Autism: Two analogies to give perspective

When someone first learns our son is Autistic, the most common reaction is a blank stare, or a look of pity.  Unless someone personally knows an Autistic person, few understand that it is rarely a reflection of what was seen in the movie, Rain Man.  In reality, that imagery only reflects a small portion of those on the Spectrum.  I cannot describe all Autistic people, because I only know a handful; Autism is a Spectrum “disorder,” though I cannot stand the “D” word, because I disagree with it.  I can say with confidence that Autism does not mean my child is broken and in need of fixing.  He is perfect as he is, and just requires a different approach than might work with other kids.  That is like all children, though, right?  All children are unique in their own ways.  To follow are two analogies that might offer a bit of perspective for those not familiar with Autism – or Autism as is experienced with Asperger’s diagnoses – and is not meant to trivialize, but to give a glimpse of how Autistic kids are just kids that think a bit differently than the rest of their peers.

One analogy that might provide a hint of understanding will appeal to those familiar with computers.  My husband once described Autism as the difference between Windows and Linux platforms, where teachers are the users and children are the computers.  Most children function like Windows; it is the most common functional system of computers, and it is how most users know how to use a computer.  Autism is like Linux.  It is just another way of thinking and functioning.  A proficient user of Linux might be able to teach a Linux machine to function and behave like Windows, but it will never be Windows.  It may not be able to perform all Windows functions as a Windows user would expect, and in some cases, it will struggle to behave similarly no matter how good the user is at “programming,” but there are some tasks where it will excel and perform tasks far above anything a Windows platform could achieve.  Linux machines are not broken; they are just different and can perform just fine if treated with an understanding that a user is functioning in a Linux environment, not Windows.

Another analogy that sometimes sheds light on differences relates to cars, with standard or automatic transmissions.  Anyone who knows how to drive can drive a car with an automatic transmission.  You still need to know how to drive, pay attention to traffic and all that, but you can get where you’re going.  With a manual transmission, it requires quite a bit more effort, both in the learning process and daily driving.  Both function fine – a standard transmission is not broken just because someone cannot just get in and step on the gas to accelerate without further effort – and both will get you from Point A to Point B so long as the driver knows how to drive that car.  Standard transmissions may require more effort to learn and use, but they can perform at least as well – and in the right hands, much better in certain environments – than their automatic counterparts.

Autism is not a disorder, in my opinion, and I dislike the word.  It is merely a different way of thinking.  Unfortunately, most teachers only know how to teach one way; they know how to teach “Windows” because they are “Windows” themselves, or they know how to teach “automatic” driving because they are “automatic” drivers.  Those teachers think medication is the answer; we’ve been asked about why his doctor and we refuse to medicate, but to date, there is no magic pill that “fixes” Autism, because it does not need “fixing.”  It does require more work to teach an Autistic child how to function in the “normal” everyday world, but they can and do thrive and excel with the right support, education, and upbringing.

So please, the next time you meet someone that confides that the child over there is Autistic – you know, that kid that behaves a bit different from the kids he’s playing with, but looks like all the rest – pity is not necessary.  He’s perfect just as he is.  In fact, he might be capable of excelling far above his peers with the right love and educational environment.  He’s just like any other kid; they all have strengths and weaknesses.  They’re all unique, right?