I used to frequent meetings and seminars in large rooms full of people eager to share about their parental challenges. We went around the room and shared our names, marriage status, how many children, and the diagnosis for the reason we were present. Because these were mostly trainings related to autism, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) was the general diagnosis. However, I was surprised at the long laundry list of diagnoses that were rattled off as though the more labels, the better. ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder),etc. Almost my turn. I listened to the mom sitting next to me.
“My name is Pam. I have four children. My third child has autism, ADHD, OCD, ADD, ODD, PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified)…”
I’m sure my eyes crossed in bewilderment as I listened to her list her son’s struggles. Wait a minute…PDD-NOS is on the spectrum. That’s like saying, “My child has autism spectrum disorder and autism.”
My turn. “Hi, I’m Becky. My husband and I have two boys. Both have classic regressive autism.”
“And that’s it.”
People stared. I heard someone behind me whisper, “You’re so lucky.”
It wasn’t until a few years later I learned that some parents cling to labels as though more challenges would win some popularity contest. I’m not going to get into this. I want to address how individuals on the autism spectrum can be so diverse in mannerisms, skills, behavior, talent, and even struggles.
Some disorders, like Attention Deficit Hyper-active Disorder, are often caused by chemical imbalances that can be treated with medication. Individuals with ASD can have chemical imbalances and need medication, just like anyone else. Often autism may exhibit behaviors that reflect ADHD or chemically related disorders, but autism does not stem from a chemical imbalance.
Our central nervous system gives us information about ourselves and our environment that helps interpret and navigate our world. For example, when you stub your toe on the coffee table, the nerves in your toe send an instant message to your brain saying, “Injury. Needs attention.” The brain then responds with messages sent many places including the sensory cortex, where pain is interpreted. When the nervous system works in a disorganized fashion, sometimes the ability to process pain, or other sensations, becomes distorted. In this case, the result can look like the individual may be either hyper- or hypo-sensitive to pain.
Another example is the vestibular sensory part of our system provides our sense of balance and information about our space in relation to objects around us. When this system is not working the way it’s supposed to, it can look to an onlooker, like clumsiness. The individual may have a difficult time figuring out how much space is between him and the coffee table and ends up bumping into it. It’s not that he can’t see it, he just cannot navigate the spatial distance between himself and the table. On the other hand, individuals who have a exceptional vestibular awareness have excellent balance and may not think twice about scaling an apparatus that most people would, at the very least, hesitate.
The proprioceptive sensory system is what gives us information pertaining to where we are in space. If someone told you to point to your nose, you could probably do it without any trouble. People who struggle in this area, tend to crave more sensory input, like deep pressure. Some individuals bang their heads, bite themselves, or pinch. This behavior is not meant to be attention-seeking or destructive. It actually feels good because it provides a sense of physical self-awareness.
The central nervous system is amazingly intricate by design and function. If any part of the CNS, is organized differently than “normal,” it greatly affects the way that individual experiences life. Because our CNS has such a significant impact on daily living, depending on what part is “disorganized” or different than the norm, behaviors can manifest in ways that look much like other diagnoses that are chemically caused. At this point, as far we know, autism has nothing to do with the chemicals in the brain. It’s simply the way an individual’s CNS works and how his/her brain is “wired.”
There is no medication to be taken in order to “correct” or “fix” autism. Autism is purely neurological. It’s the way a person thinks, sees, understands, reacts and responds to his or her world on a daily basis. What can we do? We can come alongside and learn the world they live in. Although we may not be able to understand by experience, we can still learn. That’s what we do with friends. We have different life experiences, but we share them. We learn sensitivities, likes, dislikes, strengths, and struggles. We learn to walk together with our differences and similarities. Some of us are very articulate in our speech. Others communicate well with pictures. Those who are hearing impaired are skilled in the language of ASL. Some people are talented in areas like math and science (that would not be me! Help!!!) Others are extremely artistic and talented with paint, pencil, acrylics, pottery, sculpting…the list goes on. .
Autism Spectrum Disorder defines itself. Just like the spectrum of color in a rainbow, autism has its own spectrum. Individuals with autism do not have brain damage. Their perspectives and approaches to thinking are different than that of someone not on the spectrum. We need people like this in our lives, in our communities, in our world. We learn from each other as we help each other doing life together.
* Names and characters in this post are completely fictional