When we talk about autism, we tend to focus on the negative: what needs to be addressed, fixed, or modified. Rarely do we talk about the good that comes from it. When we stop and look at people who have ASD, it’s amazing what they can teach us. Our lives might actually fare better if we were to embrace some of the characteristics commonly to autism spectrum disorder.
Here’s five things we think everybody could stand to learn from kids with ASD:
One woman recalled when her neurotypical three-year old son walked up to a lady at church, poked her belly, and innocently asked why she was so fat. Mortified, the young mother apologized profusely. The woman graciously realized the question came from a three-year old – a child who lacked social filters – and took no outward offense.
Often people with autism are like three-year olds: They are brutally honest to a fault. While this trait can cause embarrassment, it also means this person hasn’t learned to lie, hide true feelings, sweep things under the rug, or manipulate. Imagine living your entire life with that kind of transparency.
What if we were more honest? Would it actually improve our relationships with others? Granted we don’t want to purposely hurt people with socially awkward and clumsy remarks, but wearing our hearts on our sleeve, engaging in more honest dialog, and making a point to never let important things go unsaid could be the best thing that ever happened to our relationships with the people we love. Honesty breeds trust, and trust opens the door to healthier relationships.
‘90s era teen idol and boy band icon, Joey Fatone of ‘NSYNC, recently appeared on a game show with his seven-year old daughter Kloey, who has been diagnosed with high functioning autism. During the show, Kloey seemed unfazed by the fact that she was on national TV. In a People interview with Joey, he said it, “was very exciting to do the show with Kloey. I was happy she had a great time and wasn’t nervous. That kid has no fear.”
No fear. Those two words strike terror in a parent’s heart if their child has autism. It means they don’t have the capacity to discern when a situation is potentially dangerous. Because of this, they go blindly in all directions without a thought of risk. As a parent of a child with ASD, you feel an obligation to monitor and protect at all times. And you’re not the only one.
Years ago it wasn’t unusual to see children riding bikes in neighborhoods, playing with friends on the front lawn, or walking down to the corner store for an ice cream. Today, however, parents all too often are filled with anxiety over the thought of their child being on their own. They feel a constant need to monitor their actions
These “helicopter parents” obsessively intervene and have an irrational level of anxiety about their kids that sometimes extends past childhood and into their adult years. The problem has become so serious that colleges have begun identifying students that seem incapable of thinking for themselves and making their own decisions. The LA Times examined this phenomenon in an article titled, How Helicopter Parenting is Ruining America’s Children.
Why are we so afraid?
Possibly because we allow the news and internet to inundate our minds with daily stories of terror, accidents, politics, disease, crimes, and natural disasters as if they were happening to each of the 7.5 million people in the world all at once on a daily basis. The reality is, most days are pretty mundane (thankfully).
Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark college and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things remarked about the irony of the fear that has gripped our country: “Part of what I find interesting about this is that overall most Americans live in what is arguably the safest time and place in human history…and yet fear levels are high and there are many, many fears and scares out there.”
Take a cue from those with ASD. While there are, and always will be plenty of things to worry about, the ability to live without fear can be a true blessing and something we could all stand to learn from people on the spectrum.
Many of us live our lives bathed in constant noise. Some welcomed, some not. What we have a hard time with is silence. So much so, that there are volumes written on the practice of silence. In a room full of people – unless in a social setting such as church or a golf game – silence is hard to maintain. We have been conditioned to live with a constant hum of noise.
Some experts say our fear of silence is born from our culture. It’s because we grew up in an electronic world where a radio or TV was always on, even if no one was paying attention. We are also surrounded by external noise, everything from the din of traffic to the barely perceptible but constant hum of electric appliances. We all notice how quiet it gets when the power goes out, but barely notice the constant white noise going on all the time when it’s on.
Silence can be eerie and unnerving when you aren’t used to it. But we need silence.
The constant low-level noise that fills our lives leads to our modern day stress levels. It can not only cause us to feel anxious and angry, it can even bring on health problems.
For the person with ASD, silence is like medicine when they are feeling over stimulated from too much noise. This is something we can all take a cue from.
The twin of silence is solitude. It’s hard to have one without the other. Buddhist monks are known to practice cooperative silence, but usually solitude is the only way most of us can really achieve silence.
One of the hallmarks of a child with autism is there desire to be alone. Most people don’t mind spending a little time alone, but we are social animals and most of us typically prefer the company of others. So much so that when we are alone, we will turn on the TV just to make it feel like someone else is in the room. Being alone is sometimes associated with feelings of depression and isolation… but with a slight shift in your attitude it can start to mean something entirely different.
Author Ester Schaler Buchholz, wrote in her book, The Call Of Solitude: Alonetime In A World Of Attachment that “autistic individuals teach us about our self-protective alone reserve. They are versatile in using untapped resources for comfort and soothing which we in our busy lives rarely bother knowing.”
Being alone can be a way for us to settle our minds and soothe our senses, much like a baby happily playing with their toes in a crib, all alone in their thoughts, sometimes laughing out loud or cooing. They do this for their own pleasure. Individuals with autism are good at enjoying their own company.
Ellen liked her bedroom. She liked her bed by the window so that she could look out. She liked her large stuffed monkey sitting next to her bed cradling her doll and bear. She also liked the canopy over her bed. One day when Ellen came home from school, everything was different.
The canopy was gone. her bed was shoved against the wall and her little sister’s bed was on the other side of her’s. The monkey was in the closet. Her bear and doll were now on the chair with her sister’s doll. Ellen’s mom decided her oldest daughter could have her own room, which meant that Ellen would have to share with her little sister. Ellen, who was on the spectrum, had a complete meltdown.
Ellen didn’t like change. She craved routine. She wanted things to stay the same; to never change. The predictability of her room gave Ellen a sense of peace and place. She wasn’t prepared to make this kind of change. She was happy with the way things were.
While routine and sameness is another hallmark of ASD, it isn’t in and of itself a bad trait. We can learn from those with ASD who value keeping things as they are. After all, in today’s world we are quick to throw things out.
We throw away a perfectly good toaster in exchange for a new color. We want a new wardrobe because last year’s isn’t fashionable. We want a new relationship because the old one isn’t as exciting as a new one. We hop from store to store, and vendor to vendor, in search of a better bargain or trendier service.
We’ve lost our loyalty to everything from brands of cereal to lifetime relationships. We are always on the hunt to change and exchange what we have for something else. Thinking that something else will make us happier. We can learn from those who have ASD that keeping some things the same may actually bring us more peace and happiness in the long run.