Different, Not Less: Shifting Perceptions About Autism

Attitude can be our best friend or our worst enemy. It is also a compass. It’s the key to our happiness and fulfillment, and essential to getting through life’s many challenges.

I never truly understood or appreciated the power of one’s attitude until I become an autism mom.  

Immediately following my son Teddy’s diagnosis, I embarked on a mission to implement every possible intervention so that he could achieve maximum progress. He was already attending regular Speech and Occupational Therapies, but it was becoming rapidly apparent that he was also in need of Applied Behavior Analysis(ABA) therapy to attend to his challenging behaviors and social skills.

ABA’s methodology of using rewards and consequences proved to be extremely effective for my son, and his progress was quite significant. Teddy was given 30 hours of ABA to start, 9 am – 3 pm each weekday. Within a month, he began communicating via the PECS method, and showed a substantial reduction in inappropriate behaviors. No wonder ABA is often referred to as the “gold standard” in autism treatments.

Part of his therapy included daily sessions with his then 7-year old sister, who served as his peer tutor. Because she was able to model age-appropriate play skills, she was vital to his social learning. Teddy was delighted when she joined his therapy session –  he knew it meant it was time to play!

Despite the interventions I had in place for my son, and the tremendous progress that resulted, my grief about his diagnosis still overwhelmed me. I just plain felt sorry for him, and it was killing me. Seeing how much he had to struggle, and knowing the many challenges he had yet to face, left me feeling exhausted, empty, and soul-crushingly hopeless.

One afternoon, I was quietly sobbing in the fetal position under my covers, absorbed in my own sadness, guilt, and fear. The house was filled with its usual sounds – my 1 year-old son watching Dragon Tales next to me on the bed, the hum of an overworked washing machine, and the mumbling from Teddy’s room, where the ABA therapist was just finishing up a lesson about “under” and “over”.

The chaos of my life’s daily noise.

But what deafened me was what would follow.

Screams.  

But not screams of frustration, fear, anger, or hurt.  

What I was hearing was screams of joy.

Euphoric, luminous, triumphant joy! Chased by happy, buoyant, jubilant laughter!

My daughter had begun her daily play session with her brother, this time playing a game of “Simon Says”. They relished in its pure and simple fun, delighted in its and plain and perfect amusement.

I was instantly humbled. There I was, in second-day hair and old pajamas under unwashed sheets, wallowing in my sorrow, while my children were in the other room, basking in bliss.

The following questions had me up with a start: If my children can find joy through the hardships, then why can’t their mother? If they are able to see beyond the diagnosis, beyond the challenges, beyond the sorrow, then why can’t I?

In an instant, I decided to learn from my children, and began a mind-shift that proved to be life-changing. It’s a lovely irony that sometimes it takes our children to teach us all we really need to know.

This was a moment of awakening, and one that I count amongst the most fortunate of my life.

So, I got my ass out of bed, put on my red lipstick, and started living my life.

Change Your Attitude, Change Your Life

Attitude is everything. It is the catalyst to rising above the challenges that life throws our way. None of us ask for hardships and pain, but with the right attitude, we can benefit from them.

The theory that a positive attitudes brings a positive result is explored in Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s best-selling memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. Here, he sheds light on what his horrific experience at Auschwitz taught him about life’s meaning. He wrote, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  

Frankl’s theory that we are all able to choose our response to a given situation reminds us that a fundamental change in our attitude can also change our lives.

Admittedly, consciously shifting our attitudes is an abstract idea that requires a great amount of effort. This is especially true about autism, because we are constantly bombarded by its negative aspects. A simple google search highlights words such as “chronic”, “difficulties”, “deficiencies”, and “no cure”. It often seems that the world looks down on autism. The sad reality is that the stereotypes about the disorder can be inaccurate and cruel. They are what put me under the covers that afternoon, frozen in gloom.

But we don’t have to listen.

Autism might be a disorder, but it’s also what makes an individual special. It’s a gift with many benefits.

Euphoric, luminous, triumphant joy! Chased by happy, buoyant, jubilant laughter!

The Many Benefits of Autism

The uniquely positive traits that many on the spectrum possess can not only give them an advantage, but an enormous amount of potential, as well.

A few of the benefits of my son’s autism are displayed in his:

  • Passion and expertise in his special interests: Can you name every species of Pokémon and what they can evolve into? Didn’t think so.
  • Commitment to always telling the truth: If you truly can’t take the true answer to the question – does this make me look fat? – do not ask my son.
  • Desire to live in the moment: In a world that is just beginning to value mindfulness, my son has got that mastered. In his mind, why worry about the future because it hasn’t happened, and the past, well, it’s just that.
  • Amazing memory: Never attempt to challenge an event or a date with my son. You will not win. And, he will call you out.
  • Ability to teach others: We can learn from his example how to appreciate the simple things in life, and, more importantly, how to love unconditionally. He has touched so many lives, and truly brings out the best in those around him.

So, it turns out that what was once considered a cross to bear is actually the silver lining.

Different, Not Less

Once you live with an extraordinary child, it’s easy to not only value what makes them distinct and special individuals, but to celebrate it. It’s only then that we can come to think of autism as a different ability, rather than a disability. Different, yes, but not less.

There are miracles within us all, and every individual has great potential. This is no less true of those on the spectrum. Just like their typically-developing peers, they are unique and different individuals with unique and different abilities.

The differences they possess should not equate to deficiencies. In fact, the different abilities of autistic individuals can be used to their advantage.

Research from the Harvard Business School found that the unique strengths of those on the spectrum actually make them superior in some career paths. These qualities include high intelligence, strong technical skills, superior attention to detail, and impeccable memories – all of which are beneficial to employers. Now being considered an untapped talent, it is clear that the ways in which autistic individuals are different equate to how much they are able to offer our world.

Temple Grandin, a hero in the autistic community, is different – her way of speaking, feeling, thinking – and proud of it. She said, “Autism is an important part of who I am, and I wouldn’t want to change it, because I LIKE the way I think.” She used her differences to her advantage and channeled them into a career wherein she transformed the cattle industry by making comprehensive improvements in humane livestock handling. Her system is now being used by over half of the facilities handling livestock in the United States. And she credits much of her success to her autism.  

He is and will always be the miracle that makes my life complete.

My moment of self-discovery that afternoon under the covers forced me to shift my perception about my son’s autism, which in turn helped me become a better mother to him and his needs.

The Dalai Lama said, “In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision”. That same emphasis on positivity should be used in the way we think and talk about autism. The only way to chip away at what is misunderstood and stigmatized about the disorder is to maintain a positive attitude towards it.

When the time came for me to tell my son and his siblings that he had autism, I didn’t define it by using any of the conventional terms. I told them that Teddy’s autism simply meant that he’s very special. And that’s the truest, most accurate description I’ve ever heard.

We all encounter hardships, and it’s easy to get lost in heartache and pain. The key is to realize that it’s not what happens to us that matters. It’s our attitude towards it that makes the real difference.

There are still times when old emotions are triggered, and I end up right back under the covers. It seems heartache can never truly be erased. But, this time, I’m armed with my coping strategy – a positive attitude that enables me to celebrate my son’s differences and all the benefits that they bring.

He is and will always be the miracle that makes my life complete.

And, even on my darkest nights, he is my brightest star.


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