The Abilities of Autism

Let’s pretend you didn’t just read the title.  Family Feud style, name a disability that begins with the letter A!  What pops into your mind?  Autism?  Asperger’s?  If you’re like me: yes!  In fact, the only other disability that quickly comes to my mind is ADD/ADHD.  Just a few decades ago, however, this would not have been the case. 

Autism Awareness has been a cause familiar to me for the past 10-15 years, mainly because I knew children, and parents of children, with Autism.  In fact, my generation was the first to know peers with Autism.  I’d be rich f I had a dollar for every time I heard a Baby Boomer say, “When I was a kid, that just wasn’t a thing!”  Believe it or not, Autism Disorder did not become part of the DSM until 3 years preceding my birth in 1990.  Autism wasn’t an area of eligibility for special education until 1991, and Asperger’s wasn’t added to the DSM until 1994.  Flash forward to 2009, and approximately 1 in every 110 children was diagnosed with Autism.

Chances are you know people with Autism.  As I’ve shared in a previous article, I’ve had the great privilege of working with some outstanding kiddos on the Autism Spectrum.  Recently, my awareness has developed rapidly, as, about a month ago, I was sent to work in a self-contained classroom with several students impacted by Autism. 

For those of you unfamiliar, Autism is diagnosed based on “impaired social communication and/or interaction…” and “…restricted and/or repetitive behaviors.”  Unlike other disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, no genetic testing can be done to confirm the existence of Autism.  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) encompasses individuals with impairments and restrictions ranging from mild to severe, and everywhere in between.

Working with my new students has been, and continues to be, an eye-opening journey.  As I’m sure you could’ve guessed, I’m a pretty verbal gal!  One of my favorite parts of teaching has always been the inspiring and hilarious things that kids say.  These days, however, carrying out a conversation with a student is a whole new ball game; I work with a child who can only verbalize one word. 

So, now what?  Visual cues are my new best friend.  I’ve learned a little bit of sign language, and even some gestures unique to this child.  She shows me, through visual depictions and gestures, what she wants and needs.  Each day, I’m realizing more and more the extent of her receptive language; though she can’t say much, I’ve learned that she can respond to questions posed with head nods and head shakes.  She can point to objects and pictures to communicate preferences.  I can say, “Give me the frog,” or “Put the cards in the bag,” and she can do just that. 

In an unexpected way, my awareness of Autism greater than ever.  What it all boils down to is that Autism awareness is not awareness of disability; it’s the awareness of ability.  Can you imagine trying to get through your day without being able to talk?!  Not only does my student get through her day, she does so with clear expression.  What an inspiration for us all!