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Friday, October 12, 2012

Waiting For The Work Around - And The Day That Autism Is 'No Big Deal'

I came across this story today about David Finch, a man who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of 31. The diagnosis came at a pivotal time in David's marriage, and may very well have saved the relationship.

Asberger Syndrome, as you may know, is considered to be an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Like many of the other autism-related behaviors on the spectrum, people with Asperger Syndrome have difficulty reading social cues, peer empathy and communicating in a social setting. They often have repetitive behaviors and tend to hyper-focus on things that interest them. The thing that sets an Asperger's diagnosis apart from the rest of the spectrum is their linguistic ability, which is often more advanced than their peers.

Unfortunately, this also makes it a bit easier for them to go undiagnosed as they're misunderstood to be overly talkative or awkward or rude when in reality, they're unable to understand body language, facial expressions or imagine a point of view other than their own.

At the time of Mr. Finch's diagnosis, his repetitive behaviors and lack of empathy were causing real difficulty with his wife and children. Once he realized what the driving force of these behaviors was, he decided to use the sharp focus and determination that defined his autism-related behaviors and channel them into finding what I call "work-arounds" that would enable him to engage his family and relax his compulsive behaviors.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the sort of thing that I try to find with my child.

When my David was first diagnosed, the word "autism" was a terrifying thing. It was enormous. Huge. This incredibly astronomical obstacle that was keeping my child from being who he really was. It must be cured! He must not be autistic as soon as possible!!

Right. Good luck with that.

The truth is, there is no "cure" for autism, but there are "work-arounds" for autism-related behaviors. A good friend who works with children on the spectrum once explained it to me like this: remember dyslexia? Nobody talks about it much anymore, but fifty years ago, many dyslexic children were thought to be cognitively impaired, impossible to teach, or "problem" kids. Then people began learning about how dyslexia works, and what dyslexic people are experiencing, and teachers began teaching children with dyslexia in ways that they could process and finding pathways around and over common obstacles to people who experience dyslexia. Now it's just not a big deal when someone says "Oh, my kid is dyslexic." It's probably not any more common than it used to be - we just understand it better and know how to work with it now.

My hope is that someday, maybe ten or twenty years down the road, someone will say "My child is autistic" and it'll be no big deal. We'll know how to work with it, and children on the spectrum will have the benefit of learning all the ways to "work-around" the common stumbling blocks they face. They'll know which scripts to pull out in a social situation. They'll know to take two steps back so they're not standing too close when they talk. They'll know to break their focus when they're ignoring or not engaging properly. They'll be able to mirror people and show the empathy that they all have (and don't ever let anyone tell you they don't!) and just be an active participant in their own life and the lives of others.

Until then, I'll just keep helping David find his own 'work-arounds', and we'll wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

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