What I am trying to do here is share a perspective: Autism is part of the human experience. We all share similar behaviors and responses, especially, when stress, anxiety, or the general feeling of being over-whelmed is at the core. From my point of view, the intensity of the response, as well as the duration, may be different for those on the Spectrum. Nevertheless, my intent is to help others, especially educators, see some of these common symptoms from a position of understanding and compassion. I say this because I so often come across a level of inflexibility and misunderstanding of Autism and Sensory Processing-related conditions within the schools such that it astounds me. Due to the inconvenience these conditions may present within the classroom, many times the intervention process features a behavior plan based upon rewards and punishments alone rather than stress-reduction, accommodation, and understanding. And by doing so, these plans fail.
First off I need to share the following:
Please forgive me: I am not in any way trying to minimalize or marginalize the impact Autism presents for families who walk this path. One can only truly understand the experience by being in the situation itself. As an education advocate, I have the opportunity to intimately talk with families every day, and many, have chidren on the Spectrum. And by doing so, my heart goes out to those who have the conditions of Autism within their lives and within their homes.
From my perspective, Autism means something way beyond one specific set of traits or characeristics for each person, including you and I, are absolutely one-of-a-kind and walks a very special path. So it’s impossible to nail it down and state, “Autism is ….” for it’s like life itself, each one of us is extraordinary and unique in our own way. However, there are a few behavioral patterns which do seem to be common throughout my casework including: Hyper-sensitivity, extrarordinary focus on interests and meaning-based projects, and in some situations, less than desired compliance related to things that really don’t matter. All three common characteristics present moments where I often say to myself, “I feel exactly like that”.
Let’s take a look at the “less than desired compliance” component for a moment: There are some things in life I really don’t give a sh*t about. For example, cat themed facebook posts do nothing for me. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid such things. I have even de-friended people I like who are regular cat-posters. It’s not within my wheel-house. On the other hand, I love dogs. I am dog-person, and I will take a moment out of my day, any time, for an out-of-control, off-the-leash canine who is willing to play ball, lick my face, or just goof-off. Except for Pugs. I see them as a canine-feline cross-over. Their not really dogs. I think they are more a hybrid of circus monkey, cats, and mastiff breeds. Don’t even try to imagine how this animal came to be. It’s just what it is.
I am digressing: The point is as follows: There are moments in each of our lives where we really don’t care to put up with the shenanigans associated with something we have little interest in. Sure, some of us are socially more inept while others are proper and demonstrate high levels of compliance and social grace. It’s a fairly wide continum when we look at people in general. However, there are times in my work when I truly appreciate the level of non-compliance presented by some kids on the Spectrum. For example, many years ago, there was client who’s 7 year old daughter spoke like a truck-driver (again, if you are offended by this form of profiing, I am using this as a writer’s tool; I don’t really believe ALL truck drivers drop F bombs every other word). However, this little girl, when she was both anxious and a bit aggitated, which was part of her Autism experience, she spoke her mind. And did so without mincing words. So when she called it out as follows, “This is the most f***ing boring work I have ever done”, I had to laugh, for it was exactly that. Boring. She had an IQ of over 140, which is really quite unique, and she was reading at the high school level by the time she was six years old. So when she was forced upon by her teacher to match pictures with words such as “butterfly” and “garden”, like the other 2nd graders, her assessment of the task was spot-on.
I can relate. When I am asked to do something which I find offensive, or is just something I really don’t enjoy, like watching Hollwood block-buster action movies, or any activity which features violence like most video games, I fall asleep or leave. I have no level of compliance within me which presents anything other than disinterest. I know there are friends and family who feel the same thing about my love of Country Music. They hate it. And hate anything to do with Country Music. And they tell me this by their actions. So there are situations when I can honestly say “looks like someone is having an autistic moment”. Can you say the same thing?
Furthemore, the notion of hyper-focus, which often is associated with Autism, is also a part of life. From my definition, the tendency to do something one enjoys is a form of hyper-focus. It also lends itself to escapism. Often, this presents itself within the context of stress, worry, and the feeling of being over-whelmed. And when one is a hyper-sensitive person, especially living in an insensitive, often toxic, and frequently over-stimulating world, the desire to work within one’s “happy place” is more common then we give it credit for.
In school’s today, guided by a highly structured curriculum called the Common Core, and presented within very specific text-books, often described as “Research-Based”, the opportunity for our children to experience learning through creative expressive outlets, like their interests, have shrunk significantly. Back in the 1980’s, text books were instructional tools, and each teacher followed the curriculum but had freedom and leverage to select from a variety of instructional strategies, methods, and textbooks. There once was a separation between “curriculum” and “text books”. So we were able to crossover into a wide-range of interests, experiences, and connections meeting the needs of our students. Back then, if a 4th grade student had a love of horses, we could easily navigate this hyper-focus within the curriculum and create learning that had meaning through a differentiated blend of horses and the 4th grade curriculum. For example, back when I was teaching in California at the time, we could have easily supported this student by allowing her to learn about CA geography through a study of the various horse ranches across the state. Or race tracks (since I loved horse racing back then). The point is this: Many of today’s classrooms, especially at the Elementary level, are locked in to a very finite definition of learning, most often packaged through so-called “high interest” activities. However, within the context of today’s children, inspired by their interests; a meaning-centered form of instruction has been lost. We are asking our students to jump through instructional hoops with little regard for their personal interests. As a result, we lose many of our students. And a high percentage of students identified on the Autism Spectrum get lost in the process, specifically due to the lack of flexibility in creating a bridge between learning and interests. Too many times I hear educators make the following statement: “It’s part of life; we are often asked to do things we don’t like to do … it’s apart of growing up.” That’s way to simplistic.
For example, I attended an IEP meeting the other day where this played out as follows: The focus of the meeting was to establish strategies to minimize the student’s refusal to do work and maximize his engagement during Language Arts class. Simply, he found no interest in reading the materials presented in the text book. As a result, his so-called Autism behaviors were identified as getting in the way. He would literally walk away during reading class or get engaged in a preferred activity. As a result, he was failing his class. However, when we asked his parents what Jake is reading at home, they shared with us the following: “Jake is reading a couple books right now; “John Adams”, a David Mccullough book about the president, because Jake got interested in politics due to the election. He is also reading George Orwell’s “1984” for the book was discussed online due to a Donald Trump posting”. So instead of creating connections between Jake’s interest, there is a constant push and pull dynamic between Jake and his teacher rather than trying to work with him. Have you ever seen this play out within your own child? Does this sound familiar? It sure does to me. I hear stories like this everyday. Again, there may be elements of the Autism experience which are really not that different.
Then, there’s the whole sensory experience: Many of today’s children are severely impacted by sensory over-load. It’s not just within the Autism community alone. In fact, most of my clients’ children, whether they are diagnosed with ADHD, Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, or Anxiety, which is becoming profoundly epidemic throughout all social-demographic groups, sensory processing is a major issue. So what we end up observing in classrooms today is the following: Fight or flight responses by kids who are over-whelmed including:
- Work or task avoidance
- Aggitation or emotional outbursts
- Meltdowns or tantrum like behaviors
- Elopment and running away
- Distractability and fidgeting
- Addictive like behaviors
- Excessive movement
And this is not limited to kids on the Spectrum. It’s everywhere. In fact, these are all natural responses to stress. How many times have you experienced any one of the above in your own life? How often have you seen these behaviors, which are often associated with Autism, demonstrated by your own kids (if they are not on the Spectrum)? I can honestly say, there have been times when I have demonstrated at least three of the listed behaviors at the same time, especially when I am looking at financial matters, taxes, or other stressors. I don’t know about you, but in these situations, I can work through a pint of ice cream non-stop, binge-watch till the wee-hours, or carry-on with an emotional edge where family members would rather be in a hotel for the night than be in the same house as me. So, when I ask the question, “How often do you have Autism-like moments?”, I am doing so to help folks possibly see Autism in a familiar way; so we can relate. And that’s what this all about: As we all move through life together, through a rainbow of unlimited colors, styles, and cultures, we are much better off as a society when we acknowledge our similarities, rather than focus on our differences. No matter how inconvenient they may be. For a genuine sense of unity, common-ground, and oneness binds us. And the opposite creates separation, misunderstanding, and cultural division.
From my perspective, we will likely never know the exact cause of Autism. But do we really need to? What we do need is a compassionate understanding of the conditions, responses, and more so, the triggers which intensify the experience for children on the Spectrum. One way of doing so is to understand these behaviors and related patterns from our own experiences. So that’s why I ask the question: “How Often Do You Have Autism-Like Moments?” If you are typical, and see yourself honestly, you probably present more Autism-like moments then you even imagine!
Your insights and comments are most appreciated.
PS For those who live in the Seattle / Tacoma region, I hope to see you at the annual WAAALK for AUTISM at Kirkland Marina; a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Autism as well as access extraordinary resources. The event begins at 10:00am and goes to 2:00pm. I will be giving a prizes this year! See you there.