Everyone get out your light blue apparel because April is Autism Awareness Month! I realize that while the prevalence of Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), has grown over the years, not just in the United States but around the world, many people may only have a Hollywood influenced understanding of this disorder.
Two films in particular come to mind when thinking of Autism in the context of “Hollywood”: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, featuring young Leonardo DiCaprio as a headstrong, autistic 18 year old, and Rainman, with Dustin Hoffman portraying a man living with Savant Syndrome. While both the performances and the films were Oscar-worthy, both films also touched on aspects of Autism that may not be widely known or understood by the general population. Here are 5 things that any and everyone should understand and take into consideration when interacting with individuals with ASD.
1. It’s AUTISTIC not ARTISTIC
If we’re to have a discussion on this important topic, we have to first get the pronunciation correct.
2. Autism is NOT Down Syndrome
This is one of the biggest overgeneralizations of Autism. As a ten year old, I remember my first encounter with an individual that I thought had Autism but who really had Down Syndrome. I retained this overgeneralized notion of Autism up until I began my undergraduate career. Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder that results in a third copy of chromosome 21. One of the tell tale signs of Down Syndrome is the physical characteristics that accompany the disorder. Individuals with Autism primarily exhibit impairments in social interaction, such as understanding personal space, and sometimes delays in language development but present with no distinct physical characteristics. Contrastly, people with Down Syndrome don’t necessarily exhibit impaired social skills, which is a tell tale symptom of Autism. To keep it simple, it is possible to look at someone and deduce that they might have Down Syndrome, but no one “looks autistic”.
3. Autism occurs on a continuum of severity
There is no “cookie cutter” profile of Autism. Each person may present with different behaviors, which may cause them to operate at different levels of independence. An Autistic individual’s continuum of severity can range from high-functioning to severe social impairment. Autistic individuals with severe social impairments may sometimes have other delays in language development besides the social language skills. Some may even be nonverbal. On the other hand, high functioning autistic people may possess unusually developed skills in areas like drawing, music composition or math. For examples sake, think of Rainman and his keen ability to calculate large numbers.
4. People with autism need your patience, not your pity
My first experience with Asperger’s Syndrome involved my next-door neighbor mooning me from his bedroom window. Later that same day, he rang my doorbell to ask my mother if “the girl”, meaning me, could come out to play. Now, I had never been in a situation where I had become acquainted with a person’s derriere before becoming acquainted with their face and, to be honest, I was apprehensive about getting to know my neighbor past that incident. Over time, however, I learned that if I treated him with an extra helping of patience, his impulses seemed less like social differences and more like spunk.
5. Autism does not equate to stupidity
People that function outside of the “norm” of society, such as those with Autism, have always been viewed as “less than”. On the contrary, people with Autism can possess the same mental capabilities as typically developing individuals. Several studies have demonstrated that individuals with Autism can be bilingual and sometimes trilingual. It just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its unconventional cover.