What Is Autism

Autism is a way that the brain receives, processes, and responds to information.  This way of processing results in variations in the way the world is experienced and the way learning, communication, and movement occurs.  Autistic persons often have sensitive hearing, vision, touch, sense of smell, or taste.  They direct their eyes away or use their hands differently to regulate input. 

Autistic children have their own schedule for development. They may develop skills on a different timetable or in a different order than expected.  Autistic children develop the ability to predict consequences and control impulses at different times.  And they have their own challenges that lead to frustration. What we don't need to do is add on *more* challenges by adding outside expectations and time-frames that are not based on reality.

Autism comes with a deep passion for interests, allowing autistic persons to focus in great detail on specific topics that they enjoy.  Autistic persons are often emotionally intuitive, picking up on strong emotions very easily.  That sensitive emotional radar may even cause them to be overwhelmed.  Autistic persons are  individualists, not easily swayed by peer pressure, in what interests them or how they move or talk.  With autism comes a need for movement, sometimes to comfort anxiety, to express joy, and to process information.  Some movement expressions include rocking, flapping, spinning, hand movements, dancing, or jumping.  Autistic persons often recognize visual, musical, social, or emotional patterns that others cannot.  This set of strengths - interests, passion, drive, pattern recognition, and individualism - allows autistic persons to excel in many different fields.

The challenge with autism is providing accommodations in the environment, learning, public accommodations, employment, and society to allow autistic people to experience the world, learn, work, play, and live with the same ease as everyone else.  Accommodations include providing education tools, different methods of teaching, incorporating interests into learning, and using multi-sensory methods of learning.  They include mindfulness training for the person and the support team so they can both learn ways to process overwhelming emotions.  Yoga and breathing mediation provide tools to become aware of and calm the mind.  Other accommodations include allowing for more processing time for questions and answers and reducing the amount of sensory input, like fluorescent lighting, flash photography, strong odors, and noise levels.  There are sensory accommodations like noise-cancelling headphones, movement tools like fidgets, ball seats, and mini trampolines, and tinted glasses to reduce glare.  Autistic persons should have communication accommodations available to them such as typing or alternative augmentive communication devices.

With autism comes difficulties with sleep patterns, intense frustration, anxiety, difficulty with daily living skills, motor skills, and depletion of energy.  Autistic individuals often have difficulty with motor skills, either large movements involving balance and coordination and/or smaller movements that involve grip and precision. Fatigue, anxiety, and low muscle tone make it even more difficult to perform motor skills, such as those involved in schoolwork, homework, job duties, sitting still for long periods of time, housework, and eating. Other problem areas include difficulty recognizing faces, the passage of time, or body signals, and a fluctuating ability to communicate or express verbally.  Autistic people have a high-alert system and often experience anxiety.  If the right accommodations are not in place, the autistic person becomes at risk for exhaustion, malnutrition, and depression.

A common misunderstanding about autism is that an autistic child requires treatment to behave "normally," so that they fit in.
"The first task is to create space in the child's heart for the the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love - in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost. It is not conditional. [...] She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likeable characteristics to the parent and still receive the parent's absolutely satisfying, security-inducing, unconditional love." - Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté
Parenting an autistic child and being an autistic person is intense.  It requires flexibility, an open mind, exertion, and mindfulness.  Autism therapies often lead us to believe that we don't understand or know what's best for our child.  And that's a big mistake.  We are in a relationship with our child.  We parents should be in charge of the goals set for our children. We need to be courageous enough to question the programs and why they're necessary.  As our child's parent, we are the biggest key to our child's well-being.  Our relationship comes first and anything that sets that relationship up as a battlefield should be avoided. 

The most important thing to remember is that autism is not a behavior problem. It is a brain-based disability.  The fewer accommodations and support, the more frustration.  The more accommodations and support, the less frustration.  If you are a parent to an autistic child, remember - you and your child are in a relationship and that relationship makes all the difference.