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Challenging our personal beliefs about autism and increasing our understanding of the diversity of minds in human beings may hold the potential to change our approach dramatically.
By Andrew E. Harris, M.Ed.
April is traditionally Autism Awareness month. I met a young man last year that absolutely dreaded it. He was bright, curious, easy to talk to, honest, hardworking and social. He was also autistic. For two years I have run a discussion group for adults at Aspire. In this group, this young man shared that each year; April reminded him that he was "defective." That was the word he used. It resonated with the other young men in the room; they shared this young man's disdain for blue lights, puzzle-piece bumper stickers, and the month of April itself. They also affirmed his choice of words; they too felt "defective" when they encountered reminders of their autism. This shocked and saddened me. I didn't see any of them as "defective". Like me, they had things that were hard for them and things that came more naturally. The difference was that their specific challenges happened to fit into a diagnostic "box" that came with a label – autistic. I, on the other hand, didn't (quite) fit into a diagnostic box, so I got the privilege of being labeled "normal".
We spent hours unpacking this feeling of being "defective." I wanted to understand what gave rise to this feeling. It boiled down to how people around these young men behaved and spoke; other’s words became this young man's inner voice, their actions indicative of his flaws. If he went to the doctor for treatment for his autism, he concluded that he was sick. If he saw a sticker that said "cure autism" he concluded that he had a disease and that he would be better if it was somehow cured. His teachers said things that emphasized all the things that he couldn't do, inclining him to feel that he was defective. These experiences accentuated his challenges and undercut his confidence.
It made me wonder how parents and professionals can help to keep these feelings of defectiveness at bay. I concluded that the first step involves changing what we ourselves believe about autism. Only then can we change the way that we behave. Instead of thinking of autism as a series of challenges or deficits, parents might instead notice first their child’s strengths and help them find ways to apply these strengths to the challenges they face. As caretakers and providers we can also normalize challenges by noticing our own and being willing to share our struggles and how we cope with them. If we think of our struggles as natural and the act of facing and overcoming them as admirable, perhaps we can inspire challenges be seen a part of life, not as defects. The challenges and struggles being autistic or raising a child with autism will still be present, but seen in a new light. For me, learning about the term "neurodiversity" helped me learn to speak in a way that normalized challenges and emphasized strengths. Neurodiversity is a term that describes the natural diversity of minds in the human species. Just as there are a myriad of naturally occurring eye colors, hair colors, skin tones, body shapes there are also many natural variations in how our minds work. Embracing the notion of neurodiversity involves embracing a world where the diversity of minds is valued in our schools, workplaces, communities and relationships.
When we shift towards emphasizing our children's strengths, their self-esteem naturally grows. When we accept our challenges and normalize our struggles, we teach our children that failures are just setbacks instead of indicating “defectiveness.” Introducing your child to the concept of neurodiversity can help them to see themselves in more nuanced terms and can give them a sense of pride as they realize the many strengths that come with an autistic mind.
Next April should be a time for raising the general population’s awareness and acceptance of autism and a time to instill a sense of pride in autistic individuals.
Some resources for further reading on neurodiversity:
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