As Autism Awareness Month draws to a close, and I'm taking down my blue lights, I questioned the true message of Autism Awareness month and World Autism day. What was the message? Many have coined Temple Grandin's phrase, "different, not less", as the motto for Autism awareness, but how much understanding does that get you? Facts, numbers, and statistics are sometimes too much for your average person to understand. And usually, the only way for any group to be granted an even playing field in World acceptance is to highlight the things that we share, instead of the obvious physical differences and behaviors that alienate them in the first place. The foundation to get anyone to care is by showing the similarities that link us.
So, I am going to show you how similar the "neuro-typical" population and people with Autism are. After all, we are people with the same core of needs: to be loved, respected, praised, taught, and feel joy. Every one of us has wants, desires, dreams, fears and goals, even if we may not be able to communicate that to anyone.
We all have these needs and characteristics but the difference is the intensity and our ability to cope with them:
Excessively particular: We all have things we like and dislike. We all have foods we love and abhor. True, some of us may never venture past our childhood favorites, but that happens to everyone, Autism or not.
Perseverating on something: We all have had moments we recall or talk about over and over. A fight with a boyfriend, drama with a family member, a bad haircut, a part of our body we don't like, a good book, song or movie and no matter what someone says to us, we can't get it out of our heads. We are so fixated on it, we are incapable of getting out of the vicious cycle until someone or something can transition us out of it. My boys currently perseverate about Lego Star Wars and sports, but it's what they like, so it's fine.
Anxiety: We all have some type of anxiety that manifests sometimes. For some, it is talking in front of large groups, for others, it is wearing a swimsuit in public, having a blind-date, meeting new people, going to a new place etc. We all have some version of it, it is just the intensity that differs. My eight-year-old son with Asperger's has a problem with going places, especially new ones. He gets all anxiety ridden and focuses on how bad it will be, begs to stay home and works himself into quite a fit. He logically understand that 98% of the time, he winds up having a good time, but it still doesn't stop the anxiety from rearing it's ugly head.
Transition issues: Most of us have had times that we were engrossed in a TV show, book, or movie and the phone rings, a kid needs us, or someone is at the door. We then had to stop to address the situation. Sometimes it was easy for us to switch gears, but other times, it made us angry to have to stop what we were doing.
Another example could be, that we went to a certain restaurant because they serve our favorite meal. But when we sat down, we were told they were sold out. Some of us would get mighty pissed and complain to anyone who would listen. Others would calmly choose something else and make a mental note to call ahead next time. You know who you are.
People with Autism need an established pattern for transition, like a countdown. "Guys, we will leave when the timer goes off in five minutes", or a strategy, "after the guy dies in the next scene, we will pause the movie and you can watch it again after dinner." I think we all might benefit from planned transitions. "Attention shoppers, Macy's will be closing in 15 minutes, please bring all your purchases up to the counter..."
Hyper-Focusing: Some call it "spaced out". We have all experienced a time that we were wrapped up in a task or activity and didn't notice or hear that someone was trying to get our attention. I have been at a store and walked right past friends because I was hyper-focused on the task at hand. We've all had moments that we've tried to talk to our spouses, partners, pool boys or kids, and they didn't hear us, though some of that may just be years of conditioning.
Brain-fog: Sometimes when people ask us questions, it doesn't go in right away or we misunderstand and may need clarification. This may upset, frustrate or bore the person trying to communicate with us. For some people with Autism, this is the norm and we need to exercise patience and grant them the time they need to respond.
Personal space: Many of us have friends that had too much to drink and get themselves into other people's personal space. At that moment, they have disregarded the little voice that keeps them socially "in-check". For our friends with Autism, such subtle nuances like "how close can I stand to someone?" is sometimes too abstract of a concept to fully understand independently. They may need to practice and be prompted and it is ok to say, "hey buddy, please take a step back." Nicely of course.
Self regulation: All of us have had moments when we "lose our shit" and tell off some poor clerk, flip off some old lady driving below the speed limit, yell at a waitress, throw an ice cream cone across a parking lot, after your kid swore they wouldn't drop it in the car and did just that. Most of us were taught how to behave in public and because we were wired a certain way, we got it, but it tends to short-circuit sometimes with the right triggers. People with Autism have a harder time identifying and expressing their feeling. And self-regulation is harder for them too. Plus, there are more possible triggers just because of their heightened sensitivity to environmental stimulus.
Sensitivity to clothes: Most of us have had tags in our shirts, or seams in our clothing that drove us nuts to the point that we had to cut them out. Some of us have material preferences. I despise polyester, maybe it was my upbringing in the 70's, but maybe not. Some of us prefer sweat pants over jeans and long sleeve shirts over short sleeved. It's just what we prefer. But for people with Autism, it could be such an overload that it prevents them from being able to do anything until the offending irritant is removed.
Sensory input: This is the technical term for the the different types of fidgeting we do. Some of us tap our feet, twirl our hair, chew on pencils, crack our knuckles, bite our lips and flap. We all do it, but we all have preferences and some are more obvious. Some of us need to do it more than others and for many of us, it helps us center, focus, calm or energize us. We all have issues.
Not doing things because they're not comfortable: How many times have we seen a small child refuse to hug a scary looking decrepit relative. Of course they may be nice as pie, but they certainly look scary. They refuse because it is beyond their comfort level. We all do this. We refuse to talk to a relative on the phone because they suck the life out of us when we do. We have neighbors we avoid because we can't tell them we broke the chainsaw we borrowed from them two years ago. Many people view a person with Autism who refuses to comply as being difficult, can't we just say, that they are refusing to do it because it is beyond their comfort zone? The request itself is unreasonable not the response.
Not doing things that are inefficient or deemed unworthy: Many kids with Autism don't see a value in communicating with people other than to communicate their wants. For many, expressive language is difficult, painful even. If they can help themselves to what they need, why should they bother to use their words to ask? I am often asked by my 10 year old why he has to do homework. I remind him that homework is a way to practice what he learned in school and to get better. He doesn't really see the value in it, nor do I, but we plug through it and move on. We all feel this way about certain things, it is about deciding what our preferences are.
Freaking out because we can't find something: Doesn't that piss off everyone? Some of us have better self control and coping skills than others. Some of us, just have a shit-fit and lose all sense of self-control. You know who you are. That has nothing to do with Autism and everything to do with the individual.
Hyper-sensitive "fight or flight" instinct: Many of us have felt, at one time or another, the need to leave a room, get out of someone's space or flee a situation. For people with Autism, there can be a myriad of triggers ranging from the cologne someone is wearing, the hum of lights or electronics, the loudness of a room, the brightness of the sun or a room, the pitch or volume of music or voices, or crowds, just to name a few. To many, any one or combination of triggers can be more debilitating to them, then if someone wrapped you head to toe in duct tape. It could literally cause them to shut down.
The goal of making Autism a World issue is to increase awareness, but it needs to go further. Maybe if everyone understood the points above and could remember them the next time they jump to judging a fellow human, we might create a bridge of compassion. That is what every drive for equal rights, respect, and understanding is all about. Accept me as I am.