The end of my seventh grade year was accompanied by another celebration: an addition to my family. In October 2018, my little brother Mayne was born. I held his hand during all of his milestones, from the eruption of his first tooth to taking his first steps. I found happiness in witnessing his growth and development, until it slowly started to regress.
At age two, Mayne’s babbles did not develop into words, and in social settings he often played individually rather than interacting with others. In January 2021, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Since my brother’s diagnosis, I have been dedicated to better understanding his disability. Watching his growth in renewing eye contact, verbalizing his needs, and exercising fine motor skills has helped me gain compassion and form a deeper understanding of the scope of cognitive disabilities. This past summer, I interned at the Atlanta Autism Center, shadowing and interviewing Board Certified Behavioral Analysts (BCBA) Mariah Avery and Jose Reyes. BCBAs study behavior, designing customized applied behavioral analysis (ABA) programs to address individual developmental needs. Through observing their work, I gathered a deeper understanding of the detriment of preconceived notions in the social perception of neurodivergent disorders.
The National Institute of Mental Health characterizes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a neurodevelopmental disorder, with symptoms often presenting themselves within the first two years of life. ASD, one of the most common developmental disabilities, affects one’s ability to interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterizes ASD by difficulties in communication, repetitive behaviors, and symptoms which may impact one’s daily functioning. Autism Spectrum Disorder is referred to as a spectrum due to the varieties in types and severities of an individual’s symptoms. Through my internship and my younger brother, I have met a number of individuals with ASD. From meeting people using speech generating devices to bilingual students with minor speech impairments, I have observed the diversity in the autism spectrum. Autism’s color wheel is intricate, with a plethora of shades and tones of communicative, social, and physical abilities.
BCBA Mariah Avery states, “Many people believe that autism spectrum disorder affects intellect, that’s not the case.” Although autism may require assistance in harnessing specific functions/skill sets, it may not be severely limiting, and oftentimes equips individuals with unique strengths and abilities. The National Library of Medicine characterizes autism as a “disorder of high intelligence.” Genetic pairings within autism overlap with alleles for high intelligence. Although autism etiology often encompasses enhanced, but imbalanced aspects of intelligence, features of larger brain size, faster brain growth, increased sensory and visual-spatial abilities, synaptic function, and attentional focus, align with components of high intelligence quotients (IQ).
Math prodigy Jake Barnett’s profound achievement in college math and science courses at age eight, and art phenomenon Stephen Wiltsire’s detailed and lifelike cityscapes from brief observation and memory attest to the admirable intellectual abilities of individuals on the spectrum.
BCBA Jose Reyes outlines the danger of distancing from difference, discussing the damaging misconception of individuals on the spectrum not desiring human contact. “This world is made for a standard,” Mr.Reyes stated. “The problem is that not everyone fits into this mold.”
For individuals with autism, this may appear in the form of sensory issues, or behaviors that may not fit into traditional societal expectations. The communication and social struggles of individuals on the autism spectrum serve as a barrier to the ease of these interactions, not a barrier to the desire for social interaction. Autism Speaks Organization establishes that while individuals on the autism spectrum may need help in developing socialization skills and navigating social interactions, nonetheless, these individuals desire to interact with peers and those around them.
Acceptance, tolerance, and love are key steps in rebuilding social perceptions of ASD. Solidifying an accurate understanding of autism eliminates dangerous preconceived notions. Ms. Avery asserts, “Autism spectrum disorder is a state, not a disease.”
Labeling and using appropriate terminology is also crucial. Referring an individual with ASD as a “person with autism,” as opposed to “autistic” reflects respect and understanding. Being understanding and accommodating to others’ needs can aid the ease of social interactions for individuals with ASD. Moreover, refraining from displaying physical representations of surprise while interacting with individuals with autism can increase comfort and communicate acceptance.
I find remarkable hope and excitement in following my brother’s journey. His diagnosis does not define him, but solely is a contributing factor to his overall character and being. Differences are crucial and beautiful parts of diversity and humanity. Integrating individuals with special needs into our social networks are valuable steps to establish feelings of love and acceptance.
Avery suggests that, “As a community, we need to work on involving individuals with ASD more into our social sphere.”
From inviting a student to sit at the lunch table, to sending an invitation to an upcoming birthday party, inclusion and appreciation of those with differences can help eliminate the stigmatization of neurodivergence.