Everyone in this world has a unique experience. We all see life a bit differently, and take on the world in different ways. For people with autism, some of these differences may be a bit more pronounced, and a bit less understood. Just as we can never completely walk in someone else’s shoes, we will never fully be able to experience the world through the eyes of someone with autism. But this does not mean we should back off, or veer away from trying.
What we can and should try to understand is that although people with autism may experience the world differently than us, this does not mean they need to be “fixed.” This does not imply that they are “broken.”
Rather, these differences do imply that we need a world that is more accepting of all kinds of people. A world that focuses on individuality and uniqueness. A world that understands that although we are all different and extraordinary, we are all part of the greater good. We are all members of humanity, and we all deserve love and respect. Here are five lessons I have learned about life and love from individuals with autism:
1. Love can be expressed in an infinite number of ways.
Love is not restricted by rules or boundaries, and likewise, is not limited by means of communication. Whether we do or do not speak, we can still express love. Individuals with autism have showed me how powerful love truly is – especially when quite often, they express their love to me in a non-verbal manner. While sometimes words are involved, love can be communicated in actions, or in touch. Sometimes love is simply just showing up, and being there for a person. Whether we say it, whether we express it through actions, or whether we share it simply through physical proximity, love is always powerful. And love can knock down all barriers of communication. So please remember, just because someone doesn’t or cannot tell you verbally that they love you, this does not mean that they do not love you. This simply means that they will tell you in a different way. A way that is just as meaningful, and just as genuinely honest.
2. Friendship comes in many forms.
There are many kinds of friendships out there, and no two friendships are ever identical; and nor should they be. Despite societal pressure, I have learned that friendship does not need to fit into a framework, it is not one size fits all. Being friends with someone with autism may be very different than being friends with someone without autism. Some people with autism may have trouble initiating a conversation, or holding up their side of the conversation. But this does not mean they do not value your friendship. This does not mean they do not want you to talk to them. The beauty of friendships and relationships is that they are completely flexible. Your friendship with a person with autism does not have to look like another friendship. It can be different. It can be unique. But it can be just as equally wonderful. Define friendship however you choose.
3. Different does not mean less.
Different never means less. Different means different. As Temple Grandin said, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” Diversity and difference are the framework of humanity. We are all equals. Yes, people with autism do experience the world differently than many of us do – but this does not make them any less. We are all capable of love and compassion, we all deserve the right to be fully included in society. Including all people in society means inclusion of both the brain, and the heart. We must accept difference as a valuable asset to this world. We are all different pieces of the puzzle, and we all have different strengths and virtues that we contribute to the world. We need one another, for all of our unique minds.
4. Human connection comes from the heart.
Connection comes from building trust, from showing others that we care. Connection comes from being there for someone, even in the hard or uncomfortable times. Remember that even if someone with autism is unable to speak, this does not mean they have nothing to say. This does not imply that they do not have an extraordinary mind. Likewise, sometimes it is just a smile, a laugh, or a twinkle in someone’s eye that ignites the beginning of a touching connection. Try not to shy away from someone with autism just because they may act “different,” or they may not speak. Try to get to know this person anyways. Try to learn what makes them happy, what makes them come alive, and what brings them joy. We all have the capacity to connect with one another, and we all have hearts that deserve this connection.
5. Accept people as they are.
When we can accept people for who they are, rather than trying to change them, we become to having our hearts touched in new ways, and our minds expanded past old limits. Autism is a part of who someone is. It is nothing to hide from. It is nothing to shy away from. A person with autism is just as worthy of love and acceptance as anyone else. A person with autism is just as spectacular and vibrant, intelligent and gifted, as any other person is. So please remember, people should be loved just as they are. As Jamie Burke said, “the soul must be loved as is.” And with autism, there is no way to say this any better.
I feel incredibly lucky to work in a field in which I am given the opportunity to get to know so many children and young adults with autism. Getting to know these individuals has made my life more fulfilling, and has expanded my knowledge of life and love in many ways.
Understanding that love and friendship go beyond words, and that individuality is what makes this world so beautiful, are lessons that will forever impact me.
I have learned how to love people for their hearts and laughs, for their acts of care, and for their quirky and irreplaceable actions.
If we can all begin to realize that people with autism are simply people, just like you and me, we will begin to see people for their hearts and souls. We will focus on their minds and intellects, rather than on false preconceptions of what they can and cannot do. For when we can understand that autism is just a part of who someone is, we will understand a very valuable lesson: we will understand that we are all equal members of humanity. And thus, we are all much more alike than we are different. You see, we can all communicate in the language of love.