How autism was explained to me

The first time I remember learning about Autism was when I was working at a summer camp for people with disabilities in Salt Lake City, Utah.  We were preparing for a week when several of the kids coming had autism.  They had someone come in to talk to us counselors about autism.  At this point in my life, I had already been working with people with various developmental disabilities, but none of the people I had worked with had autism.

I don't remember the name of the lady who came to talk to us, but I remember one of her explanations of autism.  This was back in 2004.

It went something like this:

Imagine you are in a foreign country, maybe Russia or something like that.  You're going along minding your own business when suddenly all these people start coming towards you.  They're saying something and they look upset but you don't understand them.  They start raising their voices as if that will help you understand what they're saying, but you don't speak their language.  They start waving their arms, and you can tell they're upset, but you still don't know why.  How are you supposed to fix it when you don't know what happened?  So, what do you do?  Fight or flight.  You may curl up in a ball, hiding your face from them.  You may plug your ears to tune them out.  You may start screaming back at them in your own language.  You may try to run away.  You may start doing something to help yourself calm down.    We all react in different ways.

You can see how this situation may be a bit frightening, uncomfortable, and intimidating.  She went on to explain that this may be how some of these kiddos are feeling.  Sometimes they don't understand our language, or our culture.  We may get upset because they did something that according to us was not right, but they may not understand why.  And sometimes even when we are explaining it to them, we are not speaking the same language and they still don't understand.  When they become overwhelmed and frightened, they may start doing things like plugging their ears, screaming, running away, rocking, looking away, etc.

When she told us this scenario, my eyes were opened.  I felt like this didn't just apply to autism, but to a lot of situations.  It put me in a situation that I could imagine myself in, and it made me have more empathy for all the people I had ever worked with and would work with.  As Temple Grandin said in her presentation the other week, her "fear center" is 3 times as big as is expected in a brain.  Can you imagine how certain situations that may seem "normal" to us can be very frightening for someone with autism?

I don't know how accurate this little story is, but I'm grateful for it because it changed me early in my career as how to approach various situations and how to have more empathy for those reacting differently than I would to those situations.

Joy Mano
Utah P.L.A.Y. Project Home Consultant
Early Childhood Autism Intervention

 photo credit: massdistraction via photopin cc

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