The Denver Autism Wheel

Autism: a quick primer

Posted on: July 4, 2010

So, what is autism? Autism is a pervasive neurological condition that is characterized by deficits in communication and social interaction. That means it’s difficult for people with autism to communicate: articulate their needs and emotions, express desires or hold a casual conversation over coffee. It can manifest itself sometimes in a preoccupation with certain favorite things (my Chris used to fixate on spinning object like car tires, gears, pinwheels and the rotor blades of helicopters), language impairment (this includes late talking and a tendency to mix up syntactic elements of sentences or confusion about how to apply feminine and masculine pronouns), and behaviors such as repetitive acts and excessive attachment to certain objects (this includes flapping of hands, humming, hopping, rocking and sometimes self-injurious behaviors like pinching and biting).
There is a lot of semantic weirdness around autism because we still don’t know what it is, what causes it, or what to do about it. You’ll hear it referred to as

  • A disorder
  • A disease
  • A condition
  • A disability
  • An abnormality
  • A deficit
  • A dysfunction
  • A tragedy
  • On and on and on…

Now, here’s the disclaimer part of this post: I am not a medical professional. I’m not an educator or a therapist. I’m a mom who has done a fair bit of reading and research into her own child’s condition. OK, you’re caught up. Please read on…

I happen to belong to the camp that believes autism is a neurological condition, not a disorder or a disease. Those two words imply that autism is either an illness or an abnormal state of bodily functioning. Autism is not contagious. You can’t contract autism by eating certain foods, being around certain people or performing dangerous activities. You can’t take a medication or receive an inoculation and be cured of autism. I’m not an epidemiologist, but I don’t think it’s a disease.

I don’t believe it’s abnormal, either. A friend of mine once told me that my Chris is normal. He’s normal for him. I like that. It’s probably easier for me than for some parents of autistic children to look at Chris’ condition as “normal for him” because he doesn’t have comorbid conditions (a wonderfully optimistic-sounding phrase which means that more than one condition may exist at the same time in the same person) like epilepsy, ADHD or OCD. Also, Chris has been the same kid since he was born. My husband Karl sometimes recalls the old soul who looked up at him just after being born to take it all in for the first time. Anyway, there are some parents whose child develops normally to a point and then regresses, loses the power of speech, develops seizures. I don’t know if that’s normal for them. Hearing about it as a parent, it sounds terribly frightening.

Chris talks (that is, he can speak). Some people with autism don’t speak, or can’t speak and perform another activity like walking simultaneously. Chris reads at grade level (which means his visual acuity is fine). He rides his bike (read “has good enough balance and coordination to be able to manage both the handlebars and the pedals”). He does not throw violent tantrums or injure himself or others (his method of protest is more the passive resistance, wet noodle kind). In many ways, if Chris had to have autism, he’s a lucky guy for the way his autism manifests itself.

However, there are some unmistakably “autistic” aspects to my son. Chris has a remarkably poor sense of the passage of time. His short-term memory for things like arithmetic facts is dismal. He remembers lines from movies and poems quickly and permanently, but addition and subtraction throw him daily.

Chris doesn’t like the sensation of applying pressure to objects with his fingers. This means he doesn’t like to pull weeds or tie his shoes, both of which involve grasping and pulling thin objects.

He is sensitive to unexpected, loud sounds. This includes sirens and jet noise. No kid in any of his classrooms has ever been caught unprepared for a fire or tornado drill.

Chris tries not to talk over the phone. It’s hard enough to talk to a person when you can see their nonverbal cues. He’s very good at interpreting body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. He understands sarcasm, belittling and teasing just fine, thank you.

But Chris might not respond to them in socially expected ways (read “don’t expect to get away with treating him like he’s an idiot, but don’t expect the reaction you get from him to be typical”). He also understands compassion, patience and kindness. And nobody’s kinder or more patient than Chris when he knows he’s getting it in return.

Chris is very socially engaged, even if he’s not good at using the information he gathers in ways you’d expect. For example: his younger brother Luke was very angry one night, frustrated, crying, don’t remember why. Well, Chris laughed. Luke hit the roof, “He’s teasing me! He’s making fun of me! He isn’t taking me seriously!” We had to stop for a moment to figure out why laughing made sense. Turns out, Chris didn’t want his brother to be upset and thought laughing would cheer him up. So: there was logic behind it. I laugh. You see me laughing and it makes you feel like laughing, too. You don’t feel like being angry anymore. Presto! I cheered you up!

In another example, it finally occurred to Chris that having friends his age might be a good idea when Luke started hanging out at friends’ houses. I thought we’d had a breakthrough on the social front until I realized the main reason Chris wanted to go to other peoples’ houses wasn’t to hang out with the kids, but to see how many ceiling fans other people had in their houses. It’s the fixation on spinning things, again…

I don’t think there’s anything “abnormal” or “diseased” about Chris. His brain makes sense of the world differently from mine, his dad’s and his brother’s. Of course, it’s easier to deal with the unusual behaviors now. He’s 9 and has a pretty good handle on why he does certain things differently, or why activities take him longer than they would for his typical peers. Chris can explain the logic behind his decisions (they’re not always good decisions, but they are always based in logic).

I like it that a lot of autism organizations use puzzle pieces in their logos. Chris is a puzzle some days, not in a logic-defying “I just don’t get this kid” kind of way, but rather in an “I know this piece goes somewhere in this puzzle; it wouldn’t be in the box if it didn’t make sense to put it somewhere in the picture.” It’s been a fascinating adventure learning to see the world through his eyes.

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