Monday, July 15, 2013

Autism as a Culture

          There is a reason autism is described as a spectrum of disorders.  No two people with autism are exactly alike.  Similarly, not every treatment for autism works for every person on the spectrum.  Finding a method that works for each individual is a trial and error process that every parent, child, and adult living with autism has to go through in order to change, advance, and grow.  A good way to explain this concept is to take a person with an obvious disability and describe the similarities and differences between how we treat that person, and how we treat a person with autism.
            For example, when a child is born without the ability to hear, we notice this disability very early on in the child’s life.  It is easy for us, as parents, to see when a child is not hearing sounds properly.  Additionally, simple pediatric tests can tell us instantly if an infant is responding to sounds or not.  As a society, we have determined that there is usually nothing wrong with these people, except for the fact that they are hearing impaired.  In order to accommodate our hearing impaired population, we have developed a visual language (ASL) to teach these children. We also have written language for them to utilize as well as services tailored to all those who cannot hear in the same way as the typical person hears the world.  This disability is easy to treat because there is one noticeable issue to navigate around in order to help these people “find a voice” and fit into society comfortably, successfully, and as if they were no different from a person with the ability to hear.
            On the other hand, when a child is born with autism there are usually no obvious signs at birth.  The disability is in the brain, and we cannot see what that disability is by looking at the child.  There are currently no accurate tests to determine if a child is autistic or not.  Furthermore, it takes years for us to see the beginnings of language or social difficulties.  Complicating things further, each child on the spectrum has varying degrees of abilities and disabilities.  In terms of awareness, the average person knows very little about autism.  Generally, there are many misconceptions and stigmas attached to the word autism.  This disability is very difficult to treat because there are many noticeable symptoms, while the actual problem is hidden inside the brain.  We can only treat the symptoms and not the actual disorder in the brain at this time.  It is not very easy to help a person with autism fit into society comfortably and successfully, however, it is not impossible.
            Instead of seeking out a “cure” or a universal treatment for autism, we need to develop a method of assessment that incorporates all that we know about autism today and matches the best treatments to each individual person.  For instance, some children are non-verbal and respond well to sign language.  Others do not respond to verbal or visual language but excel at typing on the computer as their main method of communication.  Still others may not respond to written language, and a pictorial or a tactile way of communicating can be attempted.  As a whole, we need to think outside of the box and discover ways to get through to our autistic community so that they too can “find a voice” and fit into society as if there was nothing different about them at all. 
Finally, I like to think of autism as a culture in itself.  Every culture has its rules, and yet no two people in society are alike. The culture rules of autism are the symptoms we see, while the typical culture’s rules come out in the ways we try to fix those symptoms.  Naturally, we want the person on the spectrum to conform to our way of thinking and behaving.  Alternatively, if the typical culture stops trying to fix symptoms and instead increases awareness, communication, and understanding of why those symptoms exist, the symptoms will lessen and possibly even disappear completely over time. My point is that autism should be incorporated and accepted into our culture rather than “cured” out of it.

Jaclyn Hunt is a Life Coach specializing in the Autism and Special Needs Population. She works with adults on the spectrum, parents of autistic children and adults, spouses of adults on the spectrum, and anyone affected by autism or other related special needs.  Visit her website to learn more:
Twitter: @asnlifecoach

Monday, July 1, 2013

Is Autism a disability or a different ability?

I am not good at math.  In fact, I avoid math at all costs.  I use a tip calculator at dinner, and I ask my husband to add things up quickly for me.  I have very little use for math in my day to day am I disabled, special, or stupid?  My only label would be, "She's not so good at math."

Now imagine a man on the Autism Spectrum.  He isn't exactly good at socializing.  He avoids social situations at all costs.  He uses others such as a wife or relative to help him interpret unavoidable social situations.  He has very little use for socializing while conducting his duties as a mathematician. He is labeled as disabled, special, and slow.

I am perfectly capable of learning math.  In college I failed my first try at calculus, but the second go around I studied hard, did each problem slowly and followed each step exactly.  Sometimes I would still get a wrong answer, but I persisted and ended up erasing that F with a very deserved C+. Had I tried again, I'm sure I could have gotten even better at math and perhaps pulled off an A.  However, my degree in Psychology did not require any other math courses.  So I got rusty and poor at math again.  I was not interested in math, it did not come naturally, so I gave up on it.

Our man on the Autism Spectrum finds no challenge in mathematics.  He looks at a problem and instantly sees a solution.  He skips all the steps that I need to meticulously memorize and follow because he has no need to go through something when his mind brings him to the conclusion with ease.  Likewise, he perfectly capable of learning how to socialize.  He may need to take each situation step by step, slowly and meticulously until he learns and remembers all the new information being thrown at him.  Over time he improves considerably.  However, his duties as a mathematician are more interesting and it is very easy for him to "forget" to go out with friends in order to unwind.  Socializing does not come naturally, and occasionally he gives up on it.

In social situations, I rarely have to think.  I react instantly.  Being with people is very easy for me.  I understand them and can relate to them with very little work.  In fact, I enjoy being around people and it is just easy to me, so much easier than taking a math test!  I am not a genius, I just like to hang out with my friends and have a good time.

The Autistic man, however, is labeled as a mathematical genius.  He is also labeled as having a disability.  I say he is neither, or that I am also a genius in terms of understanding society and I have a disability when it comes to math.  My point is, society puts labels on people before truly taking the time to understand each individual person.  Society is lazy, and has a disability in terms of seeing the truth.  Just because someone is different from the majority, does not mean he or she needs to be "fixed" or labeled as having a disorder.  We have to cultivate our interests, work on our weaknesses, and find a balance.  We ALL need to do this, not just those on the Autism Spectrum.  We all must change, adapt, and better ourselves.  That is my goal as a Life Coach.  To bring that message to the world.