Autism Spectrum Disorder – Seeing Beyond the Diagnosis

April is World Autism Month and you have probably been seeing a lot of information about Autism awareness. When it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), awareness is important, but it is only part of the battle. As the incidence of ASD increases, we also need to think about acceptance and accommodation. When we can accept children on the autism spectrum for who they are as individuals and do our best to accommodate them according to their unique needs, we will make it easier for them to reach their full potential.

One of the things that occurs because of lack of understanding of ASD is stereotyping. The autism spectrum does not affect everyone the same way. There are not specific physical characteristics or behavior traits that each child on the autism spectrum will exhibit. They are individuals with their own individual challenges and their own unique abilities. Making assumptions about how someone should look or act based on our own preconceived notions is failing to accept them for who they are as an individual.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. – Dr. Stephen Shore

Improvements are also needed in understanding the different methods of communication that work for children on the autism spectrum. We must never assume that just because a child does not communicate verbally, they don’t have things to say. Children on the autism spectrum have thoughts, ideas, frustrations and stories to share just like anyone else. They may need to communicate their thoughts in a different way, but we can show them that we care by being patient and doing our best to understand the communication method that works best for them. 

Along with the lack of understanding related to communication is the lack of understanding related to emotions. A child that does not express their feelings in the same way as other children still has feelings. People often say hurtful things because they incorrectly assume a child on the autism spectrum doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Hurtful words or strange looks will impact these children in the same way they do any other child.

Because children with ASD may struggle with expressing their emotions, they may occasionally have a meltdown during an uncomfortable situation. A common misconception when this occurs is that the child is misbehaving or just trying to get attention, but it is more likely that the child is experiencing pain or frustration that they are struggling to communicate. There may also be sensory sensitivities that have caused them to feel overloaded in the current situation or environment. Regardless of the reason for the meltdown, it is unhelpful and hurtful for onlookers to mumble under their breath or roll their eyes. Instead, a supportive smile that says “you’re doing great” will offer much needed support to a parent that might be feeling like they’re on an island all by themselves.

Many people don’t realize that children with autism are often extremely bright. Their minds are just wired a little differently. They have their own special talents and abilities and they offer incredible contributions to the world around them. Some of the greatest minds throughout history exhibited autistic tendencies. (Albert Einstein, Mozart, Bill Gates and more.) Autistic children are making amazing achievements in the world with incredible strength as they rise above their own special challenges.

Placing a label on someone and putting them in a one-size-fits-all mold limits their ability to be all that they can be. It also limits our chance to get to know all that they are. A child with autism is simply a child that happens to have autism. Just like every other child, they want to go to school with their peers, play with their friends, participate in sports and other activities. They want to live a normal life without the stigma that the diagnosis so often brings. Children on the autism spectrum will work harder than any other child their age to make sure that they can fit in and get along. All they want from us is to have the chance to do so.

This month, as more attention is given to Autism Spectrum Disorder, take the chance to reflect on your own preconceived notions or stereotypes about ASD. Reframe your thinking. When you get the chance to meet a child on the autism spectrum, look beyond the diagnosis and see how incredible they are as an individual.

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