Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Look at Autism Awareness from William Stillman


Last night, while watching television, I saw an ad for autism awareness. April 2 has been named National Autism Awareness Day, and the entire month of April is designated as National Autism Awareness Month. But as I’m watching, the commercial seemed rather vague and ambiguous in its message—just who is it that requires “awareness” and is there something being overlooked here?

My best guess is that the advertisement is a pitch for donations to fund “research” in order to “get answers” as the ad suggested. But who determines what needs to be answered? Autism cannot be predicted when a fetus is in-utero, so the answers being sought must have to do with studying those with autism who are already here. I don’t disparage clinical research; in fact, I condone it. After all, knowledge is power. But before we so hastily effort a magic bullet to eradicate autism perhaps we should alter our focus in the spirit of temperament and balance. My personal interest is not what causes autism but, rather, what autism causes.

I have written a trilogy of books about aspects of many individuals with autism that could be defined as extraordinary. This series includes Autism and the God Connection, The Soul of Autism and The Autism Prophecies. No, I’m not speaking of “Rain Man”-like savants who can calculate complicated statistics as naturally as someone breathes. I’m talking about extraordinary on a whole other level. Where autism is concerned, unlimited possibilities await us if we can see the glass as half full instead of half empty.

I’m all for supporting the child with autism to feel safe and comfortable, and to be better able to adapt and cope with the unforgiving and oftentimes noisy and abrasive world in which we live. But, as a person on the autism spectrum myself, I don’t want anyone to obliterate my exquisite sensitivities in the name of normalization. In its way, autism compels us to wake up and pay attention by virtue of the extreme reaction all autistics have to sensory-assaultive real world stuff—cars backfiring, fire alarms sounding, vacuums mowing, babies crying, dogs barking, etc. The flip side is that those same reactive sensitivities are also responsible for the ability to access great gifts. From these sensitivities come an altered logic and an enhanced intuition.

When I have a speaking engagement, I always try my best to make myself available at breaks and the lunch hour for the benefit of parents who wish to chat one-on-one with me. It has become pervasive knowledge that I can intuit meaningful information from photographs of individuals with no prior knowledge of their lives; so, when people line up to meet me, they know to hand me a picture of their child. For example, in Albany, New York, last week, a mom handed me her son’s portrait and I “perceived” numbers, mathematics, ships, and airplanes connected to him, which I asked her to explain. She said her son struggles with arithmetic in school and he is a World War II buff; he knows every make and model of all the ships and airplanes used in battle. I seized the opportunity by suggesting she demystify numerical concepts using his passion for WWII ships and airplanes by adding or subtracting their identifying serial numbers, or by visually multiplying picture representations of them. Building upon this theme, there is any number of ways in which his struggles could be transformed into something comprehensible and even fun!

What I haven’t yet shared is that prior to making a presentation, I pray for guidance and direction. And before I look at anyone’s picture of their kid, I take their hand and ask, “Tell me how much you love your son.” You see, I am nothing and no one special. Love is the conductor, and every human being is capable not only of loving but of drawing upon the power of that love to employ it as a resource to others in altruistic, selfless ways. As someone so highly sensitive, I certainly would not want my abilities—not disabilities—to be programmed out of me in the way we’re trying to erase all traces of autistic heritage in those on the spectrum. Compromise and temperance is the key.

Autism awareness? Let’s make it awareness for looking beyond labels and seeing past deceiving exteriors. Let’s make it a commitment to valuing the myriad manners in which we may all unite to be of good and great service to one another.

William Stillman is an award-winning author of 10 autism and special needs parenting books.

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