{July 20, 2012}   Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew By Ellen Notbohm

I think this stuff everyone should take the time to read and know even if you dont have a child with autism. As so many kids are being diagnosed with it I am sure you will meet someone with it or see them out and about. This is why we should not judge when we see kids places you never know what the family is going threw or dealing with.

Some days it seems the only predictable thing about it is the unpredictability. The
only consistent attribute – the inconsistency. There is little argument on any level
but that autism is baffling, even to those who spend their lives around it. The c
who lives with autism may look “normal” but his behavior can be perplexing and
downright difficult. Autism was once thought an “incurable” disorder, but that notion is
crumbling in the face knowledge and understanding that is increasing even as you read
this. Every day, individuals with autism are showing us that they can overcome,
compensate for and otherwise manage many of autism’s most challenging
characteristics. Equipping those around our children with simple understanding of
autism’s most basic elements has a tremendous impact on their ability to journey
towards productive, independent adulthood. Autism is an extremely complex disorder
but for purposes of this one article, we can distill its myriad characteristics into four
fundamental areas: sensory processing challenges, speech/language delays and
impairments, the elusive social interaction skills and whole child/self-esteem issues. And
though these four elements may be common to many children, keep front of-mind the
fact that autism is a spectrum disorder: no two (or ten or twenty) children with autism will
be completely alike. Every child will be at a different point on the spectrum. And, just as
importantly – every parent, teacher and caregiver will be at a different point on the
spectrum. Child or adult, each will have a unique set of needs.

I am first and foremost a child. I have autism. I am not primarily “autistic.” My autism
is only one aspect of my total character. It does not define me as a person. Are you
a person with thoughts, feelings and many talents, or are you just fat (overweight),
myopic (wear glasses) or klutzy (uncoordinated, not good at sports)? Those may be
things that I see first when I meet you, but they are not necessarily what you are all
about. As an adult, you have some control over how you define yourself. If you want to
single out a single characteristic, you can make that known. As a child, I am still
unfolding. Neither you nor I yet know what I may be capable of. Defining me by one
characteristic runs the danger of setting up an expectation that may be too low. And if I
get a sense that you don’t think I “can do it,” my natural response will be: Why try?

My sensory perceptions are disordered. Sensory integration may be the most
difficult aspect of autism to understand, but it is arguably the most critical. It means
that the ordinary sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of everyday that you may
not even notice can be downright painful for me. The very environment in which I have to
live often seems hostile. I may appear withdrawn or belligerent to you but I am really just
trying to defend myself. Here is why a “simple” trip to the grocery store may be hell for
me: My hearing may be hyper-acute. Dozens of people are talking at once. The
loudspeaker booms today’s special. Music whines from the sound system. Cash
registers beep and cough, a coffee grinder is chugging. The meat cutter screeches,
babies wail, carts creak, the fluorescent lighting hums. My brain can’t filter all the input
and I’m in overload! My sense of smell may be highly sensitive. The fish at the meat counter isn’t quite fresh, the guy standing next to us hasn’t showered today, the deli is
handing out sausage samples, the baby in line ahead of us has a poopy diaper, they’re
mopping up pickles on aisle 3 with ammonia….I can’t sort it all out. I am dangerously
nauseated. Because I am visually oriented (see more on this below), this may be my first
sense to become over-stimulated. The fluorescent light is not only too bright, it buzzes
and hums. The room seems to pulsate and it hurts my eyes. The pulsating light bounces
off everything and distorts what I am seeing — the space seems to be constantly
changing. There’s glare from windows, too many items for me to be able to focus (I may
compensate with “tunnel vision”), moving fans on the ceiling, so many bodies in constant
motion. All this affects my vestibular and proprioceptive senses, and now I can’t even tell
where my body is in space.

Please remember to distinguish between won’t (I choose not to) and can’t (I am not
able to). Receptive and expressive language and vocabulary can be major
challenges for me. It isn’t that I don’t listen to instructions. It’s that I can’t understand you.
When you call to me from across the room, this is what I hear: “*&^%$#@, Billy.
#$%^*&^%$&*………” Instead, come speak directly to me in plain words: “Please put
your book in your desk, Billy. It’s time to go to lunch.” This tells me what you want me to
do and what is going to happen next. Now it is much easier for me to comply.

I am a concrete thinker. This means I interpret language very literally. It’s very
confusing for me when you say, “Hold your horses, cowboy!” when what you really
mean is “Please stop running.” Don’t tell me something is a “piece of cake” when there is
no dessert in sight and what you really mean is “this will be easy for you to do.” When
you say “Jamie really burned up the track,” I see a kid playing with matches. Please just
tell me “Jamie ran very fast.” Idioms, puns, nuances, double entendres, inference,
metaphors, allusions and sarcasm are lost on me.

Please be patient with my limited vocabulary. It’s hard for me to tell you what I need
when I don’t know the words to describe my feelings. I may be hungry, frustrated,
frightened or confused but right now those words are beyond my ability to express. Be
alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation or other signs that something is wrong. Or,
there’s a flip side to this: I may sound like a “little professor” or movie star, rattling off
words or whole scripts well beyond my developmental age. These are messages I have
memorized from the world around me to compensate for my language deficits because I
know I am expected to respond when spoken to. They may come from books, TV, the
speech of other people. It is called “echolalia.” I don’t necessarily understand the context
or the terminology I’m using. I just know that it gets me off the hook for coming up with a

Because language is so difficult for me, I am very visually oriented. Please show m
how to do something rather than just tell me. And please be prepared to show me
many times. Lots of consistent repetition helps me learn. A visual schedule is extre
helpful as I move through my day. Like your day-timer, it relieves me of the stress of
having to remember what comes next, makes for smooth transition between activities,
and helps me manage my time and meet your expectations. I won’t lose the need for a
visual schedule as I get older, but my “level of representation” may change. Before I can
read, I need a visual schedule with photographs or simple drawings. As I get older, a
combination of words and pictures may work, and later still, just words

Please focus and build on what I can do rather than what I can’t do. Like any other
human, I can’t learn in an environment where I’m constantly made to feel that I’m not good enough and that I need “fixing.” Trying anything new when I am almost sure to
be met with criticism, however “constructive,” becomes something to be avoided. Look
for my strengths and you will find them. There is more than one “right” way to do most

Please help me with social interactions. It may look like I don’t want to play with the
other kids on the playground, but sometimes it’s just that I simply do not know how
to start a conversation or enter a play situation. If you can encourage other children to
invite me to join them at kickball or shooting baskets, it may be that I’m delighted to be
included. I do best in structured play activities that have a clear beginning and end. I
don’t know how to “read” facial expressions, body language or the emotions of others, so
I appreciate ongoing coaching in proper social responses. For example, if I laugh when
Emily falls off the slide, it’s not that I think it’s funny. It’s that I don’t know the proper
response. Teach me to say “Are you OK?”

Try to identify what triggers my meltdowns. Meltdowns, blow-ups, tantrums, or
whatever you want to call them, are even more horrid for me than they are for you.
They occur because one or more of my senses has gone into overload. If you can figure
out why my meltdowns occur, they can be prevented. Keep a log, noting times, settings,
people, activities. A pattern may emerge. Try to remember that all behavior is a form of
communication. It tells you, when my words cannot, how I perceive something that is
happening in my environment. Parents, keep in mind as well: persistent behavior may
have an underlying medical cause. Food allergies and sensitivities, sleep disorders, and
gastrointestinal problems can all have profound effects on behavior.

Love me unconditionally. Banish thoughts like, “If he would just……” and “Why can’t
she…..” You did not fulfill every last expectation your parents had for you and you
wouldn’t like being constantly reminded of it. I did not choose to have autism. But
remember that it is happening to me, not you. Without your support, my chances of
successful, self-reliant adulthood are slim. With your support and guidance, the
possibilities are broader than you might think. I promise you – I am worth it.

And finally, three words: Patience. Patience. Patience. Work to view my autism as a
different ability rather than a disability. Look past what you may see as limitations and
see the gifts autism has given me. It may be true that I’m not good at eye contact or
conversation, but have you noticed that I don’t lie, cheat at games, tattle on my
classmates or pass judgment on other people? Also true that I probably won’t be the
next Michael Jordan. But with my attention to fine detail and capacity for extraordinary
focus, I might be the next Einstein. Or Mozart. Or Van Gogh. They had autism too. The
answer to Alzheimer’s, the enigma of extraterrestrial life — what future achievements
from today’s children with autism, children like me, lie ahead? All that I might become
won’t happen without you as my foundation. Be my advocate, be my friend, and we’ll
see just how far I can go.
©2005 Ellen Notbohm

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