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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Ways to be autism aware

By Alice Hammel and Ryan Hourigan

(1) Be aware that people with autism can usually understand more than they can express.

Autism doesn’t change the fact that everyone understands more than they can express. When we learn a new language, we can understand what someone is saying long before we can create sentences that demonstrate the depth of our knowledge. Babies can understand a great deal of language before they begin to speak their first words.

People with autism often communicate differently to express what they know and want to share. Some will write thoughts on paper, or draw a picture demonstrating intent. They may use sign language, or a stack of picture cards to convey wants and needs. Many people with autism use shorter sentences with simplified language. This does not mean they are not thinking and comprehending full sentences with higher-level vocabulary. Being willing to communicate in a different way will allow you to be aware that communication comes in many forms. Autism Community provides resources and strategies to assist with communication and children with autism.

(2) Be aware that people with autism can be sensitive.

We learn our senses in first or second grade and can name ‘the five senses’ as tasting, touching, hearing, smelling, and seeing. In addition, we have two other senses that can let us know whether we are upside down or right side up and whether we are being squeezed or free to move. Almost all persons with autism have sensitivities that include one or more of these seven areas. In fact, most people in general have sensitivities in these areas as well. The difference is in the severity of the sensitivities. Some people with autism are hypersensitive to some of these areas and some are hyposensitive to some areas. Every person with autism is different; in fact, every person is different (whether they have autism or not)!

When near someone with autism, pay close attention to the way she reacts to sounds and lights, or how close she wants to stand to others. An awareness of these sensitivities can make a big difference in the way a person with autism engages in social events and activities. The Sensory World of Autism shows the sensory perspective of children with autism spectrum disorder that also struggle with sensory challenges.

(3) Be aware that people with autism think differently.

Someone who has autism often thinks differently. Different is not better or less than — it is just different. Someone with autism may need a longer period of time to process a question or statement. It is also common for a person with autism to think visually (or in pictures) and to be able to express thoughts easier using visual cues or images. An awareness of cognitive differences can go a long way toward being aware of the individual personhood of those with autism.

(4) Be aware that people with autism probably have a specific interest or topic that may help with communication.

Many of us have a specific area of interest that we enjoy discussing. Persons with autism often have an area of interest as well. It can be difficult for someone with autism to stop talking about or communicating this interest; therefore, it can be a great way to get to know someone by asking about this topic.

This awareness can be a terrific ‘ice breaker’ or a way to deepen a relationship with someone who has autism. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University offers unique strategies for parents and teachers in regarding to teaching and motivating children with autism.

(5) Be aware that people with autism tend to focus on the trees rather than the forest.

It can be difficult for someone with autism to think critically without focusing on minute details. If the discussion is about clothing, it may be necessary for the person with autism to discuss the stitching style used by the designer or seamstress. This often leads to the area of interest a person with autism may have, and is part of the cognitive patterning unique, yet familiar, to him. Be aware that the repetition or consistent use of minutiae rather than broad thinking is part of cognitive processing for a person with autism.

(6) Be aware that a child (or adult) with autism may be having a moment in public that seems confusing to you.

Because of sensory, cognitive, communication, and social differences, people with autism (and/or their family members) may sometimes have moments in public that can appear to be very different than they are. Because some people do not understand the differences and challenges that surround a family living with autism, they sometimes offer comments they feel may be helpful, or worse, judging glances and verbal recriminations to a family already in the middle of a negative moment or meltdown.

Being aware of the frustrations and challenges inherent within a family, and remembering to walk a mile in their shoes before coming to a conclusion, can be an excellent start in developing an awareness of autism. Moreover, what family doesn’t have its moments?

(7) Be aware that people with autism may need help with social circumstances.

Social situations can be beyond awkward for someone who has autism. The combination of sensitivities, communication differences, and expectations others have can be overwhelming. Having a friend to help guide a person with autism through the event, or a set of cards with conversation starters, etc. can be very helpful.

Be aware of the possible confusion and uncomfortable feelings someone with autism can have when placed in a social situation. Planning ahead with the needs of the person in mind can lead to a successful and less stressful social encounter. Social stories can be used to help facilitate positive, appropriate social skills.

(8) Be aware that a family that includes a person with autism may be tired and stressed.

It can be exhausting to be part of a family that includes one or more persons with autism. The daily challenges can mount and become overwhelming. Knowing that families who have members with autism (or other challenges) are often under a great deal of stress is a first step toward an empathic view. Families may honestly be too tired to set up play dates, go out to eat, or meet at the park, because the planning and implementation of these seemingly ordinary events can be overshadowed by the demands of daily life (cognition, communication, sensitivities, social challenges).

Awareness of and compassion for the needs of a family is sometimes demonstrated by planning events that take the needs of the entire family into consideration, or even, letting a family ‘off the hook’ knowing they may be exhausted from the demands of their daily lives. Support groups such as the Autism Society of America and Autism Speaks can help families connect with other families to share their stories and obtain services.

(9) Be aware that a child with autism may have siblings that get less attention than they do.

Siblings of those with autism may sometimes feel ignored or set aside because the needs of a brother or sister with autism overshadow the needs of the sibling at times. Developing an awareness of the specific feelings a sibling may have, and responding to that sibling in a way that conveys understanding can make a big difference in the life of that child or adult. Sibshops is a national organization that assists and provides programming for siblings of children with disabilities.

(10) Be aware that a person with autism is a person and not a label.

Autism is a label. Cans, cars, clothing, and technology have labels. People are not labels. A person with autism is a person. Be aware at all times that labels define and limit — real understanding comes with knowing the individual and responding to her needs.

Alice M. Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan are the authors of Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach and the forthcoming Teaching Music to Students with Autism. Alice Hammel teaches for James Madison and Virginia Commonwealth Universities, and has years of experience teaching instrumental and choral music. Ryan Hourigan is Assistant Professor of Music Education at Ball State University and a recipient of the Outstanding University Music Educator Award from the Indiana Music Educators Association. The companion website to Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs provides more resources.

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Image credit: (1) via iStockphoto. (2) Having fun in a music class. Photo by SolStock, iStockphoto.

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