If I could take a single snapshot of myself as a child, it would be of me as a little girl looking out the window, watching the children play. A child wishing to join in, but too afraid to step outside and ask, “Can I play?” Maybe if she had asked, they would have let her join in the circle. But repeatedly being a victim of bullying, she didn’t dare risk rejection. She maintained her distance on the sidelines where she felt safe.
She compensated the loneliness with retreating into a world of make-believe where she could be anybody she wanted to be. She made up a cast of characters who let her join their circle. In this world, she got to play the starring role. The little girl knew it was a world of her own imagination. And when she invariably got caught pacing back and forth, talking to herself, she’d bear the brunt of the heckling of other children and the bewilderment of adults.
I am on the autism spectrum and was only diagnosed recently at the age of 58. My diagnosis was a gift I shall treasure for the rest of my days. I know now what’s behind how I think, feel and act. Before the diagnosis, it was like walking in pitch-black darkness. The diagnosis was the lightbulb.
It was largely through working as a substitute teaching assistant that I came to the realization of being autistic. Sometimes I would cross paths with a child who reminded me of the little girl looking out the window. One of those times occurred in an elementary school gym while subbing for a P.E. aide. I was watching the children play in stations, each section being a different game. I noticed a third-grade boy standing next to me. I asked him why wasn’t he at one of the stations, and he shrugged his shoulders. I asked him, “How about basketball or tetherball, or jumprope, or hula-hoop?” He nodded “no” at all my suggestions. I asked him what he liked to do. He said, “Eat!” I could not keep a straight face.
This youngster was tugging at my heart strings. I knew what it was to just watch the other kids play. Instead of pushing him to shoot baskets or jump rope, I asked him if he’d like to take a walk with me. He agreed to that. As we went for our walk around the other kids playing, I asked him questions, such as what his favorite food was. He said “hamburger,” and that the hamburger place he liked best was “Mom’s.” I assumed he meant his mom’s homemade hamburgers were better than at any restaurant.
He pulled out his mom’s business card with a beaming smile on his face. It seemed to be of such comfort to him to have the card with her phone number in case he needed to call her. He let me see the card, and it was a hamburger restaurant. That explained to me why his mom’s hamburgers were the best and his favorite food.
I gave that child a little bit of time and attention I wished someone had given me when I was that little girl looking out the window. I believe I have been so blessed by God with my diagnosis and a job that helps me cope with that diagnosis. The past can’t be changed or relived. But my job gives me numerous opportunities to help any young ones who might struggle with what I struggled with and still do.
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If there is one thing my son Isaac has taught me in the last eight years, it is this:
Communication is much more than words.
Isaac has autism. He is nonverbal and has global delay, significant learning difficulties and NF1. For a few years now, he has taught himself to communicate via Google Street View maps, and he excels at this. It is a different way of communicating, but it works better for him than speech or any traditional communication app he’s used.
Wherever I take Isaac, whether it is somewhere he is familiar with, or hundreds of miles away to a place he has never been before, he has a special talent of retracing the exact route once home using just Google Street View maps and his incredible memory.
In the summer of 2014, when he was just 6 years old, we went on holiday to a cottage 120 miles from home. Yet a week later, he retraced the exact route we traveled, including stopping at the very same service station we took a comfort break at! I was amazed at this incredible talent.
He attends a school for children with complex needs that is 14 miles from home, yet he takes himself there by memory via Google Street View map every afternoon once home. I wondered if this ability came from him making the same journey daily or if he had the location stored. But one day I watched him, and what I witnessed gave me insight into this part of his world. Watching him using Google Street View map gave me peace of mind as he showed me step by step the route his taxi goes and even where the car parks to get him out. In fact, he even took me to the door of the building he goes into, all without speaking a word.
He uses Google Street View map for his every communication need now. If he is hungry, he uses it to show travel from his home address to a nearby restaurant and brings his iPad to show me. If he wants to go out, he uses it to show me where he wants to go, from the church he goes to every week, to the train station, and the local park. He uses it to show me the way to his gran’s house and to shopping centers to tell me he wants to go and watch lifts.
He has discovered he can enter a local hotel using street map, and this has opened up new, unique ways for him to communicate, too. For example, he goes into rooms in the hotel and finds an ensuite to communicate he wants a bath at night. When ready for bed, he moves around the rooms until he finds a bed and points at it.
He finds my car in the driveway to ask to go in the car. He finds a clothes shop to get him dressed.
When he was highly distressed one day and I could not help him calm, I put Google Street View map on, and he moved around to show me there was a door open somewhere he could see, and that was what was causing his upset. I was in awe of his ability to find such an ingenious way to communicate.
Two weeks ago, he shocked me once again. He was more lethargic than usual and quiet (he is nonverbal but does make noise). He came and sat beside me and used his skills on Google Street View map to take himself to the doctor’s! For the first time ever, he was able to tell me he was feeling unwell. This was incredible for us! I cried. It was nothing serious, thankfully, but he was able to say he communicated he was not feeling good to a doctor. Isaac has found a way to connect with others that is as unique and special as he is.
James Kwon, a 25-year-old man on the autism spectrum, who lives in Orland Park, Illinois, is suing Chick-fil-A after being told his autism would prohibit him from succeeding at the restaurant.
Prior to applying for a job at Chick-fil-A in 2014, Kwon participated in a work-study program at Bakers Square – a restaurant chain like Chick-fil-A. As part of his program, Kwon helped clean the restaurant, washing windows and floors, clearing garbage and wiping down tables. After finishing his work-study program, Kwon began working with a job coach to increase his odds of finding employment. Working with his coach, the pair went to Kwon’s local Chick-fil-A in Orland Park, to speak to the branch manager about working at Chick-fil-A.
Kwon and his coach were unable to speak with the branch manager, and so, Kwon’s coach returned later to Chick-fil-A to recommend Kwon for a position. According to the complaint filed by Kwon’s lawyers: “The branch manager responded that Chick-fil-A was not interested in hiring people with disabilities. When the job coach reiterated that she thought James would do a good job, the branch manager stated that people with disabilities would not be able to succeed at Chick-fil-A.”
Based on the branch manager’s comments, Kwon did not complete his application at the Orland Park branch. Now, Kwon is suing Chick-fil-A for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects Americans with disabilities from discrimination. As part of the ADA, employers cannot discriminate based on disability. Since Kwon illustrated in his previous role that he was capable of working at a restaurant, rejecting his application based on disability is against the law.
The Mighty reached out to Chick-fil-A and has yet to hear back.
As someone on the autism spectrum, I never used to have issues with self-confidence. In fact, I thought pretty highly of myself for a while. I could talk about my life with ease and not worry about how others saw me. I didn’t care if was “unpopular” or lacked “style.” I enjoyed being me.
Not too long ago, however, something changed inside. I began to learn more about social skills. I began to understand other peoples’ comments about how I looked or acted. The world became this alien planet, where everything I did was judged, and it affected my life. I felt I was growing up.
The issue with understanding these social skills, however, is I still don’t know how to use them. I know talking about politics or religion can be a touchy subject, but I don’t know how to recognize how someone else feels about it. It’s easy to know I should be professional when I’m working — but how do I accomplish that? Is there something I should or shouldn’t say? Something I should or shouldn’t do?
All I know are the basics. Look people in the eyes when you are talking to them. Don’t go into too much detail when a stranger asks how you are doing. Use your manners. Smile and nod.
Just smile and nod, and don’t get in the way.
Oh, and every “general rule” has an exception depending on the situation. So all of those things I’ve learned in the past that I thought I could apply to new situations are pretty much useless.
When I thought I had my life together, everything just changed and seemed to fall apart. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I can understand that social skills are important. The problem is I still don’t really have many. And instead of letting ignorance be bliss, I have an issue with no idea how to solve it. Until I grow a little more, I feel lost in the alien world of social situations.
Image via Thinkstock.
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