Recently a book was released that is making a huge impression and getting a lot of press for autism. It’s called Neurotribes, and it is written by Steve Silberman. I have not yet read the book, but I intend to. Actually, I can hardly wait. I have read incredible reviews and cannot wait to get my hands on a copy. The author, although not autistic himself, advocates for a reimagining and a major change in the way the public thinks about autistics. And it seems to be wonderfully positive.
I read the following article this morning. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20151006-its-time-we-dispelled-these-myths-about-autism I recommend reading it fully. It gets right at the heart of how feel, and clearly explains things that I know are true.
The first myth he dispels is this: Autism used to be rare, but now it is common. I know from my experience teaching, that there were students when I started that I really struggled to help. I did not know how to teach them, to reach them. I feel like I failed them. However, I also know that some of them moved on and eventually received an autism spectrum diagnosis. In hindsight, these students were demonstrating what we now know are autistic traits, but even just a few years ago, we didn’t have the understanding to recognize them. It is clear that there are autistic traits going back for generations. People who were never diagnosed, but shared the same struggles.
Myth number two is this: People with autism lack empathy. I have written about some of my thoughts about this here and here. It is crystal clear to me that this is simply a lie, a misunderstanding of autistics that continually gets recycled. I know I struggle to be empathetic at times, and I can see every day that he doesn’t share this struggle. He is very in tune with how other people are feeling.
The third myth is this: The goal should be to make autistic children “indistinguishable from their peers.” I could and should probably devote some time to sorting out my feelings about this. It is wrong to me that anyone should have to completely change from who God has created them to be. However, being able to work within our society and to “fit in” are very useful skills. To me, Jake’s successes will be what they will be. It is my job to help him to find ways to cope, to thrive in the world he has been born into, and to know that who he is is wonderful. Being unaware of his autistic nature does not help other people to support or understand him. It would be so much better for him to make friends who appreciate and love him for who he is than for him to have to be “indistinguishable” in order to make friends.
The last myth is this: We’re just over-diagnosing quirky kids with a trendy disorder. This myth is hurtful to the families who don’t know how to help their children get through the day. It is hurtful to the families who are facing the difficult decisions about how to transition their autistic loved ones to adulthood or even senior citizen life. It’s hurtful to me, as I can see now just how incredible a diagnosis can be and what kinds of positive change can come from belonging to a community of support.
My husband and I had a conversation last night about last Christmas holidays. We took our kids sledding with their cousins. Jake had been regaling us with stories of sledding at school on his recesses, so we went there to see what he could do and have some fun. We had just discovered his autism two months prior. Well. Jake thought that sledding was the most fun when you climb up the hill and toss your sled down. Then you run around yelling.
We tried hard to get him on his sled. His cousins had a great time actually sledding. His dad felt like Jake was missing out on this chance for happy memories. I couldn’t believe I had been cheering for him daily over his sledding victories. I couldn’t believe I actually paid money for the sled.
Now, almost a year later, we have changed. We have learned and we have grown. This kid is quirky, yes. But he is also autistic. And that means that his way to have fun is fun. His memories will be happy when he is allowed to be happy. His brain is different. So of course sledding for him is different. It is not an over-diagnosis. It is a key to understanding, love, strategies, and hope.