I’ve been thinking lately about the misunderstanding that so many in our society have about individuals on the autism spectrum. Although autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is termed a developmental disability, it doesn’t mean people with ASD are incapable or unstable.

I believe personal interaction (meaning getting to know individuals with autism) would dispel a lot of the mystery around ASD, but there hasn’t been a clear reason for people to do so. As a result, when incidents such as the one in Newtown, Conn., occur, assumptions are made—erroneously, more often than not. A case in point was the media suggestion that Adam Lanza was on the autism spectrum, which precipitated the violence. That assumption prompted Kerry Korner to present to the media a more accurate perspective.

Along the same vein, in a conversation with a friend recently, I was surprised at his lack of understanding about autism. This man is intelligent and well-read, but woefully misinformed about the disorder, and especially about the individuals with ASD. In my own way, I presented him with a more accurate perspective. So, let me say unequivocally that only personal interaction will allow us to see a person not merely a disorder.

That is the tenet behind Erik’s Ranch & Retreats and, specifically, Erik’s Minnesota Adventures. Six adults with autism hold positions as experience guides, taking groups on two-to-four-hour educational, entertaining and enjoyable tours. Judging by the response to these tours, I know we are on the right track. The experience guides, experts in certain areas, get to show participants who they are, while increasing their confidence and social skills. Participants generally learn something new, while interacting with a talented individual who happens to have ASD.

So often when groups take a tour, attendees describe their experience as exceptional. Really, if you stop to think about it, getting to know anyone requires a leap of faith and willingness to spend some time. So, don’t let a term like autism stop you from getting to know someone with ASD. You’ll never know what you might have missed if you don’t seize the opportunity.

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Everyone knows you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, right? If that is such common knowledge, why does society have so few molds into which people can fit?

 

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking specifically about adults with autism, but generally about anyone perceived as having a disability. Take a look at this letter from John Franklin Stephens to a celebrity whose tweet used the word retard to describe the president of the United States. You can read his entire thoughtful rebuttal here, but this is the opening comment:

 

“…you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow. So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

 

“I’m a 30-year-old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow. I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you. In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

 

“I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.

 

“Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.

 

“Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low-grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.”

 

Franklin’s comments struck a nerve with me. His eloquent depiction of what is endured by those who are perceived as different hits home for many on the autism spectrum. It seems that rarely, people look beyond the exterior. But, what if we looked deeper? What if we could see the diamond in the rough? It’s always there; we just need to look past our prejudices.

 

So many people are discounted and even shunned for their differences. But, like Franklin, they persevere and see life as a gift. Let me give you some examples.

 

Oscar Pistorious, born without fibulas in his legs, fought for and won the right to compete in the 2012 Olympics. Nicknamed the Blade Runner because his lower legs are fitted with metal blades, he came in second in his heat. Initially, his bid for the Olympics was rejected because he doesn’t run like everyone else. Eventually, someone saw beyond the surface and let him run. And run he did.

 

Or this video of a young girl with autism, Jodi DiPiazza, who displays a “learning difference, not a learning disability” as she plays and sings with Katy Perry at “Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs” on Comedy Central. As the video shows, medical professionals gave her parents little hope. But, they were wrong.

 

It was the same story for my son Erik. Medical professionals said horseback riding and other sports such as skiing could be dangerous. But we didn’t give up. It took two years to get him to hold the tow rope and now he skis. It takes him a long time to learn, but he can learn.

 

In these examples, someone had the vision to see beyond the surface to what’s inside. When that happens, people can soar. Sometimes it may take a little more effort to pay attention, give someone free rein and follow his or her lead. But when we allow ourselves to change our perception and give someone a chance, magic happens.