Autism—Not Normal, Extraordinary
“Look at me!”
“That phrase turned me into an eye-contact coach. I’m the mother of Ivan; he’s 15 years old. Ivan has autism, he doesn’t speak, and he communicates through an iPad, where his whole universe of words exists in images.
He was diagnosed when he was two and a half. I still remember that day painfully. My husband and I felt really lost; we didn’t know where to begin. There was no internet, you couldn’t Google information, so we made those first steps out of sheer intuition.
Ivan would not maintain eye contact, he had lost the words that he did know, and he didn’t respond to his name or to anything we asked him, as if words were noise. The only way I could know what was going on with him, what he felt, was looking him in the eye. But that bridge was broken.
How could I teach him about life? When I did things he liked, he would look at me, and we were connected. So I dedicated myself to working with him on those things, so we would have more and more eye-contact moments. We would spend hours and hours playing tag with his older sister, Alexia, and when we said ‘I caught you!’ he would look around for us, and at that moment, I could feel he was alive.
We also hold a record for hours spent in a swimming pool. Ivan always had a passion for water. I remember when he was two and a half, on a rainy winter day, I was taking him to an indoor pool, because even on rainy days we’d go swimming. We were on the highway, and I took the wrong exit. He burst into tears and cried inconsolably, nonstop, until I turned back. Only then did he calm down.
How was it possible that a two-and-a-half-year-old who didn’t respond to his own name, yet in the middle of the rain and fog, where I couldn’t see anything, he knew the exact route? That’s when I realized that Ivan had an exceptional visual memory, and that that would be my way in,” said Carina Morillo, a mother, speaker, and autism advocate.
Over the years, there has been a rallying cry for support for individuals like Ivan and their autistic extraordinary abilities. “Recent data — and personal experience — suggest that autism can be an advantage in some spheres, including science, says Laurent Mottron, psychiatrist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Université de Montréal.
Autistic extraordinary ability
Autism or autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.
As each star in the sky is different, each individual diagnosed with autism is different.
This diversity still comes with a commonality and strength. Brain image scans of autistics tend to show more activity in the area of visual-processing rather than speech-processing. Dr. Laurent Mottron suggests that this brain function is “associated with superior performance” and can also be an “advantage”:
A growing body of research is showing that autistics outperform neurologically typical children and adults in a wide range of perception tasks, such as spotting a pattern in a distracting environment. Other studies have shown that most autistic people outperform other individuals in auditory tasks (such as discriminating sound pitches), detecting visual structures and mentally manipulating complex three-dimensional shapes. They also do better in Raven’s Matrices, a classic intelligence test in which subjects use analytical skills to complete an ongoing visual pattern. In one of my group’s experiments, autistics completed this test an average of 40% faster than did non-autistics.
For these reasons, researchers like Dr. Mottron no longer believe intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism. Nonetheless, autism can affect communication, motor and social skills that can render the person dependent for life. The person may need help with every day activities even in adulthood.
Where the individual might be on the autism spectrum does not matter when it comes to maximizing the human potential. Persons with autism may look like what we call normal, but they can have autistic extraordinary ability for their intense focus on topic of interest—a common characteristic of those diagnosed with autism. Some individuals need more help than others. Some are able to thrive in highly sophisticated environments, such as in academic science. Others may need an environment that is not-so-challenging.
Maximizing human potential through social work
The world of autism is very complex. Many experts from various disciplines are involved, but social workers tend to be untapped resources. Because of their professional skills, social workers possess assessment skills and can easily be an asset to parents from the beginning, as in Carina Morillo’s case when neither she nor her husband had any idea where to turn for help. Casey and Elswick from the journal of Children and Schools stress that “early diagnosis is essential and opens the doors to receiving needed services, which increases the chances for future success; but, for parents to access needed early intervention services, assessments must be conducted so that the appropriate diagnosis can be made.”
Social workers are highly resourceful because of their training, which allows them to practice in a variety of environments. This training is very beneficial for those diagnosed on the autism spectrum. For example, finding the right job is key for someone with autism. “Too often employers don’t realize what autistics are capable of, and assign them repetitive, almost menial tasks,” write Mottron. This is where social workers can come in. They are able to bridge the gap between the individual with autism and the employer.
When it comes to disabilities such as autism, it is important to have a beginner’s mind whether you are an expert or a parent. No two autisms are the same. It is important to assess strengths and challenges and use those strengths to overcome challenges. Individuals with autism need opportunities and support. Every problem is an opportunity to discover an opportunity.
At Intervention Associates, our care managers are professionally trained social workers who enjoy working with complex cases. They see life’s challenges as an opportunity for the human spirit to shine and fulfill its potential. So, wherever you are on your journey or on the autism spectrum, Intervention Associates can assess, design, advocate and/or provide an intervention to meet your unique needs.