April is Autism Awareness Month. This is the month that parents and professionals (though, my personal opinion is that the parents are the professionals) work to share more knowledge with the world about autism. Beliefs about autism are often based on movies such as Rain Man and The Boy Who Could Fly. While both movies (and many more) were great, they only show a glimpse into the life of one person with autism, and many times a very stereotypical picture. Just with other groups of people, those with autism are rarely a bundle of stereotypes wrapped up in one body.
My son, D, does not fit a lot of the stereotypes, though he most certainly has high functioning autism. In no certain order, here are some common stereotypes – busted.
1. All children with autism are non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities. This is sometimes true. However, there are also children with autism who talk…a lot…who have parents who wish they would hush sometimes. HA! However, even the kids with great verbal speaking abilities almost always have problems with pragmatic and idiomatic language. Meaning they have difficulty understanding language in social settings.
2. Children with autism are savants. While it would be fun to say my son has a spectacular talent, it is rare for children to have savant syndrome. According to Health of Children, only about 10-25% of children with autism have savant syndrome as well.
3. Children with autism flap their hands and rock constantly. This repetitive behavior is called stimming. Stimming does often present itself with hand flapping and rocking, but it can also be nail biting, tapping fingers, repeating words or phrases, etc. Stimming at our house involves shredding paper, constant bouncing, and banging on things.
4. Children with autism lack empathy. There are times that D obviously does not care about how someone else feels or about how his actions make them feel. He is developmentally behind his peers in understanding the body language that expresses a person’s emotions. However, there are also countless times that he has shown empathy in the biggest ways. He works hard to read the person’s emotions and help when he is able. He often knows when I am not feeling well and will offer to help with the little ones or do things for himself when I would usually do them.
5. Children with autism are intellectually disabled. Yes, there are a large number of children with autism who are intellectually disabled, but it is not always the case. Many children with average or superior intelligence are also diagnosed with autism. Also, it is difficult to have a reliable score on an intelligence test that requires students to respond to verbal cues. Many times these children do not understand the cues, but also many times the students refuse to respond because they are not familiar with the test administrator. In our case, D was tested originally by a psychologist in a doctor’s office. He did not like the test administrator and even said, after the test, I didn’t like him, so I just didn’t answer some of his questions. The second time he was tested, he had formed a relationship with the test administrator and worked hard to do his best. His overall IQ score was raised more than 15 points with significant increases in certain areas.
6. Children with autism have a single obsession. I agree! D is always obsessed with cardboard – toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, cardboard boxes, and more. I currently have cardboard covering the living room floor. Yep, he does have a single obsession with cardboard. However, he also has other obsessions. They cycle through different areas of interest. They do generally always have something to do with music and dance, though. He perseverates on marching bands, children’s shows like Doodlebops and Wiggles, and currently he is sure that he will be the next TobyMac.
7. Autism meltdowns are a result of poor parenting. Often a meltdown might start because a child with autism is not getting what he wants in a situation. However, it is not because of poor parenting that it turns to a meltdown. It becomes a meltdown because the child is unable to internally manage the feelings and emotions that come from being told “no.” The difference is that a child having a tantrum chooses to act out and watches to see if the audience is paying attention. The child having a meltdown reaches a point of no return and has no concept of an audience.
8. Children with autism look autistic. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, Oh, but D doesn’t look autistic. There are many physical symptoms of autism. Most cannot be identified in a person with autism by a casual acquaintance. The physical symptoms are more physiological, things such as digestive problems and difficulty with processing sensory stimuli.
9. Children with autism are fearless. Anyone who believes this has not met D! This child has an irrational fear of bugs, squirrels, inclement weather, and more. For two years, I had to drive him or walk hand in hand with him to the end of the driveway. Why? Oh, because he was sure that a squirrel would attack him while he waited for the bus. He also has a lot of fear of the unknown – changes in his routine, not knowing what the routine is in a new situation, etc. These fears present themselves as anxiety, worry, and if not extinguished, meltdowns.
10. Children with autism lack creativity. This is a yes/no answer. D is a very scripted player. He plays things that require him to reenact a show or a situation he has been involved in. When he plays, he and all of the others playing with him must be dressed in an exact outfit as the characters in the show/situation. He sings the songs and uses the same phrases as those characters, and the thought of deviating from what is seen on the TV screen is, truly and without a doubt, horrifying to him. Asking him to pretend his pants are green is similar to asking him to make his heart stop beating. He absolutely cannot handle pretend play. On the other hand, given a cardboard box, packing tape, and markers, this child can recreate the scene of his favorite show, build a school, build a model of the White House, etc. When trying to build or make something, D has creativity beyond my wildest imagination.
*Note: I have included links throughout this post. The links will take you to websites with more information about each topic. In addition to those links, here is a list of additional resources about autism.
- Autism Speaks
- National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Strokes
- Autism Society
- Kids Health (A great resource for your children.)
- Autism Research Institute