Next month is Autism Awareness Month. With the diagnosis of autism becoming more prevalent, it becomes increasingly more important to talk openly about breaking down the social stigma that is often associated with the condition. Raising awareness can help people with autism feel embraced, accepted, and heard.
The word autism can mean so many things to so many people. Many people who hear the word autism believe that this person may have stereotypical behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking, trouble with eye contact, and behavior challenges. However, no two people with autism are the same and not all people with this condition necessarily display negative traits.
As doctor Stephen Shore states, “Once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Dr. Shore helps reiterate the fact that all individuals with autism are just that—individuals. They may share some common traits, but their strengths, weaknesses, hobbies, and interests are unique to them.
Raising awareness can help the world to see that each person who has autism has their own special purpose and can accomplish extraordinary feats. For example, Dr. Temple Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism and did not talk until she was three-and-a-half years old, went on to become a professor of animal science, a beloved author, and an advocate for those who also have autism. Realizing that autism is a spectrum of endless abilities and capacities can help raise acceptance and awareness. It can also be helpful to be aware of some common traits of autism, while still recognizing the person as an individual.
Understanding and accepting common characteristics of people with autism may facilitate more positive interactions and eliminate misunderstandings. Many people with autism may converse differently in that they may not naturally pick up on social and nonverbal cues. A person with autism may often perceive the world in a literal way. For example, he or she may not understand sarcasm and, therefore, find sarcastic humor to in fact be hurtful. Depending on the varying functioning levels of autism, some may understand that you are making a joke but still continue to question the purpose of the joke. In addition, a person with autism may not always initiate, continue a conversation, or convey what a person is saying through facial expressions or tone of voice.
Another way to encourage positive communication with a person with autism is to understand that many people with autism need a consistent routine. Because life is often unpredictable and full of changes in routine, it is best, if possible, to prepare a person with autism for this change with several warnings or even a visual picture of the change. Any visual representation of a schedule or upcoming event can really benefit a person with autism and often help them prepare for their day, depending on their level of functioning. This may include a calendar, a picture schedule, steps to complete a task using pictures, etc.
Another strength commonly seen in people with autism is that they may have an enhanced perception. A person with autism may notice minor details of something that others may have missed. For example, they might notice specific details of lights in a room, each varying noise in the room such as air coming through the vents, someone tapping their pencil, and each conversation going on more intensely than others. Though this is a strength, this perception can also become overwhelming and draining for a person with autism, thus making sensory breaks and/or alone time vital in order to be successful.
Again, each characteristic depends on the functioning level of the individual and on each distinctive personality. Providing any type of positive reinforcement, whether that be verbal praise or a visual positive reinforcement chart working toward a reward, can help a person with autism shine, much like anyone else. Recognizing these characteristics as strengths rather than a restriction is a way to promote positivity when people hear the word autism. Like any individual, meeting a person with autism with love, acceptance, and understanding can help them to be the best they can be.
Aisha Kaemming, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor at The Willow Center and can be reached at 419-720-5800. ❦