Sunday, October 9, 2011

A View of Autism - Distinguishing Symptoms From Bad Behavior

Being on a flight for over 5 hours can remind you of just how small an airplane's space can be. Nevertheless, nothing can shrink an already small space faster than the uncontrollable ranting of a mini human being. Let's face it, we've all been there. If it wasn't in a plane, then in a restaurant, movie theater, or some other public space where one little person's frustration begged the attention of everybody in the place. Was the recent debate over children with disabilities fueled over one such incident? Possibly not, but one shock jock's on-air remarks caused waves of indigence and disgust to roll through the country like ripples on a calm lake. At the risk of refueling the ire over this subject, it does beg the question, was he wrong? Not about the insensitivity towards children with disabilities, but was he wrong about his belief that sometimes, what is labeled a disability is just a result of ineffective parenting?

The fact remains that two to six people per thousand (both large and small) have some form of autism. It is also true that autism has a spectrum range as broad as a quarterback's shoulders. Symptoms can range from behaviors that mirror a catatonic state, to behaviors with symptoms so subtle they're almost undetectable. It is also a fact that most people are simply uninformed about the symptoms of autism. Not that ignorance is an excuse, but ignorance and insensitivity are kissing cousins.

So what are the symptoms of autism? As stated before, they do vary but there are some common indicators. Autistic individuals usually; exhibit limited verbal expression, have difficulty mixing with others, and have a singular focus on one topic or interest. In fact, their behaviors can mirror those of obsessive compulsive disorders. It is also common that they may; laugh or cry for no apparent reason, lack facial expression, and possess a monotone or robotic quality to their speech. And then there are those tantrums.

The truth is however, that most autistic individuals are mild mannered (except for the tantrums). When they do have tantrums they're usually self-directed, meaning they'll hit themselves, or rock back and forth. Autistic individuals tend to avoid physical contact, so they're less likely to strike-out at others. Dustin Hoffman's characterization in Rainman is what most people think of when they try to imagine an autistic person. That movie depicted one manifestation of this disorder. Nevertheless, people are so varied that the indicators in any one person can have almost as many potential combinations as the lottery.

So, the next time you're in a restaurant and see a highly verbal child fly into a tantrum, you can be pretty sure they're not autistic. In fact, kids like those give autistic children a bad name. There is certainly no doubt that there are some people out there whose behaviors could be confused with autistic tendencies. Surely, you know a person or two who acts like they don't hear you when you talk to them, laughs for no apparent reason, and maybe even has angry outbursts at the drop of a hat. Given all of that they are no more autistic than you or I (well, me for sure). If that's what the radio host was trying to say, he wasn't that far off base. Could it be that there are individuals out there posing as autistic? I doubt it. Are there individuals out there just behaving badly? Umm... let me think... YEAH!

What this all boils down to it seems, is that you have to know the difference. In this instance, it's safe to say that there's no bliss in ignorance. Society has to take the time to differentiate between true symptoms and bad behaviors. Well, did the shock jock take the unpopular but informed stance on this issue? Was his true intention to "shock" us into having the uncomfortable but necessary dialogue that moves us into a new era of awareness? Yeah right, something tells me that he puckered up for insensitivity's kissing cousin.

Dawn A. Best is an Educator, mentor, poet, and an avid children's advocate. Ms. Best is currently an administrator with the New York City Department of Education. Her writing extends beyond non-fiction to fictional children's literature.

She is an alumnus of St. John's University and Bank Street College. She has also studied Filmmaking at New York University, and has used that training to inspire children struggling with writing in inner city schools.

She was born in Baltimore Maryland, but now makes Queens New York her home.

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