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Monday, August 8, 2011

The right to be different

My mom tells me that I started out as a very quiet child -  so quiet that had I been born in this era, rather than in the 1950's, I would no doubt have been in a specialist's office with a diagnosis pending by the age of 2. I talked late - barely babbled, didn't try out words, was a silent presence in the room until the age of 2 and a half when I suddenly started to speak in sentences (according to my mom, my first words were "I want a cheese sandwich please" during lunch at a neighbour's house).

I was an eccentric little person, always thinking much more than I spoke, and expressing odd thoughts when I did speak - when I was 5, I "cracked the code" of reading one day and could suddenly read everything I looked at (I still remember how cool this was - one of the great joyful days of my life). I grew up in the country, and loved the freedom I had to disappear into the ravine, climb a tree and let my thoughts run for hours without interference from other people's questions and demands (as long as we showed up for meals, it was all good). When I went to school, people did start to categorize and test, but my parents kept me unaware of those discussions - I was talking at that point, and I could "do" school, so I got to be "gifted", a label that allowed me to be as different as I wanted and no-one would tell me I had to conform.

This is not exactly fair, is it? If my diagnosis had been "autism" instead, I would not have been given the freedom to develop and learn in the way that best suits my brain "flavour" - not allowed to choose when to socialize and when to retreat from the world of people, not allowed the quiet and solitude I needed to think my thoughts through to the end. People would have assumed that I was thinking nothing when I stared off into space for long periods of time, not responding to the words of other people (by the way, I still do this, to the great hilarity of my husband and sons). My strong (obsessive?) interests in favourite topics or activities, my "stair step" development of skills like talking and reading, my high stress in situations with too many unknowns would all be taken as further indicators of my oddity. Well-meaning therapists would set out to "fix" me. I would hate that.

All good therapy starts with respect for and knowledge of the individual who is the "target" of that therapy. People with autism think a lot more than they speak. Their optimal learning style may be nothing like a "usual" or "average" learning style, but what's so great about "average"? We put too much stock into "developmental norms", which are nothing more than population averages - no real person looks like a statistical "norm" - when we average out development, we lose all the interesting bits.

drawn by Adam, age 17

When we focus on bringing people with autism back to the "norm", we can unintentionally give them the message that who they are and what they're thinking and saying is not acceptable. Communication provides a bridge between the "average" world and the slightly more "unusual" world of autism - if parents and teachers are willing to hear what is really said and teach to the differences, the result can be learning on both sides of the equation. Different doesn't mean "wrong", it just means "different" .... and different can be pretty cool.

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