What you should know about Autism

This post is the 3rd in my series What you should know about mental illness. Read here about Narcolepsy and ADHD.

It was the end of a tiresome day at the center for Autism where I worked years ago. The little boy I was paired with that day had been staying with grandparents while his mother traveled. His mom returned and was excited to pick him up.

She spotted her son and hurried to scoop him up in an embrace. No emotion or recognition registered on his face. Instead, he fixed his attention on the logo on his mom’s shirt, and he uttered one of the very few words he knew how to say,


The mom’s face fell. After a few moments of trying to catch his eye, she gave up and began to gather his backpack and coat.

Automatic. Automobile. Autopilot, Automate. Autism. These words all have the same root. I’m no linguist, but I’d say it’s something to do with operating independently.  People with autism do not readily interact, engage or relate to other people.

Despite that autism is relatively common; there is a lot of confusion about what it is in the general population.  The first time I heard someone say “Autistic” I thought she said “Artistic” with an accent. When I asked what it was, she said, “Someone who rocks back and forth in the corner.” And even after dozens of psychology and counseling classes, I still didn’t know much more than that.

My professional experience was with kids who were almost completely locked in their own minds, some devoid of functional language. However we’ve all heard about someone with Autism who graduated top of his class or wrote a bestseller. The differences between these examples beg the question; how could this be the same disorder?

The answer to this question is that Autism is a spectrum disorder.asd

When you hear people say “He’s on The Spectrum” they are likely referring to Autism. My purpose is to give you a better understanding of what it is so you can be sensitive and kind to those who are affected by it. I will try to be clearer than the first definition I heard, but vague enough that this won’t become a checklist for you to diagnose your friends (please leave that to the professionals.)

There are three categories of impairment:

  1. Social. Not interested in interacting socially, might not give eye contact, lacks emotional reciprocity, will not point something out to someone else to share enjoyment. This category is the hallmark of the disorder and generally understood.
  2. Stereotyped Behavior.  This is less understood. It includes self stimulating behavior (called “stimming” for short). It is simply doing something for the sake of the sensory input. It could be as normal as twirling hair, or it could be as odd as flapping hands, reciting the words to a movie, walking on tip toes, making repetitive sound, or of course, rocking back and forth in the corner. Stereotyped behavior also includes odd and rigid daily routines, playing non-functionally with objects (lining toys up instead of playing with them), echoing what they hear, and focusing on one part of a whole object (the wheels of a car or the logo on a shirt). Sometimes people with Autism become super interested in something and it might seem that it’s all they can think about.
  3. Communication. This category does not apply to those who are on the far right side of the spectrum (high functioning autism/Aspergers). Impairments include delayed, slowed, or absent language development.

Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder), a character on NBC’s parenthood is a very accurate example of a kid on the high functioning end of the spectrum. The movie Rain Main (1988, with Dustin Hoffman) paints a fairly accurate portrait of an adult with Autism, however it gives the false impression that people with Autism are also savants, when in fact that is very rare.

Just like anything, once you know what Autism is, you will likely see it everywhere. Next time you see a kid at mall who doesn’t seem to be listening to his mom, or maybe he’s having a tantrum because he wanted to walk down aisle 12, withhold your remarks and judgmental glances. In that instance, a warm smile and an encouraging word to the mom could have the power to change the world.

As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and stories below.

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