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Supporting Autistic Children: Much Has Been Learned Since My Childhood

Having been diagnosed on the autism spectrum as an older adult, I was certainly not aware of this condition during my childhood, nor was anyone else in my life including family, school officials, or healthcare professionals. At the time there was no public awareness about autism to speak of (it was considered a very rare condition), and the very concept of milder variants such as Asperger Syndrome and other forms of ASD was still decades away. Consequently, I am able to appreciate the needs of autistic children only from the standpoint of what might have benefitted me as a child had my condition been known at the time, and only from the perspective of a less-severely impaired individual on the autism spectrum. Also, I can draw from the many stories that I have heard from others in the ASD community or read about over the years.

Karl Wittig, PE

Karl Wittig, PE

The Importance of Early Diagnosis

According to family records, my development was fairly normal (or at least unremarkable) until age two-and-a-half, at which time a number of unusual behaviors appeared, such as my playing with toys by lining them up and reversing my pronouns. I also had a number of sensory issues, most notably very selective eating patterns (which I have to this day), along with clothing sensitivities and susceptibility to sudden sound and light stimuli (particularly the camera flash). Most significantly, however, were my specialized interests, especially in anything mechanical or electrical or which I could take apart and put together.

During the time since my diagnosis in late 2000, public awareness of the broader autism spectrum has improved to the point where these traits, in spite of their lack of severity, would probably have resulted in an immediate diagnosis as a classic “textbook” case. In the 1960’s, however, no such knowledge was available. Consequently, my behaviors could not be recognized for what they were, and whatever difficulties and challenges I might have faced were never identified, let alone taken seriously. As such, it is especially gratifying to see that nowadays cases like my own, not to mention many far more serious ones, are more routinely identified at an early age, and that there are substantial efforts to diagnose children on the autism spectrum at the youngest possible age. This makes possible whichever early interventions or simple accommodations are needed to be provided and thereby ensure that the challenges of living on the autism spectrum can be properly addressed.

Sensory Challenges

One well-known trait of many (some would say all) autistics is their pronounced sensitivity to a variety of sensory stimuli. The most common among these are a variety of sounds, along with some light stimuli. To a child on the spectrum who is susceptible to any such stimulus, the result can be great discomfort caused by something that often is barely noticeable, if not imperceptible, to others who will thereby be unaware of the presence (let alone the cause) of this discomfort, which can in turn result in any number of challenging behaviors on the part of the child. Once a child is diagnosed with an ASD, any such sensitivities need to be identified and accommodated as soon as possible.

As a small child, I responded very strongly to the camera flash. During a portrait shot, the photographer, upon learning of my reaction, decided to instead take the picture using a powerful floodlight and a longer exposure time, thus eliminating the need for the flash. Although this is hardly a significant incident, it nevertheless illustrates how a simple accommodation can be used to preclude exposure to a sensory violation.

My most significant sensory issue, however, was one of selective eating. This was especially exasperating for my family and considered very strange by most people, who simply could not understand why I was such a “picky eater.” It would certainly have helped me if the nature of this issue had been understood at the time. I also had considerable clothing sensitivities – these can be particularly unpleasant because the discomfort is constant and continues for as long as the offending clothes are being worn. Fortunately, this can be addressed by simply not requiring the child to wear any such articles of clothing; once again, it would have been helpful for the problem to have been identified.

Another unusual issue for me was an inability to tolerate the motion of elevators – as an infant, I would literally start screaming the moment an elevator started moving. Thankfully, elevator technology has improved to the point where the sudden starts and stops of older elevators have been eliminated, so that this problem no longer exists. Interestingly, I have read older articles that describe autistic children who had the same responses to elevators as I did.

Specialized and Obsessive Interests

Probably the best-known unusual behaviors of autistic children are their tendency to develop very intense interests in a highly specialized area on which they will exclusively focus and about which they will incessantly perseverate. While some adults will be amazed by this, or at least find it “cute,” others may find it annoying or even obnoxious. Such behaviors need to be recognized as the autistic trait that they are and accepted as such. When I was diagnosed in late 2000, popular articles described Asperger Syndrome as the “little professor syndrome” because these children spoke with such expert knowledge and authority about their interests. At the time of my diagnosis, the few surviving family members who remembered me as a child immediately agreed that this was a very accurate description of me.

Traditionally, such behavior was dealt with by restricting access to the special interest and forcibly exposing the child to a much wider variety of subjects, in order to “broaden their horizons.” This is now known to not only be (at best) ineffective but is nothing less than cruel for the child to whom it is done. Such prominent autistics as Temple Grandin and Stephen Shore have expressed this view, and even credit their specialized interests to the success that they have attained. I cannot agree with them more strongly – my own childhood obsession with anything electrical or mechanical led directly to becoming an engineer, and it frightens me to even think about what my job prospects might have been were it not for those early interests.

Even when they are not of practical or utilitarian value, these interests can still result in rewarding and enjoyable hobbies, not to mention activities that lead to socialization for individuals who are famously challenged by such. They can also serve as an immensely powerful motivational tool for education and other areas where the child otherwise shows little or no interest or inclination. Finally, there have been cases in which such an interest presented the only means by which a nonverbal autistic child was finally able to be reached. In any case, the value of specialized interests and talents in autistic children cannot be overemphasized. While this is finally being more widely recognized, even greater appreciation of this reality is needed.

Still, we must be careful where unusual talents and abilities in autistic children are concerned. The same child who shows an exceptional talent for, or encyclopedic knowledge of, their specialized area of interest can still have challenges in other areas that are much easier for typical children and may even come naturally and effortlessly to them. Considerable difficulties can be created for, and damage done to, an autistic child if the latter are ignored. In particular, the assumption that a remarkable special ability in one area necessarily translates to comparable abilities in other areas, let alone “across the board” to everything else, must be completely discarded for children who are anywhere on the autism spectrum. Also, the development of social skills, communication skills, and daily living skills needs to be closely monitored, and whatever interventions are needed in these areas started as soon as is appropriate. At the very least, the presence of deficits deserves to receive as much attention as the remarkable talents and expertise of autistic children usually do.

Although the progress that has been made since the time of my own childhood in identifying and supporting children on the autism spectrum is nothing short of spectacular, there is still more that needs to be done to help them face the challenges of living with autism in a neurotypical world.

Karl Wittig, PE, is Advisory Board Chair for Aspies For Social Success (AFSS). Karl may be contacted at kwittig@earthlink.net.

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