my brother would have behaviors [in public]. It was too hard to explain to people what Autism was. As awareness grows it makes life easier. I don’t have to go into a big story about why my brother does some of the strange things he does.” – Michelle, Sibling of an 18 year old with ASD
April is Autism awareness month, with National Autism Day on April 2nd, and in the spirit of shedding light on the condition to the general public I wanted to share my experiences working with children and adults dealing with Autism. Over the better half of the past decade I have seen both the extent and severity of Autism. It's depths are wide ranging and exist on a spectrum spanning from low functioning to high functioning, and everything in between.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can severely impact communication, social interactions, and the ability to understand language; the severity of the disability determines what part of the spectrum a person falls under. As of today there is not a cure for Autism, but being aware of ASD can greatly improve the lives of those who suffer from it and the families who care for those afflicted.
Autism is widely misunderstood. Movies like “Rainman,” starring Dustin Hoffman who played an Autistic savant with a talent for calculation, gives a false impression of what Autism is like. While Hoffman did a brilliant job, I have worked with over a hundred different people with ASD and only a small handful act in a manner similar to Hoffman’s portrayal.
Most high-functioning people with ASD do not act, for the most part, differently than anyone else. You may have met a person with ASD and never knew it, though you probably thought they seemed a little strange or weird after meeting them. Unfortunately on the low end of the spectrum, some people with ASD lack fundamental life skills and can engage in extremely erratic and dangerous behavior.
Some engage in self-injury like slapping themselves in the head, or biting their own hand. Some can be aggressive towards others, make loud shouting noises, destroy the property around them, or run away if they are frustrated, scared, or upset.
I was at a restaurant with a client and his mother once when the child with ASD became upset. We tried to calm him down with not much success, and before we knew it the entire restaurant was staring at us. He had never had a breakdown in public before and going out to eat was one of his favorite things to do. There was just something that set him off that day causing a behavior problem. The poor mother not only had to deal with her child, but also suffered the insults of an elderly man who proceeded to scold her.
He told her that she was a “horrible mother” and that she needs to “learn how to control her kid.” After we got into the car the mom attempted to hide the tears that ran down her cheek. She knew it was not her fault her child has Autism, but it doesn’t stop hurtful words by ignorant people from getting underneath her skin. That is why it is so important to spread Awareness about Autism, so that the world is a little bit more of an understanding and accepting place for ALL human beings.
Though autism can have many disabling qualities it also has many enabling advantages, as in the case of savant syndrome.
“Savant syndrome is diagnosed when a child's ability in one area is exceptionally higher than would be expected given his or her IQ or general level of functioning.”
Autistic savants can show incredible feats of mind like that of Kim Peek, who could memorize nearly every word from every book he has ever read. Peek has the ability to read two pages of a book at the same time by reading the left page with his left eye and the right page with his right eye and retains over ninety percent of the information.
This is including the page number of where specific quotes from the book can be found. He could even tell you the zip code of any place in the United States because he had memorized all of them. Peek’s unbelievable feats of mind were the inspiration behind Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the Autistic savant aforementioned in the film “Rainman.”
Apart from Peek’s superhuman abilities he was unable to function independently and couldn’t live alone. He was incapable of menial chores, brushing his teeth, cooking his own food, or even taking a shower. How can such an uncanny mind be unable to learn how to brush teeth? This is part of the enigma in understanding Autism. The advantages in certain skill areas often come at the price of severe deficits in other areas.
[Sadly, Peek passed away from a heart attack in the comfort of his home in 2009]
In very rare cases there are autistic savants who reach adulthood without exhibiting noticeable social or communicative dysfunction. One of these High Functioning Savants is Daniel Tammet who has the ability to compute large quantities in seconds without a calculator, recite pi to the 22,514th digit (Gaurdian UK.), and learn a new language in a matter of days. Aside from his savant skills he does not exhibit any noticeable dysfunction, though he did when he was diagnosed with Autism as a child. The following link is to a free documentary about savantism and Daniel Tammet entitled “The Boy With the Incredible Brain” and it's a wonderful film if you have 45 minutes to spare.
“The estimated prevalence of savant abilities in autism is 10%” -Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
“Autism affects people in different ways. There is no one-type of Autism. Some are more suited to public life than others, but that doesn’t mean they should be forsaken.” – Ben, 21 year old with ASD “Even though Autism is considered a disability, we are still able to work just as well as everyone [else]. We even work harder than most because of our stigma.” – Joe, 20 year old with ASD “I feel like a happy, normal kid. When people laugh at me it makes me sad.” - Mary, 18 year old with ASD “When I was younger I got bullied. I didn’t understand because I didn’t feel any different [from others]. I wish they didn’t [bully me], but I learned to not let it bother me. If you let it bother you, the bully wins.” - Tyler, 18 year old with ASD “Paul Newman, I got you your broom.” – Ed, 18 year old with ASD (and apparent owner of Paul Newman’s broom.) “Being calm and speaking softly I feel really helps put people with Autism at ease.” – Mike, P.E. Coach for children and adults with ASD “My Daughter looks like everyone else, and it’s hard to explain to others that her brain functions completely different than everyone else. I wish others were aware that you can never tell who has ASD just by looking at them.” - Emily, Mother of 5 year old child with ASD “I’m always struggling with changing how my son acts in order for him to fit in. I wonder why I should have to change him at all. [If more people] were aware [of Autism] I think they would accept him the way I do” - Peggie, Mother of child with ASD “When I was younger I was embarrassed when my brother would have behaviors [in public]. It was too hard to explain to people what Autism was. As awareness grows it makes life easier. I don’t have to go into a big story about why my brother does some of the strange things he does.” – Michelle, Sibling of an 18 year old with ASD