I had the good fortune and privilege of addressing the 11th and 12th graders of Lilavatibai Podar Senior Secondary School, last week.
Over the years, I’ve presented workshops and orientations to several groups of people- parents, professionals and teachers.
This was my first opportunity to present to students, thanks to Ankita Pritamani (alumnus of Podar International School).
I gladly took it up.
Apprehension engulfed me, initially.
Questions such as, ‘Will they be interested?’ ‘How much do they know about autism?’ ‘How should I make it more interactive?’ dominated my thoughts.
I needn’t have worried. They were a wonderfully, interactive audience.
Their fresh perspective and curiosity enhanced the presentation.
What a fulfilling experience it was!
I shared 10 things with them. And I’d like to share them with you today.
1. Every person with autism is unique
A few students shared about their interaction with autistic individuals.
Each person they described was different from the other.
Some were vocal and others not. Some wanted to be with others, while others were happy to be left alone.
I showed several videos – and each of my students was different too.
While there are a few common features that autistic individuals share (to qualify for the diagnosis of autism), each of them is unique.
They should be respected for this uniqueness.
If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
– Dr Stephen Shore
Lesson: Respect their uniqueness.
2. Many individuals have a special interest
Not all, but many autistic individuals have a special interest.
Their ‘different brain wiring’ leads to deep focus and interest in specific areas.
Music, art, craft, math, memory, sports could be some areas of expertise.
Mohit is an artist. It’s amazing to see him involved in the painting process.
One of my students has in depth knowledge about airplanes.
He knows every single fleet. He also knows which aircraft is on the verge of being scrapped and discontinued. going to be scrapped and discontinued.
Most individuals are blessed with unique qualities such as being loving and compassionate, giving unconditional love and acceptance.
Lesson: Get to know about their special interest or quality
3. They experience sensory sensitivity
Many individuals experience sensory sensitivity.
You may see them cover their ears when sounds bother them.
They could also be sensitive to touch. I know students who can’t stand the label on the inside of their clothes. So their parents cut these labels off.
Others hate to touch gooey stuff.
They’re also sensitive to loud and crowded places.
You and I would be unable to tolerate living with overwhelming sounds and sights.
Kudos to these amazing folks! They live with these sensitivities.
Lesson: Be respectful about their sensitivities.
4. Autism is not the same as intellectual disability
Even if an autistic individual doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand.
We talk about intelligence based on IQ tests. But IQ tests are limited in their application.
There are multiple forms of intelligence.
The 12th graders had just studied about Dr Howard Gardner from Harvard University, who developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983.
It suggests that the traditional notion of intelligence, based on IQ testing is far too limiting.
The students were excited about the ramifications of this theory.
Lesson: If our IQ measurements are modified, current IQ scores will be passé.
5. Early intervention is the key
The sooner we start working with children on the spectrum, the better it is.
Autism is not something to be ashamed of. It is the way a person is.
Having an autistic individual in the classroom is not just a learning experience for the child. It’s a learning experience for every student and teacher present in the classroom.
Lesson: Autistic individuals have several gifts to offer. Start early!
6. A result of the combination of genetic and environmental factors
The rates of autism have sky rocketed from 1 in 10000 (in 1990) to 1 in 68 (in 2018)
Some studies cite even higher numbers.
The students were very curious to know what is responsible for this extreme rise.
Yes, it is genetics coupled with environmental changes.
A person with a highly sensitive immune system would definitely be affected by today’s environment.
Bio medical doctors vouch for this.
Lesson: Any one can be affected by autism. It’s not related to bad parenting
7. Patience is the key in interacting with autistic individuals
In this fast paced world, everyone clamors to get somewhere and be somebody.
Autistic individuals with their calmness and contentment, force us to be present in the now.
They may take time to answer your question. Give them some time. That’s all they ask for.
I recently observed a 12 year old autistic individual at the hair salon I visit.
The girls working there were extremely patient with him. They spoke slowly, repeated a question if necessary and involved him in running errands.
It was a highly unlikely, yet accepting environment.
I was touched by the respect the youngster was afforded.
Lesson: Give them time to respond. You will start viewing them differently.
8. People with autism can go on to achieve great things
Have you heard of the following?
Temple Grandin- Professor and Author
Steven Shore- Speaker, Author and Advocate
Kim Miller – Artist
Jason McElwain- basketball player
Matt Savage- Jazz Musician
Derek Parvicini- Musician
And please don’t forget to watch this video of Jason McElwain (basket ball player)
Lesson: Need I say anything else?
9. Identify the triggers that lead to meltdowns
Autistic individuals may experience meltdowns at school.
No, they’re not badly behaved or trying to attract attention.
There are reasons for this.
Amongst many reasons, they could be experiencing a sensory overload or be frustrated by the inability to communicate.
Their trigger points need to be addressed. This will help in alleviating meltdowns.
Lesson: Figure out the reason for the meltdown instead of punishing the behavior.
10. Acceptance and unconditional love is what they desire
Just like each one of us.
We all feel the need for acceptance and love.
Lack of these in the school setting can have disastrous effects.
I knew a student on the spectrum, who had recurring nightmares of being chased by his classmates into a bathroom.
He would wake up to images of his classmates trying to break down the bathroom door to get at him.
In this world where mental health issues such as anxiety and depression abound, we need to be respectful and understanding of those who are differently abled.
Lesson: You have a choice. Choose to befriend those who are different.
They are different, not less.
The choice is eventually yours.
What are you going to do?
I believe in the youth too. I believe they can make a difference.
I believe they are the transformative force in our society.
I will continue to spend time every month to spread this message to students at various schools and colleges.
Will you help me spread this message?
If yes, then send this article to a young friend.
Make a difference. Today. Now.