April is Autism Acceptance Month. Many times, people focus on the “problems” with autistic people. Some examples are not making eye contact, sensory overload and repetitive behavior patterns. Instead of focusing on the struggles of autistic people, let’s celebrate their strengths. Let’s tap into the power of autistic minds.
Passion is Power
Let’s start with “repetitive behavior patterns.” They often take the form of a special interest. A special interest is something that an autistic person has an intense passion for. This passion could be airplanes, a certain Disney character, prehistoric life, you name it.
Special interests are often unfairly dismissed as “obsessive” or “childish.” However, this intense passion can be put to good use. If they’re passionate about airplanes, they could work in an air and space museum, a pilot, or an aircraft mechanic. Say their special interest is a Disney character, they could do an academic project about the character’s development through history or cheer up sick children by doing their best impression. Or, if they’re into prehistoric life, they can excel in science classes or become a paleontologist.
While special interests can seem like a hindrance to socializing and success, they can actually help in certain settings. They can join a club, get in an online group with people who have similar passions, or take an apprenticeship or internship that relates to their special interest.
Accommodating Eye Contact
Eye contact is an often-cited challenge for autistic people. Often, not making eye contact is viewed as dishonesty or guilt. If an authority – such as a parent, teacher, or police officer – is involved, it can lead to dangerous misunderstandings.
For autistic people, the reasons for not making eye contact are rarely about lying. It’s hard to pay attention to what someone is saying, remember this trivial social skill, and process the conversation all at the same time. Alternately, that particular topic could be uncomfortable and they don’t want to face it. In other cases, it could be a trauma response.
However, in some cultures, not making eye contact is a sign of respect. This can tie into a special interest, and used to their advantage if they travel the world.
In short, don’t force people to look you in the eye. With that in mind, it’s your job to accommodate for whatever may be going on behind the scenes.
Sometimes the sights, sounds, and smells can be too much for an autistic person. They may also avoid certain textures and tactile sensations. When this happens, it’s known as sensory overload. Their responses could range from a massive headache to refusing to wear certain clothes, or even a melt down.
But this seemingly problematic behavior has its benefits. If they’re sensitive to tastes and food textures, they can be a great chef or taste tester. Heightened hearing and a strong sense of smell can detect disaster before it happens. Liking or disliking certain tactile sensations could help the fashion and beauty industry, whether that’s designing or recommending adaptive clothing, or helping with hair and makeup. Sensitivity to lights can help make better offices and computers.
Your mission for April – and for the rest of the year – is to identify the strengths that come with autism. In addition to the ones in this article, there are other skills autistic people excel at. Attention to detail, recognizing patterns, critical thinking, and finding different solutions are just a few. And each autistic person has a different set of skills that gives them power.
So how can you help on a personal level? Compliment an autistic person on how much they know about their special interest; they can teach you something. Be understanding about eye contact; they might become your friend. Thank them for their “super senses;” they may have saved you by spotting a hazard.
In conclusion, keep this in mind. Just because someone says an autistic person isn’t good at something often means they’ll get good at one thing. That one thing stems from their indomitable spirit – proving their naysayers wrong. And that is possibly the greatest power of all.
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