By Jaime Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications
It will surprise no one that there are a great many ways to upset strangers. What may be news, however, is that having autistic children presents a whole new array of possibilities.
“That man is fat,” says my friend telling me the story of his seven-year-old daughter Julianna using offensive language. Though she made the remark loudly enough for the man to hear as they all waited together in line at a Subway restaurant, he fortunately did not.
Yet instead of seeing that moment as nearly a very awkward and embarrassing one, Paul, her father, sees it as a teaching moment. A teacher by profession, Paul wants to help more people understand that autism is an invisible disability.
“When Julianna uses words, it’s often very literal, and she doesn’t understand the connotations,” says Paul. “Because I know her so well, I understand she was simply telling me that man was a big man. She didn’t really mean to call him fat as an insult. She just doesn’t know the implications of that word.”
And trouble is, strangers don’t know Julianna is autistic. No one can tell from looking at her, so they assume the girl is misbehaving or just bad. They also might assume her behavior is her parent’s fault for not teaching her proper manners – a common issue for parents with autistic children.
“Autistic kids have difficulty with social situations, and learning to interact with others takes time,” says Paul. “But if you don’t take time to understand autistic kids, you don’t get to see how wonderful they really are.” Schools can offer vital s
upport for helping parents teach their children how to interact in social situations.
For parents of autistic children, keeping them safe and helping them navigate life is more challenging than for other children. A parent can’t just take their child to a park, for example, and chat with other parents while the child plays. Depending on the child, playing in a park may require being a seemingly intense version of a helicopter parent. Or standard parks may be off limits entirely. Autistic children’s brains process information differently than others, and small children most often need constant supervision. Barriers or fencing is helpful as children often have no fear of dangerous situations like traffic or simply wandering away. Often, they will even bolt away from safety.
People with autism may demonstrate these characteristics in different combinations and to varying degrees:
- Seemingly inappropriate laughing or giggling
- No fear of dangers
- Appear to be unaware when people talk to them
- Insensitivity to pain
- Resistance to cuddling
- Sustained repetitive play
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Prefer being alone
- Difficulty expressing needs
- Attachment to objects
- Insistence on sameness
- Inappropriate response or no response to sounds
- Repetitive spinning of toys or objects
- Repeat or echo words or phrases
- Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all
Autism can be relatively obvious. For example, some people will flap their hands. Or they may need a lot of help from parents or other adults around them which sends signals to strangers something is different about this person. Many autistic children are essentially non-verbal. Studies show, however, most of these children do acquire language skills, and nearly half become fluent speakers.
For Julianna, however, the signs are subtle, and the people she encounters out in the world often just don’t understand.
Studies find girls exhibit less obviously repetitive behavior than boys, though they are still often compulsive about order or organization. “Julianna plays Minecraft (a popular video game) much like every other kid,” explains Paul. “Her obsession with the game may seem typical, not autistic, but the other day when it was time for bed, she insisted there was still 1 hour 18 minutes and 8 seconds left on the timer. She had set a timer for herself earlier in the day and was demanding she be allowed to play the remaining time because that’s what the timer says.”
According to new information from the CDC, about one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but the rate is four times higher for boys than for girls. It’s not yet understood if that difference is driven by the biology of genders or, as it’s often suggested, that girls might simply hide their symptoms better.
Regardless of gender differences, Paul is quick to recognize the inherent dignity and value of every autistic person. “They are wonderful people who help us think about the world differently. That is a gift. Being a good parent of an autistic child means you have to work to understand them, and doing so opens your eyes to a whole different world.”
Indeed, none of us needs to see autism as the terrible disorder we might assume it to be. Autistic people are real, whole beings with hopes and needs and feelings just like you and I. A little understanding and acceptance for who they are helps them cope, adapt, and be the best they can be. And they may be able to give you the gift of seeing the world through a different lens.
Author’s note: The friends in this story are real (and wonderful) though I changed their names to protect their privacy.