It was parents struggling to reach their child. So what did they do? Well, first they tried to get me to imitate them. It didn’t work. Even though imitation is a time-honored educational approach, many of us on the autism spectrum may be at a point where we’re just unable to imitate, so then they flipped it around and they imitated me. And once I did that, I became aware of them in my environment, and they were able to pull me along.
And I believe the key implication is – be it education, be it employment, be it friendship, be it involvement in the community – is that you first have to establish a trusting relationship with the individual. Then you can move on. And moving on, my parents understanding intuitively what I needed, appreciating what I needed, came into my life, and then they were able to bring me into theirs. With the work that my parents did, speech began to return at age four I got reevaluated by the school that initially rejected me.
Instead of being considered as psychotic and ready for an institution, I got upgraded to neurotic. Things were looking better in the world! We often hear about, as the diagnosticians refer to, as restricted interests of people on the autism spectrum. My first restricted interest at age four was taking apart of watch, very much like this. I was found in our kitchen popping open the back of this, a watch like this, with a sharp knife, I’d take out the motor, take out the gears, the hands, play with them, and then put it all back together again. The watch still worked, and there weren’t any pieces left over.
My parents noticed this. They turned away from the closed door of disorder, deficit, and disability, and looked at the open door of ability. And rather than autism being a bomb, perhaps autism can become “da bomb.” And how does the autism become da bomb? It involves appreciating the strength, that the characteristics of autism bring to us. So let’s take a look.
Let us suppose we have an individual who might have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. He’s very talkative, he’s an adult. And let us consider what the implications are of the characteristics of someone in this situation. Say perhaps who works in a busy train station, such as Penn Station. Let’s call him Robert.
Let’s look at the characteristics, deficits in communication: that ranges from having difficulty in developing a reliable means of communication, all the way to maybe someone like me who talks too much. And maybe that’s what happens with Robert. The verbal characteristics of someone like Robert might be talking in a very detailed, factual, data-driven way, truthful, perhaps too truthful, repetitive, repetitive, repetitive, I think you get the idea. How many times have you asked someone to repeat directions when you’re lost? So he provides these directions. What about social interaction? Well it’s a brief reading, the customer asked for directions, or when a certain train leaves, he delivers them, and then they go away.
So, the social interaction piece works. And what about those interests? Instead of calling them a restricted interest, let’s call them a focused interest, a passion, deep interest, and as a result, instead of where his co-workers have to look up this information and reference, he’s got it all memorized. As a result, because Robert is on the autism spectrum, because he has these characteristics, he outperforms his co-workers who don’t have autism. And this is how we need to take a look at the autism spectrum, appreciating the strength that those of us have. Now what about those challenges? I think you will all agree that autism brings significant challenges.
Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many people trying to figure it out. And we do need to address them. But we do need to be aware of the strengths as well. So as we look at autism, as we look at the challenges, as we look at the strengths, I suggest that we transition from thinking of autism as a collection of deficits, disorders, and disability, and turn towards the open doors of abilities and strengths, and appreciating what people with autism have to offer to the world. And we can do that by considering the three steps, the three A’s of autism: awareness piece, knowing autism when we recognize it, recognizing autism when we see it; accepting that autism is here; and rather than doing things to people on the autism spectrum, let’s work with the autism spectrum, let’s work with those characteristics, and appreciate the strengths, that people on the autism spectrum have.
They can provide to society. So as we think about the strengths, what about people with autism you know? People who happened to have differences. What are you going to do? What steps are you going to take, to climb the stairs of awareness, and acceptance of people with differences in your life? Thank you very much.