Sunday, October 9, 2011

Your Tour Guide To Autism

Under usual circumstances the human brain is like a road map. While still largely unexplored and mysterious, we have managed to figure out that certain areas are used to accomplish certain tasks. Such as math, or art, or memorization. Though there may be minor differences between your map and the map the guy next to you is holding, such as different roads being highlighted or terrain detail -- largely your maps are the same. Maine is still Maine. Oregon will always be Oregon. Etc., etc.

For an autistic person this is not true. Maine may well be Illinois, and Oregon could be anything from Nevada to Atlantis, depending. Their brain works in a fundamentally different way. For example, the area normal people use to compute numbers may instead be an additional visual processing center, used for language comprehension, motor function, emotional response, or anything really. This is one of the reasons autistic children are either classified as handicapped or exceptionally brilliant. Opposite sides of the same coin.

While autism can certainly be a disability, it is not the same as mental retardation. Sure, if you sit two people down, one autistic and one normal, and tell them to solve the same maze the autistic person may take minutely longer to finish the maze. Not because they continually messed up or got lost, but because their brain defaulted to the most complicated route over the easiest. They saw their way through the maze at the same time you did, they just took the harder path. The autistic mind commonly overlooks the simple way for the one more mentally stimulating.
The path less traveled by.

Back to the road map comparison, because seriously, this is the best way I can think of to plainly explain everything. Turn Oregon into Louisiana and suddenly you aren't developing communication skills until the age of five or six. This is viewed as a problem. Understandably. Alternatively, turn Florida into Colorado and you're a child prodigy, doing advanced algebra before 2nd grade. This is considered genius. There are an infinite amount of possibilities.

Unfortunately the first is more common. The road map is so wildly different that it stifles development to a severe degree. You can't find your way from Michigan to Ohio even though they're supposed to be right next to each other because for some reason Texas is where Ohio is supposed to be. Whether this is because as a normal set of people, the parents and teachers simply aren't capable of 'making sense' to the autistic child, or because they are genuinely unreachable is something highly debated. No two professionals can ever seem to agree on this. Severely autistic children have been reached though, so I'm inclined to believe it's the former.

Occasionally though, it is mixed up in just such a way that the child can still be perceived as normal by others. Even above average in certain areas. This is because rather than having, say, two motor control centers and no language center (which is functionally useless and even confusing), you wind up with two or more language centers. Or mathematical computing centers. Or visual processing centers. Basically you are twice as good at something than you naturally should be without any practice whatsoever.

This is the category I fall into. During my preschool years, teachers began to notice I handled situations presented to me in a vastly different manner than my peers. I could read at a 3rd grade level but sometimes would just get lost and become unresponsive staring at an illustrated story book. Which is probably why I developed artistically so early on. I never cried for my parents when dropped off, and rarely smiled or expressed any other outward emotional response to stimuli. When asked my name, I didn't know it. I instead read off the ID numbers on my name tag. Like a robot.

I was kind of a creepy little girl.

To be fair, all of my family members had a different name for me at the time so the confusion had nothing to do with my autism. When I asked the teacher which name I should use, she told me to write down what was on my name tag. Which was already adhered to my shirt. When I looked down, the upside-down numbers were the first thing listed, so I presumed it was my identification. It was a swiftly corrected issue, though it would've been cool to be known as S-9 for short (the entire sequence was something like 13 digits and the first letter of your last name).

Though my oddities were not impairing my ability to learn or get along with the other children, teachers were for whatever reason concerned. I wasn't normal, whatever that is. I was a well-spoken child, reading newspapers at 3 and writing in both print and cursive before my brother who was 2 years older; none of which gave my family a moment's pause. Strangers found it weird and unsettling. I went to see several specialists.

In the end I was diagnosed with high functioning autism, on 2 separate occasions 10 years apart. The treatment for autism at this end of the spectrum is basically just emotional awareness training because for whatever reason, autistic children rarely seem to instinctively know how to respond to emotions -- a behavior most people develop as infants. Even if a baby does not know right away that she should smile when she is happy, she sees her parents smile when they are happy and emphatically understands that to be the correct response to happiness.

Autistic kids do not do this. The autistic mind defaults to logic, not emotion. They have to learn the correct response to emotions, both their own and other people's. This results in many socially awkward situations. Above average intelligence in one or more areas only serves to exacerbate the issue. Young children easily overlook social abnormalities. Once you become a teenager however, smiling when you're being chastised will only make people more angry with you. They don't understand that it isn't your fault and they definitely won't believe you when you try to tell them you weren't purposefully being a smart ass.

Sarcasm manifests itself as a self defense early on.

Then there are perception barriers. Which are much akin to language barriers between people of different nationalities. You have to remember that autistic people think in an entirely different way than you do. For instance when doctors instructed 3 year old me to put the bear under the box, this was the outcome:

I am a master of balance!

It isn't an incorrect answer. It certainly isn't a sign of ignorance. It's just a totally different way of perceiving intent and meaning. Most people would not try to balance the box on top of the bear because it is more difficult to do so. The bear is however still technically under the box.

Furthermore when you say one thing but mean another, the autistic mind will usually automatically conclude the most logical of the choices. Even if it makes the least amount of sense given the person saying it (such as an unreasonable customer or crazy person). On that same note, autistic individuals are usually uncomfortably honest with people. They see little benefit to lying, even if it is to spare someone's feelings. If your jeans make you look fat and you ask a person with autism if your jeans make you look fat -- they're going to say, "Yes." This not only makes strangers uncomfortable and occasionally pisses off a friend, it also makes you extremely bad at poker.

I find the most challenging part of being autistic being interrupted. Adjusting to unexpected changes isn't easy for anyone with autism. Once you set your mind to something altering the course isn't just irritating beyond belief -- it's almost completely unacceptable. This can be triggered by something as simple as planning on going to the grocery store only to change plans at the last minute and order a pizza or sitting down to play a video game only for a friend to unexpectedly drop by. I do my best not to outwardly show my frustration, as it's really unwarranted and logically I am aware of that. But it still exists. Sometimes I find it easier if I expect I'll be interrupted to simply not do anything at all. Which is extremely unproductive.

Autism is another one of those things popularly misrepresented by the media, which seems only to focus on the most disabling cases they can find. As a result when you mention autism people automatically jump to thoughts about screaming, flailing, uncontrollable children who cannot form coherent words. While it can be a crippling condition for some people, that is not always the case. Not all autism needs to be cured. Plenty of people with autism live fairly ordinary, productive lives. So if you are a parent or sibling of an autistic child, don't despair. Just be patient and see where it heads. If you find it too overwhelming or foreign to deal with alone, there are plenty of organizations in existence these days to assist you. Back in the 80's you were pretty much on your own.

Most people who know me don't even realize. They just think I'm quirky. Then again, most people who know me didn't realize I was deaf either, until I told them. Compensationari? Maybe.

P.S. Vaccinations will not give your babies autism. You don't catch autism like the flu. It's not contagious.

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