I was pretty obsessed with “The Babysitter’s Club” book series when I was young. I read them voraciously and repetitively, eagerly anticipating each new installment in the series. Book #32, for those of you who may not recall, was titled “Kristy and the Secret of Susan.” It told about a child with a diagnosis which I’d never heard: autism.
Susan was very limited in her communication but exhibited what would be considered “savant” behaviors – playing the piano and memorizing dates on the calendar. I wish the character had been more like other people with autism I’d probably met; it would be years until I realized I’d had experiences with people on the autism spectrum, often without realizing it.
In sixth grade, there was this kid who was, well, kind of different. He was really, really into trucks. He wanted to be a semi-truck driver when he grew up, and would often be reprimanded in class for drawing pictures of trucks (from a variety of angles and in varying colors) instead of doing classwork. He rarely talked to anyone unless it was about trucks. I regarded him with caution and kept my distance. I was most concerned with not drawing attention to myself within the caste system of middle school, and this boy was often treated less than kindly by my peers.
I spent my summers in high school and college as a lifeguard. We called one of the guards “Robo-guard.” He was an extreme rule follower and carried his lifeguard whistle with an air of authority that made the rest of us laugh behind his back. He had awkward body language and often didn’t make eye contact when having a conversation. His face always carried the same expression: stern. He seemed oblivious to the mild harassment he faced from the rest of the staff; however, when he was on the lifeguard chair, we knew his eyes wouldn’t waver from maintaining the safety of his area.
As a newbie elementary school teacher, I had a child in my class who was as sweet as could be. He was compliant, if sometimes distracted, and didn’t make friends easily, although he wasn’t disliked. Every morning he wanted to come in and tell me about his cats. Sometimes, when he thought nobody was watching, I would see him imitating the moves of a cat, pretending to groom the outer edges of his face with the back of his hand. I’ll never forget the day the school counselor came to me and said, “I think he has a form of autism that I was just learning about at a conference. It is called Asperger’s.” She instructed me on some of the signs: he often flapped his hands in front of his face, especially when he was excited; he preferred to look at the floor instead of at me when we would speak; he had a clear perseverative interest in cats.
I had never heard of Asperger’s before. I was a certified teacher and this was 2001. My only experience and knowledge with autism was related to much more pronounced examples: the girl from “The Babysitter’s Club” book, the movie “Rain Man,” and a single chapter in an undergraduate course on Education of the Exceptional Child.
Since that time, I’ve had the wonderful experience of working with many children and teens on the autism spectrum. I worked as a teacher in gifted education programs where we seemed to get a lot of “quirky” kids. I’ve learned to love and work with each and every one of their individual personalities. Now, as a mental health counselor, I have the unbeatable job of working with them in a therapeutic setting.
I have two thoughts about what I’ve learned about autism/Asperger’s that I’d like to share with parents and teachers.
The first would be this: autism (or Asperger’s) doesn’t look like one thing. Not all individuals with autism are introverted; not all of them have obvious sensory needs. Some people on the autism spectrum have trouble making eye contact; others have no trouble with this, but can’t understand sarcasm or nuance in conversation. There is as much variability in the signs of autism as there are individuals who have it.
The second thing I’d offer is not to be afraid of a diagnosis. A diagnosis of autism is simply a way to help understand how a person’s brain works. I see a lot of the stigma that families experience when faced with a possible autism diagnosis, especially within the gifted/talented community (my specialization). Families understandably don’t want to think there is anything “wrong” with their child. I prefer to help them see and build on the strengths that individuals with autism often have.
A diagnosis can also help the person on the autism spectrum understand why he or she is a little different. A fourth grade client who is both gifted and on the autism spectrum wrote these words in a letter to his teacher at the end of the year after he’d been diagnosed: “I must thank you for helping me get on with school. If you hadn’t helped me, the school year would have been a long 174 days of running out of the classroom… I didn’t like that I didn’t know about my autism symptoms until the school year was almost half of the way done. Rather annoying if you ask me.” Learning more about his diagnosis allowed him to better understand himself. How could that possibly be a bad thing?
This story originally appeared on The Mind Matters.