Adolescence and Beyond: For teens who want to know more
Adolescence and Beyond: For teens who want to know more
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away."
-- Henry David Thoreau, 1854
The mind is a beautiful thing of extraordinary timbre and reach. There may be questions playing at the corners of your mind as you observe a child on the street who seems lost in their own thoughts and actions - or a classmate who is somewhat otherworldly; who does not answer as expected or seem to understand certain ideas.
The answers may be you are looking at a child with autism or talking, or attempting to talk, to a fellow student who has Asperger's. And your questions are more than welcome - they are needed.
It seems at a certain point in our lives we learn not to ask certain questions. What is is and it's a shame we cannot reach out and more openly ask questions - to breach the common wall of social courtesy. Instead, we are left to find answers on our own - some which ring true and some which are never answered.
You will in all likelihood meet someone with autism, if you have not already. About 1 in 80 boys has autism. Yet for all the seeming differences we have far more in common with those with autism than differences.
Children, adolescents and adults with autism love to laugh and love music: two of the things which make us decidedly human. The two often go together - an exuberance for life that is shared among all of us.
The mind is a beautiful thing of extraordinary timbre and reach; yours as well as the child with autism. It is time to bring the two together.
What is autism?
Having autism means experiencing challenges in communication, in social skills and having very focused interests. For many, these focused interests can be helpful in overcoming some of their other challenges. Often, autism is described as a 'spectrum' because people with autism have a wide range of abilities and challenges. For example, you may know a student or neighbor who is very impacted by autism and is unable to speak and uses pictures to communicate and needs help getting his lunch or finding his way around campus. You may have a classmate with Asperger's Syndrome (which is on the more able end of the autism spectrum) who is very smart yet doesn't know much about the stuff most teenagers are interested in. He may just have one topic of conversation he keeps going back to and not seem comfortable in social situations with the other students. It is important to remember that these teenagers have personalities and feelings just like you do, they just can't show them as clearly. People with autism don't usually learn just by watching or imitating other people and are not good at picking up on subtleties. Some with Asperger's Syndrome have described the experience as being a stranger in a foreign country, and having to learn the social rules of behavior, as they don't come naturally.
Autism is now pretty common, affecting one in 150 people (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2007) and 3 out of 4 people with autism are male. Autism has nothing to do with intelligence but everything to do with trying to make sense of the world. People with autism have varying degrees of sensory processing difficulties, which means that their brain is not always processing the information received through their senses. They can be oversensitive to sound or light, which may make it difficult for them to understand what they are hearing or seeing. They may do really well in one place or with one subject and feel really uncomfortable elsewhere or with another topic. Also, for many, it is hard to look and hear at the same time, because their brain can't process the information at the same time.
Famous people on the autism spectrum
Many of the less impacted people with autism and Asperger's Syndrome (considered to be on the autism spectrum) excel in the sciences or the arts. Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are thought to have been on the autism spectrum. The comedian Andy Kaufman, the artist Andy Warhol and the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould are others who are considered to have had traits of Asperger's Syndrome.
Why they act the way they do
You may have seen classmates with autism who like to rock, or flick their fingers, or twirl the same piece of string over and over, or who does other things that may look a bit different from usual teenage behaviors. These behaviors help them to stay calm and focused when they are in environments or situations that may make them nervous or puts a lot of strain on them. Sometimes they have compulsions they cannot control. Other times they may feel frustrated and overwhelmed and these repetitive behaviors help them to calm down.
What people on the Autism Spectrum have to say
Some teenagers with autism have written books about what living with autism is like. Luke Jackson, a British teenager with Asperger's Syndrome, wrote Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence when he was 13. In it, he describes his difficulties in seeing and hearing at the same time, as well as his problems with communication and making friends. " I am always being told off for standing too close to them and following them around all the time, but it is very difficult to know when it is right to follow someone around and carry on talking or when the conversation is ended and I am to leave them alone."
In The Mind Tree, Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay discusses how he cannot always feel where his body is in space and the challenge of getting his body to do what he wants it to. "Sometimes I had to knock my head or slap it to feel it. Of course from my knowledge of biology I knew that I had voluntary and involuntary muscles. I also knew that arms and legs were made of voluntary muscles. But I experimented with myself that when I ordered my hand to pick up a pencil, I could not do it. I remember long back when I had ordered my lips to move I could not do it."
In Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum, Jeremy Sicile-Kira writes about his hopes for the future "I am imagining a future of peopleâ€¦.people who are not my family who like to spend time with meâ€¦people who respect my intelligence without wasting my time...I am not stupid and I have feelingsâ€¦.California and France are for me good places to live because I like the beach and the city."
A really good murder mystery from the viewpoint of a teenager who has Asperger's Syndrome
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is a murder mystery of sorts. Fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone is mathematically gifted and socially hopeless, raised in a working-class home by parents who can barely cope with their childs quirks. He takes everything that he sees (or is told) at face value, and is unable to sort out the strange behavior of his elders and peers. Late one night, Christopher comes across his neighbors poodle, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork. Wellingtons owner finds him cradling her dead dog in his arms and has him arrested. After spending a night in jail, Christopher resolves--against the objection of his father and neighbors--to discover just who has murdered Wellington. He is encouraged by Siobhan, a social worker at his school, to write a book about his investigations, and the result--quirkily illustrated, with each chapter given its own prime number--is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Helpful hints for interacting with classmates who have autism:
- Treat classmates with autism like people first. They are people who happen to have autism.
- Try to include your classmate with autism in social plans. They do not have many social opportunities and need friends, although it is hard for them to show this need.
- Be consistent with how you greet them. Using their name (and not 'pal' one time or 'buddy' the next) will avoid confusion.
- Do not make promises you cannot keep. Do not say 'Maybe we can go out for coffee one day.' This could be interpreted as a promise as they don't understand nuances such as 'one day' and 'maybe'.
- Be specific if giving directions or making plans. 'I'll meet you near the stairs after class' is not specific enough. You need to say 'I'll meet you at the door of room 125 at 1:45.'
- Do not tease or use sarcasm with someone with autism. Many do not understand that kind of humor because they don't always get the double meanings that are a part of that kind of humor.
- Some schools offer the opportunity to be a peer tutor to students who face challenges and this is a good way to get to know someone with autism and make a difference in their life.
- If you are friendly with someone with autism who isn't very stylish, perhaps you can volunteer to go shopping with him and show him what's cool and what looks good together or how to style their hair.
For more information please contact Chantal Sicile-Kira, Director of Communications and Public Relations at Autism One, as well as author of Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum.