Sunday, May 17, 2015


This past week, a colleague who teaches special education at the school where I teach English was commenting that some of her students who have autism don’t realize that they have autism. In fact, some of their parents insist that they do not want their children to know that they have autism. As teachers of these children, we must respect the parents’ decision and be careful never to reveal that we know those children have been diagnosed with autism. My colleague, who knows that Alex has autism because we have always been open about his condition, then asked me, “Does Alex know he has autism?”

As I explained to her, Alex does, indeed, know that he has autism and has been aware of this diagnosis ever since he received it as a preschooler. We never wanted him to think that we were keeping a secret from him, and we thought that not telling him might make him think he should feel ashamed of having autism, which we certainly did not want. Just as parents who adopt children are encouraged to tell their young children that they have been adopted so that they grow up knowing the truth and don’t discover it later in life, we have always been candid with Alex about autism. Because autism impacts his life tremendously, we wanted him to understand why some things are more difficult for him than they are for other people. Alex knows that just as he has brown eyes and brown hair, he also has autism. We’ve never had to wonder when we should break the news to him because he already knows.

Being someone who likes knowing the origins of words, I find the etymology of the term autism interesting. Coming from the Greek root autos, meaning self, the word essentially means a state in which the person exists separately from others. As WebMD explains, “One symptom common to all types of autism is an inability to easily communicate and interact with others. In fact, some people with autism are unable to communicate at all. Others may have difficulty interpreting body language or holding a conversation.” (“History of Autism.” Web MD, 12 May 2013.)

Certainly, Alex’s struggle with spoken language has hindered his ability to interact with other people, and we have worked with him to improve his speech and social skills. For him, spoken English is like a foreign language to most of us, where he struggles not only to find quickly the words he wants to say but also to figure out the proper grammar and syntax. Add in sensory issues that overwhelm him, and I imagine that for him, holding a conversation is much like trying to make oneself heard in the midst of a middle school cafeteria at lunchtime. No wonder he prefers to sit quietly and just listen instead of engaging in the discussion!

On Friday evening, we went to my sister’s house to celebrate my niece’s birthday. In a room full of fourteen lively family members and one dog, Alex sat calmly and quietly, seeming to enjoy listening to the various conversations without being overwhelmed and even smiling as he heard things that amused him. At times, he would quietly imitate people, especially my sister, whose voice fascinates him, repeating what was said. Although we know this is not socially appropriate, we believe that Alex is practicing speech so that he can better interact with others. So long as he does this quietly without disturbing others, we allow him to do it. Moreover, we explain to others that he does this because he really likes the person whom he is imitating; truly, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” when Alex repeats after other people.

As Alex sat contentedly enjoying the discussions, he seemed as though he wanted to join the conversation but did not know how. At one point, my brother was talking about NASCAR, one of Alex’s favorite topics, and Alex quietly but excitedly asked Ed and me, “Is Uncle Freddy getting tickets to a NASCAR race?” We explained that Uncle Freddy was talking about having a gift certificate to learn how to drive a racecar on a NASCAR track, which Alex seemed to find interesting. Later, he noticed that my niece’s boyfriend had holes in the knees of his jeans, and he quietly commented to Ed, “He needs to buy a new pair of jeans because he has holes in them.” Ed then quietly explained that he had probably bought them that way because that was the style. Alex seemed a bit perplexed, but accepted that explanation.

After that, as my niece Hannah was talking, Alex leaned over to me and asked with concern, “Does Hannah need to have surgery?” When he last saw Hannah, she was talking about going to the orthopedic specialist to see if she would need surgery on her hip this summer, and he wanted to know what the doctor had said. Realizing that Alex had been listening to conversations with interest and was concerned about other people, I knew that he really did want to participate in the discussion. Instead of answering him myself, I told him that he could ask Hannah himself. Although he was tentative, he asked her whether she would need surgery, and she seemed pleased that not only had he shown concern about her but also that he was relieved she would not need surgery.

Although autism makes conversation and social interaction difficult for Alex, he does not exist in his own world. He genuinely cares about other people, even if he doesn’t quite know how to talk to them, but he wants to engage with them and find out more about them. Indeed, he’s even showing concern about them. Even though we were a little worried about how he would handle being in a large group of people, we realized Friday evening how important it is to give Alex opportunities to practice the conversation skills and social skills we have been practicing at home with him. Clearly, he is learning these valuable life skills, and we are delighted to see him making progress in these areas. More importantly, we are thankful to see his concern for other people and evidence that he is learning how to express those concerns verbally, proving that he continues to overcome the obstacles autism has put in his path so that he can truly enjoy being with others.

“Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.” Colossians 4:6

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