Autism is an epidemic that has been ignored for quite some time. Finally, we are seeing more and more information about this much confused disability. Something that has been long overdue.
I have much gratitude to Comedy Central for doing the NoTMS special to help raise awareness for autism but at the same time I don't think that they properly explained or showed the effects of autism. That's what I am going to do my first blog on...
As I write, I'm going to do my best to keep things objective but that is almost impossible, seeing how I seem to have an opinion for just about everything. I am open for criticism but please be kind. I am not an elegant writer that can weave words to paint a beautiful portrait. I am not educated in any way on sociology or economy. I am but a nerdy engineer that feels like my voice means something.
Now on to the blog...
Autism is something that I grew up around, thus positioning me to being extremely active in its going ons later in my life. A close family friend had a daughter 5-6 years younger than me that had a mild case of autism. Often she was misdiagnosed by others as having ADD or ADHD (something quite closely related to autism, research it). Her active mind just functioned much too fast for her body to keep up. This led to stuttering, leaving words out of sentences, and what seemed as spontaneity in topics. When I was ten, she was finally diagnosed as to having autistic tendencies and was then put into multiple rigorous "lessons." These lessons covered difficulties she had such as her stuttering. Whenever she started talking too fast, she was taught a trigger word, turtle, that was to cue her to slow down her speech and focus on what exactly she was saying. Also, something worth mentioning was her difficulty with social interaction. She just would not be entertained by us. We functioned too slow for her.
Now, don't be misled by all the things I've just said, she was one of the smartest girls I've met. She was amazing at math and took to music, specifically the piano, like a young Mozart. In fact, the best way to explain her was that she was so smart her brain was light years ahead of what her body could do, processing thoughts faster than she could ever humanly keep up with. When looking back, I am left in amazement at her intelligence. Even to today, she leads the class in academic excellence. She also has much adapted herself to the social realm of life.
Fast forward several years and get to my high school years, we now meet Alex. If I ever had any emotional attachment to a child I worked with it would be this guy. Alex was diagnosed with autistic tendencies much earlier than our family friend. He was in sessions by the age of three. I met the guy shortly after in church. For some random reason, he liked me. I was working in the nursery one day, when he was dropped off. He wouldn't respond to anyone but me. When it was time to read a story, he was first to jump in my lap. Upon seeing this, his mom Elaine inquired about my service as a babysitter and possible older male model for Alex (the world of therapy sessions for children seemed to be ruled by women). How could I say no?
I worked with Alex for three years before I came to college and even after these years I still keep in contact with the family. During my short tenure of working with Alex, I found completely different characteristics in him when compared to our old family friend. He never stuttered and wasn't hyperactive at all. He just had an extremely difficult time expressing thoughts and feelings. It was as if his vocabulary was that of a baby's and his understanding of bodily feelings such as pain or having to go to the bathroom was non-existent. I would have to walk around with a ring of over 200 note cards depicting actions or nouns. These cards would have a picture of the action or object with the word right below it. I would have to quickly find the appropriate card for that present time and show it to him (one of his therapy tools). For example, say I needed him to sit down. I would then find the card with a chair and arrow pointing to the seat. Pointing to the card I would say sit and do the action. He would stare at the card briefly then look at me then look back at the card. If you looked close enough, it was as if his brain was processing this information and trying to memorize it. After several weeks of this, he slowly picked up on words and the need for the note cards diminished.
Once again, don't let these stories blind you of these kid's pure genius. Alex, at the age of 3, was able to count by odd and even numbers all the way to 100, without missing a beat. It was as if he was a computer programmed to do a function. In a steady rhythm, he would count. Not only could he count, but he could do simple multiplication and division. He was 3! He was also quite found of music and the piano, playing many things by ear or just making songs that even I, a seasoned musician, couldn't possibly hope of writing.
After finally growing his vocabulary, Alex could talk and interact without much problems. But for some reason, he could never discern between symbolism and literalism. I remember when his mom said to Alex, "You're as cute as a pie. I just want to eat you up right now." This innocent remark was returned with a scream and Alex running to his room. He literally thought that his mother wanted to "eat him up." It took him a week to finally talk to her again.
It's hard to try to relate to such thought processes that seem so non-linear to us. Luckily, I read an amazing book called 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.' A fiction book that was written from an autistic child's point of view. It was an eye opener. Never had I ever been able to relate to such a literal interpretation to our world. Thought processes such as, "If I pass 5 yellow cars today, then based on previous days, today will be a bad day. I should panic." Everything is based on fact or previous experience. It's all so concrete, so serious.
Now, my thoughts might seem random and without purpose right now, but hang with me, I'll try to tie them up into a nice bow. This past winter break, I babysat a 15 year old boy named Rigo for the weekend. Rigo was autistic, but once again, he didn't have the same symptoms of my previous encounters with autism. Yes, there were some common threads but it was a completely different situation once again. Rigo had underwent many therapy sessions with many different approaches as to how to deal with his disorder, but unfortunately he didn't respond to any of them. This left Rigo as a teenager with the mentality of a 4-5 year old. He would always have his Ipod headphones in his ears so he could listen to a large variety of music ranging from classic rock to children shows. He couldn't form whole sentences but could only mutter a word or maybe even just a grunt to try to communicate with me. His parents told me of different activities Rigo liked. Of them, the one we participated in the most was driving. Rigo loved to ride in the back of my car as I drove around town or through the countryside. Listening to his music, he would just stare out the window as the sites passed by. It was almost as if it would hypnotize him into a calm lull.
We also tried other activities. He loved McDonald french fries and Coke, just my kind of guy. But even better than sitting in McD's he loved to ride with his music and food and coke (are you seeing a common factor). We tried multiple things ranging from swimming (yes, he was an amazing swimmer) to Chucky Cheese (which still baffles me to this day just to its noise and bright lights, a definite no-no in the autistic realm - senses overload). Nothing worked other than riding in the car. I drove a total of 8 hours that weekend in a town less than 20 miles wide.
Now, I will try to tie everything up into a grand finale. Rigo, Alex, and Jaime (sorry I never mentioned her name till now) were all autistic and yet all needed completely different help. Some were receptive to treatment and others just couldn't seem to handle it. Autism is something commonly referred to as being mentally challenged. Even with my experience of the most severe degree of autism (Rigo), I could always find some amazing characteristic or talent these children had. Alex and Jaime with their math and Rigo with his amazing athletic ability, many adults don't know how to swim. To label them a mentally challenged would be horrible. I many times felt stupid around these kids who were half my age.
I only told you of my three most intimate interactions with autism. I have, in fact, dealt with more than a dozen cases on a regular basis. Through coaching or swim lessons or nursery or babysitting, I have seen many different types of this ever growing epidemic. I must state that in all my interactions with the dozen or more autistic kids I have worked with, I have always been astonished by them. These kids are geniuses trapped in an ever cruel body.
Now, to bring everything to a point and do it quickly because I know this has now turned into a rambling. Autism is something we must work on correcting because it is effecting households across the nation. But if we focus on the cure, we miss out on these terrific individuals that will touch your life. Autistic children or adults are not mentally challenged in any way. Alas, they are usually quite more intelligent than you! There are no identical cases of autism, every child and adult must be dealt with in a different way. And finally, thanks to Comedy Central and all those stars for their effort in promoting awareness of this epidemic, but sometimes you just have to witness things first hand.
Do something good for this country and your community, research autism. Interact with those that have "special needs." Find your voice for those that don't have one. And finally don't get me started on the origins of autism because I don't know if you'd have to patience to finish this blog otherwise. But I will say, ALL EVIDENCE POINTS TO THE VACCINES!!! CLEAN UP YOUR ACT, PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES!!!