Today is the last day of Autism Awareness Month, so I’m getting this post in just under the wire. While much has been written about the neuroscience, research, need for services, and hardships associated with the developmental disorder, I want to share why it’s been such a gift to me getting to know folks on the Spectrum.
If it were not for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), I don’t know if I would be a Social Worker at all. In fact, my desire to work with folks with ASD came before I even decided to go to Social Work school, in a linguistics class in undergraduate (Thanks, Dean Lorenson!). Once I decided Social Work was my path, I chose the University of Pennsylvania because it was the only Masters program I found that had a Developmental Disabilities course within the Social Work program. I chose my field placements in order to get experience working with folks with ASD, and I worked in special education for several years at a school that serves a large population of students with ASD. Even now, a good chunk of my caseload is folks with ASD, so suffice it to say, I LOVE getting to know and help folks with ASD!
But I’m not the only one! In her recent Netflix special, Amy Schumer revealed that her husband was diagnosed with ASD as an adult. I’ll admit I was worried when I heard that she would be covering this topic in her routine. Too often people with ASD are the butt of the joke, portrayed in media as one-sided characters for comic relief or as unreachable savants. But Amy, while clear that there are things that make her husband “different” from neurotypical folks, won me over with this line: “All of the characteristics that make it clear he’s on the spectrum are all of the reasons I fell madly in love with him.”
16 year old Greta Thunberg, a champion of climate change in Sweden, recently asserted that her Asperger’s (or high functioning ASD) is a gift. The creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri, has ASD, and the characteristics that make him a person with ASD are also the characteristics that led to him creating Pokemon. The list of successful people who have shared with the world that they have ASD or have been suspected of having ASD goes on and on. It includes such geniuses as Temple Grandin, Einstein, Bill Gates, and even Andy Warhol.
So what is it about people with ASD that makes them so loveable and so successful? Well, of course no two people are alike. And in the words of a former colleague (Hi Bob!), “If you’ve known one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” Every person is unique in both their strengths and their challenges. That said, there are some wonderful qualities I have fun into time and again while working with folks with an ASD. So here’s a list of some of my favorite things about the clients and students I have had the pleasure to work with who have an ASD:
Honesty and directness.
Extreme expertise and fascination in obscure hobbies/interests.
Pride in marching to the beat of their own drummer.
A fresh (and usually spot-on) perspective on people and the world.
A systematic and thorough approach to learning and working.
Deep, loyal, and intense care for beloved people and animals.
Irreverence for the standard way of operating.
Independent and creative thought.
A wicked sense of humor.
I could go on and on, but I might not get this posted before the end of the month if I did.
I want to make it clear that while there are so many incredible things, even superpowers, about having ASD, many people with ASD also struggle enormously. They can find it hard to make lasting friendships, get by in school, and hold a job. They can feel isolated and different from “everyone else.” Their families often struggle to get a proper diagnosis, get their child appropriate services (such as speech therapy, social skills training, occupational therapy, and sometimes special education), and help their child learn to navigate a world built for neurotypicals. But this is only part of the story!
Like anyone else, someone with ASD has things that are easy for them and things that are hard for them. They have things they love and things they hate, things they can’t get enough of and things they absolutely cannot tolerate. They need support and education to get where they’re going, and they can support and educate others along the way. So, in honor of Autism Awareness Month, I ask you to expand your view of Autism to see the many gifts that people with ASD have to offer, and like Amy, to appreciate these characteristics as uniquely and infinitely loveable!
Know someone with an ASD? I am currently forming a group for young adults with ASD that supports the growth of meaningful relationships, emotional regulation, and independent living skills. If you know someone who might benefit from this group in the DC area, send them my way!
Want to learn more? Check out the Autism Society’s explanation of ASD and early signs here: http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/ .