“Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Just imagine yourself on an adventure of a lifetime. Your spaceship has landed on planet X. Eagerly, you step out of your ship excited to explore the place and immediately find yourself surrounded by immense beauty.
Your eyes fall on your favorite fruit lusciously hanging in bunches from a tree but when you step close towards it, you find it to be beyond your reach. You look around and see an army of minions running towards you with a ladder.
They lean the ladder against the tree for you. Unfortunately, every step of the ladder is a puzzle that you need to solve to reach the next rung. The instructions to crack the puzzle codes are given to you by the mob of minions that have surrounded you, in a language you cannot decipher.
They point vigorously to the fruit and urge and shove you towards it. Their instructions turn to raucous cries and even though you desperately try to communicate your inability to understand what needs to be done, they fail to listen.
The din overpowers you. Frustrated, you jump and shriek and when the shrill noise ensues, you cover your ears and shut your eyes. Why can’t these aliens stop this noise?
Why is it so difficult on this planet just to get a piece of fruit?
And this is exactly how a person with autism experiences the world. To the rest of us, he seems aloof and disconnected from his surroundings. In actuality, he simply does not process language and instructions in a way that we do. He has difficulty understanding social norms and what others are thinking and feeling. They are the rungs of ladder whose puzzle he is unable to decode.
Some children and adults who fall under the autism spectrum may be remarkably gifted in music, visual skills, math and art but struggle to find a place in the world because of their difficulty with social interactions and communication. To us their behavior seems baffling but what we need to understand is they are wired differently from us.
Research shows a person with autism responds to external stimuli in a way that is very different from others. Increased sensitivity or decreased sensitivity maybe present and these sensory challenges could even make a comfortable environment seem stressful to them. Everyday noises like the whirring of the fan which our brains are easily able to shut off are often magnified by theirs. This impaired ability manifests in unusual actions that may be repetitive such as flailing arms, twitching etc.
The abilities and challenges of autistics vary widely; not all of them are gifted but they are all competent. They do not need our sympathy but they certainly need our support to varying degrees. To lend them that support, we need to understand their struggles first and not bombard them with our rules, our ways of life and our perceptions of what is normal and what is not otherwise we would be just like the aliens in the example above.
Acceptance and awareness is the first step towards creating a world where the neuro diverse can exist happily.
This post was written with valuable inputs from Dr. Animita Saha, Atrium Health CMC – Myers Park, Charlotte, NC – whose impassioned work for the cause has helped us understand autism.