Growing up, I never knew about autism or people on ‘the spectrum’. Like many others, my first exposure to autism came from the movie ‘Rain Man’.
In hindsight, when I think back to my school years there were a few kids who were ‘quirky’ and were bullied dreadfully. There was one boy in particular who, upon reflection, was definitely on the autism spectrum. He was a harmless kid who kept mostly to himself. He couldn’t look you in the eyes or have a regular conversation, but he could recite the words to a certain television commercial as if he was reading from the script.
Twenty years ago there didn’t seem to be the awareness of autism that there is now and these autistic boys certainly did not get any special assistance in their schooling.
Of course the symptoms of autism vary widely, but these boys had stereotypical key idicators:
- They were both socially inept and struggled to form close friendships
- They took things very literally
- They had issues with personal space
- They made repetitive movements (one boy flapped, while the other rocked and gulped air)
- They each had a special interest that they could recite every fact about.
I once had a discussion with a child psychologist who specializes in autism who made the interesting point that in her opinion, most university lecturers are autistic. They are perfectly suited to this role as they have the ability to focus their energy on one specialized subject and become an authority on that topic. They can lecture to a room of people, without the concern of having a close personal conversation. Her point was that, being autistic doesn’t mean people can’t lead successful and fulfilling lives.
She also discussed the fact that often parents don’t like to acknowledge their child may be on the spectrum purely out of pride. They don’t want the stigma attached to the title of their child being autistic as, regardless of their diagnosis, the child is still the same person. While this is true, the difference is the funding given for assistance for the child to ensure they have a smoother transition through school. If intervention to assist in routine starts when kids are young, they tend to learn and adapt much better than older people. Also, if a child on the autism spectrum has a teacher’s aide to ensure they are being taught in a way that will suit their idiosyncrasies then that child will gain great benefit.
I’m not sure if autism is more prevalent or if it is just better diagnosed, but there definitely seems to be greater awareness of the condition and better access to support networks to assist these people cope with everyday life. I think if kids are aware that another child is autistic, it gives them a chance to empathize with them and understand their behaviour. Hopefully kids can learn to adapt the way they interact with children on the autism spectrum and that these autistic kids are celebrated for their individuality and not subjected to bullying like the boys in my school were.
(Picture courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, freedigitalphotos.net)