Lately, autism has been making mainstream headlines. But here’s the headline you have yet to read: You may be on the Autism Spectrum. The recent figure of 1 in every 88th person being on the Autism Spectrum was an upgrade from a prior statistic that placed the numbers at 1 in every 150th person. So why the jump? The obvious answer is that more children are being born with autism. However, the more likely answer is that more people are being discovered and diagnosed with autism. Only now are we beginning to identify the thousands of people who have lived on the Spectrum all of their lives without knowing. Because autism exists on a Spectrum, the degrees and severity of it vary from person to person. Lower-functioning people require a significant amount of assistance to accomplish daily goals; while higher-functioning people, specifically those with Asperger’s, may require no assistance at all. Their autonomy, paired with the absence of physical indicators of a disability, is why so many people on the Spectrum go for years or even decades without a diagnosis.
How could someone not know
that they are on the Autism Spectrum?
Asperger’s Syndrome has only recently been included as part of the Autism Spectrum. This is despite it being identified over sixty years ago by Dr. Hans Asperger. His discovery happened around the same time that Dr. Leo Kanner identified and coined the term “autism” in 1944. Deriving from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self,” Kanner used the term to describe a group of children who, under his observation, demonstrated no interest in socializing with other children. Socialization challenges are also symptomatic with Asperger’s. However, because Dr. Asperger’s observations were eclipsed by Dr. Kanners’, Asperger’s Syndrome, the people affected by it remained unacknowledged. It would take 50 years before the American Psychiatric Association would pinpoint Asperger’s Syndrome as a Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), in the 1994 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders publication. Prior to this medical acknowledgement, people with Asperger’s could only wonder why their attempts at socializing were not positively received by others. Only now do we know that social acclimation, for someone with Asperger’s, is a challenge that is neurological in nature.
Neurological Diversity: Marching to a Different Drum
Social acclimation is a two-way street, which means that the effort doesn’t fall on the shoulders of someone with Asperger’s alone. Like most social situations, we meet each other part of the way. A good starting point for those who are not on the Spectrum is to first familiarize ourselves with the behavioral cues of someone with Asperger’s, some of which include:
- Impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors such as: eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions during social interaction.
- Lack of development of relationships with peers.
- Failure to seek out or to share enjoyment, achievements, or interests with other people.
- Failure to reciprocate emotions or social gestures during interaction.
- Unusual preoccupation with objects.
- Obsessively following specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals.
- Repeated motions such as hand flapping or hair twisting.
As autism awareness increases, many who are on the Spectrum are eager to embrace autism as part of their identity and culture. Others are taking the stance that Asperger’s may have less to do with being a neurological disorder, and more to do with neurological diversity. Just as human beings come in different skin shades, so do they vary in “shades of mind.” Though autism and Aspergers present challenges in socializing, the inverse seems to be true for their intelligence. While the savant stereotype is as misleading as wrongly associating disabilities with stifled intelligence, the fact is many children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome demonstrate a staggering aptitude for science, technology, mathematics and other academic areas. Engineers and mathematicians will often credit their natural gift for complex problem solving to having Asperger’s. Most will tell you that should a “cure” for autism ever surface, they would take no part in it. In fact, the idea of a cure is offensive, since the real issue is for society to understand that diversity is not just physiological, but also neurological.
Advocates who have embraced their Autism identity make the next step of embracing and supporting others who are also on the Spectrum. The internet has proved to be an ideal platform for people who struggle with one-to-one interaction. Many Spectrum Groups have emerged on the web to provide a socializing alternative to those who otherwise would live secluded, asocial lives. The same thing is even happening offline. The Asperger’s Group in Western New York is comprised of 30 people with Asperger’s who meet every third Thursday of the month. The group has been meeting for close to 3 years now to discuss the benefits and challenges of life on the Spectrum. They have even fashioned a name for themselves: Aspies. They have also fashioned a name for those who aren’t Aspies: Neurotypicals, or “NTs” for short. These nomenclatures are not about drawing hard lines within society; but rather about creating a terminology that acknowledges neurological diversity as a positive thing. Asperger’s is a legitimate reminder that the human body has very little interest in homogeneity. Despite our socio-political hang-ups, the human brain prefers to march to a different drummer.
Do you or someone you know have the characteristics of Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism? Join us the third Thursday of each month. Contact Veronica Federiconi at 631-5777 ext 318 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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