• Sharon Starkey

Changing Our Thinking About Autism

I have been reading a lot of blogs and books lately. There are so many differences of opinion about autism at every turn. It seems no one can agree on much of anything--even autistic people don’t really agree with one another. In fact, it seems that no matter what you say you are offending someone. For years, I did not speak out for fear of being judged by others or fear of them misconstruing my words and turning them into something I did not mean. My son is grown now and over the years I have grown a thicker skin. I feel like I can now voice some of my opinions and throw out questions for others to think about in their interactions with the autism community.


I think that for years we have been focusing on what autistic people can’t do when we should be focusing on what they can do! Not to diminish therapy but is therapy changing the person on the spectrum? Are we attempting to mold them into being neurotypical? What is wrong with embracing who they are? Why can’t we look at the benefits they contribute to society, their strengths, instead of focusing on their deficits?


Let’s take a look at some successful people. Thomas Jefferson, Nikalo Tesla, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Mozart, Steve Jobs, Daryl Hannah, Bill Gates, Bobby Fischer, Einstein, Temple Grandin, Darwin, and Tim Burton, just to name a few, were all diagnosed autistic or likely autistic. I would say that all are very successful. They have used their gifts to make the world a better place. Would they have been as successful if they allowed their deficits to define them? Would they have been as successful if they had therapies over the years attempting to fit them into a neurotypical mold?


I think that we need to start looking at the deficits in a person and reframing them in a positive way. What do I mean? Instead of saying sensory overload use sensory perceptive. They see things as a whole. That is just one example. If we are able to change the way we look at deficits and change them into positives, we are more easily able to accept the special gifts they possess.


Most providers typically work with neurotypical clients. They are used to the expectations, rules and norms of “normal culture”. These will not work with an autistic client. It needs to be encouraging versus informative. Therapists need to see “outside the box”. They need to see the person as an individual. Autism is a whole-body experience. The therapist needs to work with the nervous system. A connection needs to be made with the brain and the nervous system simultaneously. Results can only happen when the person is taught how to manage their nervous system and incoming sensory information, rather than simply teaching coping skills and strategies. My son knew all the coping skills and strategies but was never able to execute them because he was never taught by his therapist how to manage his nervous system and make the connections. Conventional therapy was a waste of time and money. Not to mention he was agitated before and after every session. It took guiding versus instruction. Therapists need to work together to maximize the individual experience. This will mean being flexible, creative and imaginative. Every person on the spectrum is different.


I think it all comes down to categorizing people and labeling them. We need to refrain from using cultural expectations. Instead, we need to embrace the differences and be open-minded. We need to see autistic people as unique human beings and allow them to be their authentic self. Why do we need to “fix” them? Celebrate their diversity!


Perhaps, I am deep in thought about this as I have been studying anti-racism the last few weeks and am in several discussion groups. I do, however, see many parallels. Let’s face it--autistic people are a marginalized group in society. It shouldn’t be this way. I hope that we can learn to reframe autism. I hope that we can learn to embrace the strengths of people on the spectrum! I hope that we can have a mind shift! This can happen if we all work together to educate the community! It takes a village!

For more information on reframing autism I suggest the book Reframe Your Thinking About Autism by Holly Bridges or check out her website at http://www.zebr.co/.

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