April is Autism Awareness Month

By Dennis Zellers M.Ed., NADD-CC, BCBA, LBS

Clinical Supervisor of Behavioral Supports, Mainstay Life Services

April is Autism Awareness Month and a great time for learning that motivates greater acceptance and understanding every day of the year.

Throughout my career, I have worked with many people on the Autism spectrum, and each person is unique. I’d like to introduce you to one young man who has agreed to share a bit about himself with you.

Alec and I have been working together for more than a year. He views the world very differently than I do (but then again, many of us have different perspectives on things!). Alec likes to go places and see people, but he may not always want to interact. He really loves to watch others and be around them – that brings him great joy.

Just like you or me, Alec may become angry or frustrated. Alec, like everyone else, has his likes and dislikes, he has feelings and emotions, he likes other people, and he happens to have Autism. This means that the way he participates with others and his environment may look “different” than they do for you. The long and short of it is that in most ways, Alec is not unlike you or me. Alec is an amazing person and I’m glad to know him.

Learning about Autism is not limited to April. But April is a good time to focus on it.

What is Autism?

Autism is formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and is sometimes referred to as a spectrum. It is referred to as a spectrum because there are a wide range of signs and symptoms of ASD. What we all need to remember is that – just like you and me – there is no “one size fits all” and each person with Autism is unique.

Autism is a processing disorder, and it is not connected to intelligence. Our brains are constantly processing information from our environment including what we see, hear, taste, smell, feel and think. When many of us are having a conversation our brain processes the speaker’s words, the tone of their voice, their facial expressions, other noises or sights in the environment, possible smells, and what we feel about the information being shared. Our brain is also telling us how to respond. A person with Autism may only be able to process two or three of these bits of information, which can impact their response.

Someone with Autism might score low on an intelligence test not because of low intelligence, but because the test itself is difficult for them to process. This results in people with Autism often having their intelligence underestimated throughout their lives.

Intelligence is a person’s ability to acquire knowledge or skills, so someone with Autism could have an average ability to acquire knowledge or skill, but their brain may be unable to process the ways that we try to teach people new things or skills.

What are the characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder?

There are many misconceptions about the characteristics of the spectrum. Many believe that people with Autism are not social or do not want friends. This is not true. People with Autism may not show interest in having friends because they do not know how to do this. They may not be able to process the intricacies of social interactions.

Many believe that people with Autism need sensory items or sensory integration. We see a lot of sensory rooms and sensory items being used today. Some seek sensory stimulation while others do not. Some may even seek certain types of sensory stimulation while avoiding others. Sensory needs are often determined by an assessment of these needs, and clinical consultation should be sought on when seeking out sensory integration.

There is a common misconception that people with Autism are not empathetic. This also is not true. People with Autism can care deeply about others, the same as someone without Autism. This may not always show because of how much information there is to process to show empathy and not just feel empathy.

These are just a few misconceptions about people with Autism. Just remember that each person with Autism is different. They are capable of feeling emotions, caring about others, and having relationships.

What should we remember about Autism?

When you are with a person who is living with Autism, get to know them. Know what they like and what they don’t like. Know their interests and engage them with their interests even if these are different than yours. Most important, people with Autism can think for themselves and make their own choices. When engaging with a person with Autism, be flexible, be empathetic, and be person centered.

 Dennis Zellers is Mainstay’s clinical supervisor of behavioral supports. He has a master’s degree in special education with a focus on Autism Spectrum Disorders. He is also a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and Licensed Behavior Specialist. You can reach Dennis at dzellers@mainstaylifeservices.org