By: Francesco Yepez-Coello
I teach a Spanish class in a local elementary school after regular hours. The first day I gathered the children around to explain that I will be speaking mostly in Spanish, and that they should try their best to watch my movements and gestures to understand. This proved particularly difficult for one boy, whom I will refer to as Sean.
Sean often does not make eye contact, but lets his eyes wander. When I call the students in a circle for an activity, he always ventures off into a different part of the classroom, as though in his own little world. Yet he is not merely a difficult child; the more I observed him, I realized he has a peculiar condition. He does not always understand when is the time to listen and when I would like the class to speak. When raising his hand to share something he often makes clicking sounds with his mouth instead of calling out verbally. Sean is a child with autism.
There is much misconception about the nature of autism. The primary characteristic of it is the inability to understand typical social interaction, and as a result, a difficulty relating to other people. The getures we make, our tone of voice, and what we are trying to say other than from our literal words are foreign to people with autism. Temple Gradin, a noted autistic, has described this deficiency as being “like an anthropologist on Mars,” struggling to comprehend our interactions.
However, there is much variability in this condition beyond the primary symptom. This is particularly troubling since science has not completely ascertained the cause of this condition other than many with autism have brains that are structured differently from those without. Their neurons and synapses are not organized, and they do not communicate, in the same way that they would in a typical brain.
Many people with autism do not just look at others less, but do not respond to their name, or do not point to things they are referring to. Many have repetitive behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, or clapping their hands, spontaneously. Others still are hypersensitive, and low levels of stimulation may be overwhelming to them, visually, auditorily, or otherwise. They do these things because their condition causes them to express themselves differently, not because of any intellectual deficiency. But to those not aware of their condition, all of these may appear very strange, and many children with autism suffer from being alone and misunderstood as a result.
So I strove to understand Sean, and to accompany my little scientist on his journey to the alien world that most of us know so well.
On one of the last days I had the children sit and draw a person and label their body parts according to the vocabulary I had taught them. I sat next to Sean. He was drawing something clearly not human, and when I inquired as to what it was, he said he was drawing a tank. I did not reprimand him for not following orders, rather I took the opportunity to teach him the names of different shapes in Spanish, and to label that on his drawing instead.
When he finished writing, I held up the tank in awe. I congratulated him on his beautiful work in my language.
“Gracias” he said to me in Spanish.
I smiled. We sat and continued to draw together.
I encourage all of you to read further about autism, as I have barely scratched the surface of what it’s like on this article. Every single case of autism is different in its severity and how it manifests. The most important factor when you meet someone on the spectrum is not to simply feel bad about their condition, but to try to learn from them. Try to meet the person and communicate with him as he does with you, rather than imposing a “normal” way of relating on him that he will not be able to understand. Depending on how severe a person’s autism is, we cannot ask of them to adapt to our world anymore than we could that fabled anthropologist to a strange land, and must therefore tailor the situation and his environment to his capabilities, as I did with Sean.
Volkmar F, Chawarska K, Klin A. Autism in infancy and early childhood. Annu Rev Psychol. 2005;56:315–36 :10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070159
Dominick KC, Davis NO, Lainhart J, Tager-Flusberg H, Folstein S. Atypical behaviors in children with autism and children with a history of language impairment. Res Dev 10.1016/j.ridd.2006.02.003