Sep. 30th, 2014

Thoughts on Autism

So, for those of you who don't know, I'm on the autism spectrum. Back when they separated that out into several diagnoses, I had Asperger's Syndrome*. In general that means:

1. I had few to no problems with spoken language. I was the subset of autistic kids who never suffered a language delay. I did have problems with written language in school: mostly I couldn't write well when I was stressed, so would have meltdowns in class when I couldn't take writing assignments home if I was having trouble.

2. I required minimal accommodations. I've always showed symptoms (according to my mother), but they never were strong enough to mark me as more than 'weird kid'.

My little brother, in contrast, had symptoms that as soon as they were noticed (about age 2), he got a diagnosis of 'high-functioning autism'. It's entirely possible that other members of our family are like me, but never were formally diagnosed.

In general, I treat social skills as a second language. Imagine you come to a country as a kid where no one speaks your language. It's not that you can't learn the language, but all your peers have been learning it since birth, while you know some basic rules about language, you don't know this language. So you learn it. And maybe you can get fluent enough to think in that language, or maybe you can just learn enough to be conversational, but you don't reflexively use it.

It also means I hate the narrative of the autistic kid as trapped. It's a communication barrier, but it's one that often has to be met both ways: if we're 'trapped', you have to help find the place where the barrier is weakest as much as they do. Which means listening. I've heard of non-verbal autistic folks embracing the Internet because they find typing so much easier than a real-time conversation with listening and speaking. Even my little brother (who is verbal) prefers to talk in certain places (restaurants are his favorite) than others -- it's why Mom budgets for going out to eat; because Ben needs that environment, even if it's a Subway, to focus on communicating with Mom and not the distractions at home.

That's why I say it's something to be met both ways. If it's easier for someone to type than to speak, then focus on helping them use that rather than forcing speech. Just because someone is non-verbal, doesn't mean they are non-communicative.

I was thinking about this because of an article about a girl with autism and her cat The little girl, Iris, paints, but doesn't do much talking. The article mentions that she is willing to talk to her cat, Thula. And I can imagine why. Thula doesn't pressure Iris to speak, since Thula doesn't speak English either. And yet, she communicates to Iris, and Iris can communicate back. And if Iris is relaxed, the words probably come easier. And cats are very relaxing companions. (I'm inferring this, based on my experiences and that of other folks with autism, rather than from Iris's own words; if I am stressed out, do not expect anything coherent to come out of my mouth until I calm myself down. And often, I don't understand something until I take the time to put it into little bits, like I'm doing here.)

* No, seriously. Diagnosed by a psychologist in middle school, even.
Tags: ,