Autistic or Artistic?

When I left my previous job with an after-school program, I told the children under my supervision I was leaving to work with autistic children. One of the kids raised his hand and said, “I’m artistic” and proceeded to show me a picture he had drawn. It was then I realized just how difficult it is for people, especially children, to understand what it means to be autistic. In fact, before I knew better, the first thing that came to my mind when someone mentioned the word autistic was the movie, Rain Man.

Autism manifests itself in many different ways, and I had much to learn. Have you ever been in a store wondering why a mother could not stop her child from screaming? Or why an overly antsy child in a theater simply couldn’t settle into his or her seat to enjoy the movie? In either case, as I have come to understand, the child may have been autistic. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of a savant in the aforementioned movie barely scratched the surface of the complex world of autism.

One thing I quickly learned in my new career is that being presumptuous about an autistic person’s exhibited behavior is the wrong approach. For example, screaming and anxiety, which are sometimes referred to as “ticks,” may come from frustration, or they may be an autistic child’s way of expressing self-gratification.

If you have ever awakened from a scary dream trying to scream but were incapable of uttering a sound, you’ve experienced a frustration similar to that which autistic individuals feel every day. The world of autism is mysterious to many because it encompasses such a broad range of symptoms, including a complete inability to speak, a partial inability to speak or, in some cases, the ability to speak just like everyone else.

I have been working with autistic children, many of whom have varying levels of speech difficulties. When an autistic patient’s capacity to speak is impaired, I liken it to talking with a 3-year-old child; some words can be understood, while others you recognize simply because you’ve heard them repeated so many times. Oftentimes, though, a patient is trying to communicate something I just cannot grasp, and I can see the frustration on his or her face when they recognize their futility in explaining it to me.

Many people think autistic people are cognitively impaired, but this is not necessarily true. Working with autistic children has taught me how intelligent they can be and how they can be taught and educated if correct methods of treatment are used. In fact, many autistic people grow up to enjoy satisfying lives and successful careers. For example, Temple Grandin, who is autistic, has a Ph.D. and has authored several books, including Thinking in Pictures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. When she was younger, she could not even talk. With the help of her mother and her dedicated teachers, she was able to achieve great accomplishments.

From my work with autistic children and my enlightenment, courtesy of Ms. Grandin’s work, I have learned an important life lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover. The person sitting next to you at a restaurant or standing behind you at the grocery store could well be autistic, even though they look just like you and me. Perhaps she has an interesting job. Maybe he’s an accomplished musician. The point is, labels do little to accurately define the person living beneath the surface. We need to dig deeper. We need to empathize. We need to understand that autism is complex and far more prevalent than most people realize.

This post was written by MSW@USC student Amy Sager, a single mother who lives with her son in Wisconsin. Amy volunteers with the victim impact program at her local prison, and is looking forward to finishing her MSW and embarking on her future career in social work.