I was in my teens when Dustin Hoffman starred as an autistic savant in the movie Rain Man.
That was my first introduction to autism and about the extent of my understanding of it for the next 20 years or so.
So when the autism word was first mentioned with regards to my young daughter, it might as well have been a bolt from the blue because I knew nothing about it.
Over the past five years autism has been a steep learning curve and one in which I suspect the gradient is going to remain steep.
However here are some of the top five things I have noted so far, learned from the perspective of a parent with a high-functioning ASD (autism spectrum disorder) child.
5 things you might not know about a child with autism
1. Children with autism do not look different
One thing guaranteed to get that teeth gritting action happening in a parent of an autistic child, is the comment “but your child does not look autistic”. I have yet to comprehend why on earth general members of society, well meaning or otherwise, would expect an autistic child to look any different from any other child.
2. Children with autism are not necessarily disabled
The use of the word disorder does not necessarily mean that they have a disability – they just have different abilities reflecting the fact that their brains are wired differently from others. At the same time, this does not make them all savants either. My daughter loves numbers. The concrete nature of them appeals to her highly organised and logical mind. Plus she could count to 30 before she could say “mama”. However by no stretch of the imagination is she another Rain Man. It just means that possible career paths for her include IT or engineering.
3. No child with autism is the same as another
Just like no other individual is a clone, autistic children are not carbon copies of each other. They may share common traits but they can certainly not be painted in the same brush stroke. As with the general definition of a spectrum, autistic children come in all forms and varieties. Despite their need to see the world in black and white terms, I like to think of them as rainbow children as they certainly cover every colour of the rainbow.
4. Children with autism are capable of emotions
The stereotypical image of an autistic child is that of a quiet, withdrawn child who will not make eye contact, who does not know how to express emotions and who is not affectionate. On a good day my daughter is one of the happiest, bubbliest children with the biggest heart you will ever come across. She makes people smile and she freely gives her love. Just because in her case emotions were a learned process, does not make them any less valid. Similarly just because she can not necessarily interpret them like other people do, does not mean she is not capable of expressing or even recognising them.
5. Children with autism want to be accepted
They know they are different but they certainly don’t need their differences highlighted to the point of exclusion. Many feel pain from their exclusion. They still see what goes on around them and their mindset allows the very binary application of with and without. Similarly just because they don’t have the same level of social skills and may struggle in every day social settings, does not mean they don’t want friendships. I sometimes wonder if the need for friendship is in fact even more in important in their case, because through friendships they can feel accepted.