Paula Williams: Educate yourself about autism

Apr. 19, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

What do you know about autism?  April is Autism Awareness Month, and with millions of people all over the world having autism and nearly every school having some students with autism, I want to take this opportunity to raise your awareness of this prevalent disorder.
The word “autism” has been in use for about 100 years and comes from the Greek word “autos,” meaning “self.”  The term describes conditions in which a person is removed from social interaction; in other words, is an “isolated self.”  In the 1940s, U.S. researchers used the term to describe children with emotional or social problems.  That was also when Hans Asperger, German scientist, identified the condition now called Asperger’s syndrome, referring to a milder form of autism.
Autism is a “spectrum disorder;” that is, no two (or 10 or 20) children with autism will be completely alike. In fact, if you know one child with autism, then you know one child with autism. You cannot generalize because every child will be at a different point on the spectrum.  One common symptom, however, among children with autism is a difficulty communicating and interacting with others.  Most severe autism is diagnosed by age 3.  Milder forms may not be diagnosed until school age.  But today, for every 150 children born, one will have autism.
Some people with autism have no trouble talking.  For others, talking can be hard, and some people with autism do not talk at all.  Instead, they can use sign language, writing, typing, pictures or other ways to communicate.  People who don’t speak can still have interesting things to say!
Some people with autism have no trouble understanding words.  Others find it hard to figure out how to do something just by listening.  Autism can affect hearing in other ways, too. For some people with autism, loud sounds can hurt!  When they are in a place where many people are talking at once, every voice can sound really loud.  I taught a student with autism who could not function in the cafeteria at our school due to the noise, but we helped him with that by providing ear plugs that he regularly inserted prior to going to lunch.  The office also gave his class a heads-up prior to fire drills because of the loudness of the alarm.
Autism can affect hearing, seeing, talking, learning, writing, and other aspects of a person’s life and school career.  There are some things, however, that autism does not change.  One is the way someone looks.  Autism is not something you can see from the outside.  Sometimes a child’s behavior may single them out:  the echolalia (automatic repetition of words spoken), the perseveration of behavior or attention to a particular object, or their desperation that something about their schedule has been changed.  They may not make good eye contact when talking with you. But for the most part, people with autism look very much the same as every other person.
Autism does not change feelings.  People with autism have all the same feelings as people without autism.  Autism is only one part of a person, just like blonde hair or brown eyes, or being tall or short.  People with autism are all great at some things and not so great at other things, just like everyone else.
People with autism live in a world that does not always understand, accept, or embrace them, and the world can be a very overwhelming and disturbing place for them, as well.  But I have found that children with autism can also be some of the most beautiful and hardworking children in my elementary school, and it has been my privilege to work with some each year.  When you get to know them, they often have a giftedness in an area that might surprise you.  Many have an attention to detail and capacity for extraordinary focus. Who knows?  They may be the next Einstein or Mozart or Van Gogh.  After all, they had autism, too.
If you would like more information about autism, go the website autismspeaks.org.  Autism Speaks is the largest autism advocacy organization that sponsors both research and autism awareness.

Paula Gulledge Williams lives in High Point and teaches at Pilot Elementary School in Greensboro. Her columns appear on this page every other Friday. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.