Ongoing Stories of My Soul

Look over my shoulder as I ponder life.

April: Time to Look at the Puzzling World of Autism

You just might know that April is the month for many observances. Daylight savings time change, Easter, remembering the crew of the ill-fated Titanic, and of course, the day IRS officially puts their hand in our pockets. But April is also the month that we honor a very special group of individuals.

Yes, April is also Autism Awareness month. You may have seen the puzzle pieces which form the ribbon for autism awareness. It is so appropriate that puzzle pieces are used; there are so many varying degrees on the spectrum of autism, and its cause and treatment is just like that of a puzzle. You won’t find any empirical data from this writer on the cause, but better screening, knowledge, and diagnosis sure points to the increase of children believed to have autism. There is a common saying among the autism community that goes like this: “If you have met one person with autism, then you have done just that: met ONE person with autism.”

Having a daughter whose life’s work has focused on these individuals, these are some things I have learned:

        Do not say an individual is autistic; it is far more sensitive
        to say they have autism. The ‘is’ defines who they are; the
        ‘have’ leaves room for their many other gifts. Just as it is more
        kind to say a person has diabetes than labeling him or her as
        a diabetic. Remember, they are still individuals with
        successes and struggles just like everyone else.

         Autism and Aspberger’s is a complex diagnosis and                                                  
         individuals range from being very, very low functioning to
         having such slight effects that they may just appear to be
         socially awkward. And aren’t we all at varying times in our
         lives? This is why you may hear that an individual is “on the
         spectrum” which allows for vast degrees of this diagnosis.

        A child who has autism is not just an under disciplined brat.
        Their neural pathways can be so ultra-sensitive that the tag
        in clothing can be such a distraction that they barely can
        function. The sounds of fluorescent lighting, the high-pitched
        squeal of an air conditioner or loud noises and flashing
        lights can be physically painful to one living with autism.
        When these ‘meltdowns’ occur, the staff/parent may refer to
        these as ‘behaviors’ which means they are behaving adversely
        to an event or stimuli. This is not the time to stare and judge
        the individual or the parent. Offer assistance (if you so
        choose) or walk away saying a silent prayer of
        encouragement, but not pity.Ever get a cramp in your toe? It
        comes on suddenly, is both painful and annoying, and nothing
        will get done until you get that toe to relax so you can
        continue on. This is a lame illustration, but you get the idea
        on how encompassing it is to have an individual experiencing
        a ‘behavior’.

Autism is one of the many medical diagnosis teachers contend with in public education. The law calls for “the least restrictive environment” and so these individuals are often mainstreamed into regular classes. What these kids bring to the educational setting is amazing! No-frills, no ‘politically correctness–‘ straight forwardness is refreshing. Kids with autism do not lie. They are no real friend to figurative language but often have incredible memories. While some individuals may be short on language abilities, and even just echo what they hear….they can be very proficient in using non-verbal queues to let you know what they need, want, don’t like. Often, a kid ‘on the spectrum’ will go to any length to be obedient, correct in classroom protocol–often wanting fairness for all. Many have absolutely no sense of malice and treat everyone with kindness–or indifference—but never mean spirited. This is such a refreshing brush of paint on the educational canvas.

Sure…any child with a disability can be a challenge (or a blessing) for a classroom teacher. But really, the way I see it, we all are both challenged and gifted in some area or another. And a true educator embraces all the kiddos who walk through the doorway and focuses on helping that kid reach their potential.

A child with autism becomes an adult with autism, and must be taught to compensate, cope, but more, to be accepted by a world that has no corner on perfection.

Include yourself in solving the puzzle of autism; be accepting, loving, and kind. This contribution means more than you can ever know…in April and all months to come.

***Many thanks to my daughter, Kristen Coffing-McCarrick for her help with this blog. She works in Alabama at a residential facility for individuals with autism, and has great insight into the puzzling world of autism. Kristen is a blessing to the many families who need a competent and understanding therapist in their family member’s life. She is a piece of the puzzle that makes the whole picture of autism one of hope. 


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