At this point I wish to make a confession. Not a confession of sin, mind you, but still it is something that I feel is very important. This is something which up to this point I have only discussed with my immediate family and a few close, well-trusted friends. One of these friends has encouraged me recently to write about this on my blog. At first I was reluctant, because I did not feel comfortable with sharing it outside the circle of my closest friends. Yet I have seen a great deal of personal honesty in the blogosphere–especially in the work of Michael Spencer, my all-time blogging hero, who has written several confessional posts dealing with his personal life. I am beginning to think that perhaps what I am about to share would be appropriate here after all.
So here goes…
Autism is a disorder that affects the brain in such a way that certain areas develop well beyond what they would in a normal person, while other areas do not develop properly at all. Generally, the areas of the brain which do not develop properly are those which pertain to language and social skills.
[NOTE: This is a misconception which I held at the time this piece was first written. In doing further research into the nature of autism for class presentations and whatnot, all the definitions of autism that I have come across have characterized it as strictly a deficit in language/social functioning. While many autistic people are savants whose brains have developed well beyond normal people in certain areas, this is by no means a common or universal characteristic of autism.]
Most people with autism must spend their lives in institutions, or at least have constant or near-constant attention from trained caregivers. But there are many autistic people who, with proper training and a certain amount of effort, are able to lead normal lives, or at least maintain the outward appearance thereof. These are called “fully-functioning autistics”.
I am one of those people.
My language skills did not develop on time–I did not talk in complete sentences until about 3 or 4 years of age. I attended special classes for several years during my early childhood, yet was able to enter school at a normal time. With the training that I received in those early years, plus a lot of discipline and effort on my part and the part of those closest to me, I am now able to lead something resembling a normal existence. Still, even something so routine as ordering lunch at McDonalds can be an adventure for me if things do not go exactly as I expect.
One of the biggest reasons for my reluctance to share this is that there is a stigma attached to autism. Very little is known about autism, despite the advanced state of medical knowledge and technology today. And even the best of us tend to mock or to fear what we don’t understand.
To illustrate my point, what was the first thing that popped into your mind when you saw the word autism? I would guess that it was one of two things: either an image of a young boy running around, biting people and screaming uncontrollably; or the character Rain Man, played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1989 movie, who went through almost his entire life watching old reruns of The People’s Court or sitting in restaurants and counting toothpicks, and required the constant supervision of his brother (played by Tom Cruise).
Yet despite the stigma attached to autism, there are many people out there who understand the tremendous odds which autistic people face and respect anyone who is able to overcome those odds and maintain some semblance of a normal existence. One of the reasons for my reluctance to share this has to do with these people. For it is possible that if I were to share this, it might come across that I am making this up in order to have some excuse for not dealing with those issues in my life that it is perfectly within my power (and the power of any normal, responsible person) to deal with. Oh well. I guess that’s a risk I just have to take.
I know that my condition has affected many people in my life over the years, whether they realized it or not. For most people, I would venture to guess that the effect has been little or nothing more than a slight sense of discomfort when around me, something which could probably not be traced to any specific cause. Some people have actually said this to me; I would guess that a lot more have felt it without venturing to say anything. For some people the effects have been more drastic; because of poor social skills resulting from my condition I have made blunders which have cost me the opportunity for relationships with people whom I respected and admired very much.
For those of you out there who have felt the adverse effects of my manner of relating to others, please accept my apologies.
Well, that’s my deep dark secret.
For those of you interested in further reading on autism, Temple Grandin has written a few good books. Temple Grandin is an animal behavior scientist who has designed livestock handling systems which are used in one third of all the meat-processing facilities in the United States. She is autistic.
Emergence: Labeled Autistic is all about her experiences growing up as an autistic person.
Thinking In Pictures is all about the unique way in which she and other autistic people think and relate to the world.
Animals in Translation, her most recent book, is drawn from her expertise as an animal behavior scientist, and is about the parallels between the way animals see the world and the way autistic people see the world. The idea of this book is that animal thought and behavior can help us understand autism, and the thought and behavior of autistic people can help us understand animal thought and behavior.