Autism. Teaching Us Joy?
by Kathy Harris
The tinkling of angelic-like laughter floated into my office. I stopped working, leaned back in my chair, and smiled. My coworker’s eighteen-year-old autistic daughter, Karis, who was spending the week at the office with her mom, had touched a special place in my heart. Actually, she had captured the hearts of everyone in our office.
But I had the catbird seat.
The desk where Karis worked, drawing colorful pictures of sea creatures, was positioned right around the corner from my office door, and the young woman’s proximity gave me unique access to her many outbursts of spontaneous laugher. Laughter that could only be described as pure joy.
According to Karis’ mom, her outbursts were triggered by an unknown cause. Because Karis doesn’t have the communication skills to explain them, we can only speculate about their origin. Perhaps an old memory, a story she was composing in her head, or just her love for life brought joy to her everyday circumstances.
And there was no doubt those moments were real. They were also infectious. I found myself transported closer to heaven every time I heard Karis’ lighthearted giggles.
I also wondered why life for the rest of us wasn’t that simple. Why can’t we all focus more on the joy of each task—for Karis that was drawing, coloring, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle—instead of worrying about unimportant things that crowd our minds? Of course, Karis had her meltdowns. Meltdowns are almost inevitable for the autistic. But, afterwards, she would move on, content once again to dwell in her own special place of joy.
Karis is one of approximately 3.5 million (1 in 59) children in the United States who has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Because there is no real medical detection, although a new eye scan is showing promising results based on a recent study, diagnosing autism can be difficult. Doctors must look at a child’s behavior and development when making a diagnosis.
The definitive diagnostic criteria for ASD are established by the American Psychiatric Association, which publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The manual’s fifth edition (DSM-5) was released seven years ago. But behavioral scientists—and the parents of autistic children, who are on the frontlines—continue to gain insight about ASD and the best ways to create safe and supportive environments for those affected by it.
In fact, we’re all learning about ASD as we’re given more and more opportunities to witness the incredible capabilities, both intellectual and creative, of those on the spectrum. Last year, a blind and autistic young man by the name of Kodi Lee stole the hearts of millions of Americans when he appeared on America’s Got Talent. And one of our nation’s most famous autistic minds, Temple Grandin, was the subject of an HBO movie, starring Claire Danes. In a 2010 TED Talk, Grandin, who is a successful designer, author, and lecturer, conjectured that “Einstein and Mozart and Tesla would all be probably diagnosed as autistic spectrum today.”
Of course, there are no two cases of ASD that are alike. Each autistic child is different, with his or her own unique set of challenges and abilities. However, there are also many commonalities and statistical realities.
- Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
- Children born to older parents are at a higher risk for autism.
- The chance of having a second autistic child is much higher for parents who already have a child on the spectrum.
- Autism may be diagnosed as early as eighteen months, although most children are diagnosed at about four years old.
- There are three diagnostic levels of autism, each requiring differing levels of support.
- It has been shown that early intervention improves outcome.
- Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and research tells us that genetics are involved in the vast majority of cases.
- An estimated one-third of people with autism are nonverbal.
- Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, two decades of extensive research have shown that vaccines do not cause autism.
- Applied behavior analysis (ABA) and therapies based on its principles are the most researched and commonly used behavioral interventions for autism. Studies show that children who receive early, intensive ABA therapy can make big and lasting gains.
- Many autistic children also benefit from other interventions.
- Social Skills Classes provide them with the opportunity to learn social skills through practice and/or role playing.
- Occupational Therapy can help children improve their abilities to complete everyday tasks.
- Speech Therapy helps with speaking, overall communication, and social skills.
- Therapeutic Horseback Riding or hippotherapy can help children improve their social and communication skills, while reducing irritability and hyperactivity and growing their self-confidence.
- Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which teaches children to communicate using picture cards, is useful for those who are speech and hearing challenged.
April is National Autism Awareness Month, and we all have much to learn from Karis and the millions of others in our country who live on the spectrum. I’d like to challenge you to learn more about them—and to discover how your life has and can be enriched by them. Did you know that actor Dan Aykroyd, actress Daryl Hannah, popular singer Susan Boyle, and Alexis Wineman, who became the first Miss America contestant with autism, have all been diagnosed with ASD? It’s also conjectured that Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson, among many others, would be included on that list using today’s diagnostic tools.
Temple Grandin makes the case that “the world needs all kinds of minds, including those who live on the spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids.”
They have so much to offer us. The most important, perhaps, being joy.
Kathy Harris is a Nashville entertainment industry marketing director and a contributor to several Christian anthologies. Her novel, Deadly Commitment, released in October from New Hope Publishers. Learn more about Kathy at https://www.kathyharrisbooks.com.
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