This article follows up on “My Thoughts on Autism in Education” article, published earlier this year. In that article, I introduced my efforts to educate people about autism, and help kids who are on the autism spectrum (also referred to as ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder[s]). If you are unfamiliar with autism spectrum disorders, please read that article first.
This article will focus on aspects of autism in social settings. It expands on the framework of not judging an individual by an actual or apparent disability; and, instead, fosters getting to know the individual, first. While parents of ASD kids learn about the condition, and educators may be trained to address it in a classroom setting, many non-ASD kids and adults – have little working knowledge of ASD conditions and often do not understand them. This results in unnecessary labels and stereotypes for ASD kids.
To make the social setting more meaningful, let me begin by sharing some of my experiences on the autism spectrum, primarily in the area of what is formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, and with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As you may suspect, writing about myself is not easy, but it is necessary.
During my first few years, doctors literally “wrote me off,” saying that I would never be able to read or write. They noted, too, that if I ended up being able to walk, it would be with extreme difficulty due to some traits of cerebral palsy and severe arthritis.
At twelve years old, I was tested as reading at a college level, reading 700 words per minute with near perfect comprehension. Now, in college, I frequently execute well-written, “A”-graded, papers in excess of five pages.
When I was four or five, I started playing basketball. I struggled to run up and down the court, and played through a lot of pain. Every time the scoreboard buzzer went off, I would freak out due to its high volume. My parents tried to discourage me from playing, for my own sake. But, I wanted to play and dealt with each obstacle as it arose. I ended up playing basketball quite successfully for fourteen years. Around the time that I began playing basketball, I also started playing baseball; this, too, continuing through my teen years. At the age of thirteen, the kid who was labeled as “never going to be able to throw or hit a ball,” due to poor hand-eye coordination, led his team in home runs.
Now that I am twenty one, I can look back at having conducted college-level meteorological research, and having presented my findings at conferences hosted by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), National Weather Association (NWA), and American Geophysical Union (AGU). AGU actually invited me to present in 2013 as part of their Bright Scholars program.
Overall, since starting this journey as a high school junior in 2011, I have presented nearly half a dozen times at major science conferences. At this time, I am preparing for several additional presentations at upcoming conferences in 2015 and 2016.
I currently serve as the Lead Intern for How The Weatherworks and I volunteer at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. I’ve served in three different elected officer positions with the West Central Florida Chapter of the AMS. I’ve also filled numerous forecasting and public outreach roles for Foot’s Forecast (a largely East Coast-focused weather consulting company).
I have been a volunteer with my local emergency management office, where I have assisted in the organization of three county-level hurricane expo outreach events. I also am currently a college student representative on the NWA’s Professional Development Committee.
Still, in spite of these successes, I have much to learn and much to overcome, as I am not as well-rounded as I’d like to be from an interpersonal communication standpoint. While I have no problems talking to large rooms of professionals, I begin to struggle one-on-one and in small groups.
On many occasions, I have been pushed into uncomfortable social settings by my parents, mentor, and others, and, recently, I have pushed myself in an attempt to break my own internal social stereotypes and self-doubts. In spite of the difficulties I may face, much as I desired to succeed in sports, I am determined to succeed here.
With this background, please treat this article as an extension of the focus on not judging an individual based on any actual or seeming disability. In many cases, an individual can overcome or partially correct for his/her disabilities. I have (and continue to), and I know others who have, as well.
If any of us (handicapped in some way or not) were not given a chance by colleagues, teachers, professionals, mentors, or others, our growth and development in many interpersonal communication realms (social, professional, and family) would not be possible.
In autism spectrum disorders, perhaps the most pervasive and prevalent issues for individuals are those related to problems in their ability to effectively communicate, usually involving delays in responding to others. Linked to neurological impairments, this delayed response scenario quickly marks a kid on the autism spectrum as being “different,” and precipitates a wide range of negative social interactions.
One example of this is when kids who are on the autism spectrum try to engage their peers in conversation, but have a limited array of interests. In all but a few cases over the years, when I have expressed my interest in such topics as meteorology and history to others, this overture has essentially served as a social death sentence.
For most kids, these are not topics of high interest. Instead, kids are into the latest fads, new clothing, music, video games, and sports, among other things. That’s not to say that I’m so narrow-minded in my interests that I only care about history or meteorology; on the contrary, I very much enjoy music (it’s very effective as a mechanism to help focus an ADHD mind), video games, and other “modern” interests. However, because my primary interests aren’t “mainstream,” or in other words, widely popular, I have largely been ignored by people, and continue to be ignored in some situations.
With age, however, comes a different suite of friends, associates, and colleagues. It is here where having one or more focused interest areas (in my case weather, photography, humanities, and communications) actually pays dividends. At the college level, peers are more focused, and professional relationships bring the possibility of mentorship opportunities and many venues for talking about focused interests. As I will discuss in detail in the next article, mentoring and other training is an extremely important part of the development process for kids on the autism spectrum.
In many cases where kids on the spectrum have interests that aren’t “mainstream,” peer pressure sets apart, and classifies them as “socially undesirable.” This leads kids with ASD to develop low self-esteem and establish environments for themselves where they choose not to be social. In these settings they don’t engage in social activity at all, because they have learned, based on prior experiences, that other people “don’t want to talk to them.”
Put another way, if their initial attempts at social behavior are not met positively, they typically stop trying to interact socially.
Even though these kids are in many cases perfectly capable of social interaction (albeit with much more effort on their part), they are widely ostracized, under the aforementioned perception that they are “socially undesirable.”
That message becomes part of the identity they create for themselves. Eventually, these thoughts can lead to a host of other potentially serious issues for them, social anxiety and depression among them, as they decide that it is not worth their time or effort to pursue social activity. In the cases where this happens, and they later decide to pursue social activity, it can be excruciatingly difficult for them. Conditions such as depression and social anxiety, when coupled with an ASD, can be crippling.
Kids who are on the autism spectrum may unconsciously make distracting movements (e.g., arm flapping, hand wringing, rocking back and forth, fidgeting constantly or adjusting their posture) or be very vocal, making distracting noises (tongue clicking, whistling, etc.). Tics such as echolalia and palilalia are also common, and the individual may ask questions repeatedly, despite being given the answers over and over.
This behavior, often noticed before any other characteristic, serves as a greater catalyst in the social treatment of ASD kids than even their lack of so-called “typical interests.”
Most (if not all) individuals on the autism spectrum are, to an extent, literal thinkers. They have trouble following the nuances of metaphors, allusions, sarcasm, and other forms of verbal expression. There is little grey area amongst the black and white, little flexibility in how they perceive things. You are their friend, or you aren’t. A movie character is “good,” or “bad;” very infrequently do they understand subtleties in character and personality. They often don’t “know” or inherently deduce reasoning – you have to explain things to them clearly, or miscommunication will invariably result.
The behavior of ASD kids can be very off-putting and serve as a source of frustration for the people who interact with them. Under the best of circumstances, people can feel strained in constantly fielding the autistic individual’s behavior.
We put millions of dollars toward research each year, in an effort to learn more about ASD. But, it doesn’t matter how much we eventually understand about the genetic, neurological, and physical attributes of this condition (through such great projects as MSSNG), if we are, as a society, unable to allow the societal integration of these individuals. In the process, we must be willing to self-educate, in addition to helping individuals who are on the spectrum learn to cope with their condition; we must be willing to learn about the underlying issues and attempt to understand autistic individuals. Most critically, we must be willing to allow them a place in wider society, before true progress can be made in advancing our knowledge of ASD.
If there are solid efforts to help these kids (especially those who are considered high functioning – i.e., less severe, whereas “low functioning” indicates a more serious, less manageable condition) integrate into classrooms and better mesh with non-ASD kids, this would start to move the conversation forward in a positive way. This would prove to be mutually beneficial in many cases: through regular social interaction, the kids on the autism spectrum get a boost to their self-esteem and social skill set, and the non-ASD kids would see that kids on the spectrum aren’t so different, after all. From this setting, advances could be made on the part of all kids, teachers and parents.
It might also be possible (and, again, mutually beneficial) for high-functioning ASD adults, during classroom visits in which they talk about their career or some other arranged topic, to share that they have ASD symptoms and had many challenges growing up. Such an individual, much as I am trying to do here, may be best able to showcase that autism spectrum disorders aren’t game-enders.
The issue here, then, at its core, isn’t the autism spectrum itself (as it affects individuals). Rather, it is the inability of others to accept individuals who are on the spectrum as people who are mentally wired in a different way. People who are on the autism spectrum think in a way that is different, compared to many “neuro-typical” people; this, however, isn’t and doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can actually be a strength, because, quite often, individuals who are on the spectrum are very visual thinkers, and can therefore solve certain problems more effectively and efficiently than people who think “normally.”
Another positive is that, although the interests of ASD kids are frequently limited, these are topic areas in which they are often extremely knowledgeable. If focused and motivated properly, these kids can link their interest areas to related courses in school and/or other learning environments. They can, then, go on to make advancements in these focus areas, living successful, fulfilling lives in the process.
Clubs and other organizations can play a key role here, by providing environments conducive to fostering the kids’ interests, while also providing them with positive social interaction and attention they may crave, but otherwise not receive.
ASD kids want friends and seek social interaction. But, they often don’t understand the overly nuanced social dynamics of today’s society, and have trouble maintaining lasting relationships as a result.
An inherent inability in reading social cues can lead to potential misunderstandings in communication, which may lead them to worry needlessly about the quality of their friendships, and other interpersonal issues.
Thus, they need patience and understanding, and most importantly, they need people to realize that autism spectrum disorders are, effectively, modifiers of behavior that are often, to a large extent, uncontrollable. While some of these tendencies and behaviors can be improved upon through therapy and other methods, there are some variables that are unable to be helped, especially in the event of more severe conditions. In any case, it needs to be understood that these modifiers of behavior do not necessarily reflect or define who these kids are as individuals.
Kids who are on the autism spectrum can learn the intricacies of social behavior, and, they can integrate into wider society successfully.
But, before that can happen, they must be given a chance to do so. So why not give it to them? Get to know them. You may be surprised at who you find beneath the seemingly “strange” set of behaviors.
I know that it would be unrealistic to expect total equality and acceptance for kids and others who are on the autism spectrum. Still, it needs to be realized and understood that many ASD kids have few opportunities for meaningful social activity, largely because of unnecessary stereotyping and labeling that results due to their behaviors and idiosyncrasies.
Some opportunities, coupled with learning and understanding by non-ASD students, teachers, and others, can go a long way to helping ASD kids succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Stay tuned for the last article in this three part series, on the importance of mentoring for ASD (and non-ASD) students.