Autism Awareness, Understanding, and Acceptance

I used to think of autism as this horrible, debilitating condition that whose sufferers were mentally incapacitated, unable to live a proper life, a burden to their parents, and maybe even worthy of living in group homes and not much more. That was me about 20 years ago, when an autistic girl – totally non-verbal and prone to fits and self-harming behavior – was accepted into the middle school I attended. Being the idiotic teenager that I was back then, I joined in the gossip and somewhat bullying behavior of pointing at her and laughing. Deep inside me, I wished and prayed that I would never have a child with that affliction.

Growing up and opening yourself to new experiences, new people, and the science of things really does change the way that you look at the world, or even at the universe. April was “Autism Awareness” month, and I wish that they would have had such a wide array of educational material and communications when I was a kid. I probably would have understood what that little girl went through a little better. I probably wouldn’t have been such a [expletive].

My next interaction with a child with autism was when I had my first job out of college. One of my coworkers brought in her 6 year-old boy to introduce him to us. He was quiet and didn’t really say much to us as she took him around the office. I held out my hand to tousle his hair, but his mom grabbed my hand. “He doesn’t do well with touching,” she said. “He’s autistic, so those kinds of interactions don’t register the same for him as they would for you.” This perplexed me a bit. I was a science major in college, but I had not studied neurobiology enough to understand how things “register” in the brain.

The next interaction would be a couple of years later when I started studying epidemiology and biostatistics. The vaccine-autism pseudo-link was being pushed heavily back then (late 90’s, early 2000’s) because of Wakefield’s fraudulent study. So I learned the dry, impersonal definition of autism:
“A disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.”
That was it. I no longer worked with the mother of the child with autism, so I had no real first-hand experience with anyone with autism. I knew what it was, but I didn’t know “how” it was. I was aware of autism, but I didn’t understand it.

That all changed once I really started getting involved in the discussion about vaccines and autism. The data that I had looked at – and some that I analyzed – wasn’t backing-up Wakefield’s claims. I stated this publicly as much as I could because the fears of vaccines were becoming more and more prevalent around me. People were vaccinating less out of their fear of autism. So it was time to understand autism.

The great majority of my understanding came from reading the blogs of science-oriented, reasonable people who explained their lives with autism. The most eye-opening part to me was that autism was not the debilitating and horrible condition that I had made out to be so many years before. People with autism can lead fulfilling and productive lives. They have a wide range of skills and abilities – some being “super” abilities, if you ask me. Even if the child with autism is non-verbal and lives in “their own little world”, autism surely wasn’t the “loss” that so many had made it out to be in their rants about their own experiences. Though I cringe a little to write that because, honestly, I don’t live their lives, so it is impossible for me to truly weigh their experiences.

Sure, there are challenges for people with autism and their caretakers. Yes, they are not typical, so their lives will not be typical. But none of that makes them any less of a person, or someone less worthy of being respected and cared for. That’s what I understood once I saw and read about the human side of autism, about the many parents who love and care and lookout for their children with autism. That’s when I accepted autism.

If you are confused, unsure, questioning, curious, or just want to know more about autism, I recommend the “Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism”.
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