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5 Lessons Learned: What I Wish I Had Been Taught About Autism

These last few weeks have been absolutely full of moments, the kind that make me sit back and awe at the wonders I am privy to. I have been excited and humbled to meet new students and feel our mutual happiness in communicating bubble over, and to see one of “my kids” (let’s face it, each one claims a little piece of my heart!) share their first open thought. I feel those feelings, too, every time an Autistic person advocates for those still without a voice by sharing stories and giving the “inside peek” into Autism for us neurotypicals. It’s only been a couple of years since I was introduced to Spelling to Communicate, but I could not be more thankful for where it has lead me!

My journey started with a fundamental shift in thinking, and has progressed by learning with and from the Autistic people in this and other communities around the world via their blogs, videos, and in sessions on the boards. Learning never stops, but at this point in my education on Autism, I think it’s important to reflect on and share some of the lessons I have learned thus far.

1. What You See is NOT What You Get

The brain-body disconnect is a term for the phenomenon described by many people with Autism. Basically, the combination of a “disorganized” sensory system plus difficulty with motor planning means that purposeful motor movements (i.e. behavior with intent) is extremely hard to achieve. When this cortical pathway can’t be activated, another area of the brain takes over and leads to unplanned behaviors triggered by emotional or sensory stimuli (i.e. impulses and stims). These movements, no matter how purposeful or planned they may seem, rarely represent an Autistic person’s true thoughts, feelings, or intentions.

2. Testing Measures are Heavily Reliant on Motor Skill

Have you ever taken a language or IQ test? If so, some familiar items might have been “Touch or point to the picture that completes the pattern” or “List as many animals as you can in one minute”. No matter what the task is, they all require one skill: purposeful, planned motor! Whether it be typing, talking, pointing, visually scanning, or touching, none of these actions can be performed intentionally without an intact and well-integrated sensory-motor system. With knowledge of the brain-body disconnect (i.e. sensory integration and apraxia), it becomes clearly apparent how unfair and unrepresentative of ability these tests are for those with ASD.

3. We are ALL Social Beings, Autistic or Not

For Autistics, including those who have little or no reliable speech, social understanding and empathy are not missing. In fact, those on the spectrum often express that they have an increased sensitivity to the thoughts and emotions of others, so much so that it can be overwhelming. This is a far cry from the misconception that Autistic people don’t understand the viewpoints of others, seek friendships, or want to be part of the social world.

4. Sensory DIFFERENCES, Not Sensory Disorders

We are all human, and therefore prone to classifying our world grossly into “normal” and “abnormal” categories. After all, we all seek a way of defining and making sense of the experiences, people, and things we encounter! It is also human to become over-reliant and protective of this system, and to try to shift items from the “abnormal” category over to our version of normal. The world of sensory processing is no exception. The stims of a person with ASD are often interpreted as distractions that keep students from participating in “normal” behavior, and that therefore must be re-directed and shaped into something more acceptable. But like those of us who find ourselves doodling on our notebook during class, bouncing a knee during a long meeting, or obsessively twirling our hair while writing a blog post (guess who!), our peers and students with ASD seek ways of regulating their sensory systems so that they, too, can best learn and participate. Supporting these strategies not only gives respect to an Autistic person’s learning style and needs, but also helps that person reach his or her goals more effectively.

5. We Know So Much, and Yet So Little

My education and training as an SLP were based on the conventional wisdom that Autism is a disorder of language (and in many cases, cognition), social skills, and sensory integration. This wisdom was-and still traditionally -supported by studies spanning decades of research. It’s overwhelming how much information exists to back this idea, yet it took only a single day for me to realize that I was wrong in believing it. Our knowledge across all topics is in a constant state of flux, with new data emerging and giving us insight into the accuracy of our previous interpretations. When it comes to ASD, we have always had the data, but failed to recognize what it indicated. I, and other professionals like me, therefore, cannot just rest on conventional theories. We owe of our students with movement, sensory, and learning differences the benefit of the doubt: ability exists, and needs only the right support to be unlocked.

Want more information? Check out the links to some other blogs written by the experts themselves, Autistic individuals. Thanks for reading, friends :)

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