Commentary: Understanding Autism, Celebrating our Differences

Commentary%3A+Understanding+Autism%2C+Celebrating+our+Differences

Giuseppe Oliveri, Staff Writer

As kids, we all grow up differently. Along the way, we develop our own strengths and weaknesses. We find out what makes us who we are, and find the qualities about ourselves that make us unique. Those diagnosed with autism possess their own unique qualities and face their own variety of challenges as well.

According to autismspeaks.org, autism is a spectrum disorder that affects every 1 in 54 children, with many different variations. The main challenges those with autism face are social skills; more specifically repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communications. Autism can be caused and affected by both genetic and environmental factors. 

Signs of autism commonly occur in toddlers anywhere from two to three years old; research from autismspeaks.org shows that early intervention can have a positive impact later in life for the individual with autism. Although signs of autism usually occur during the toddler stage, there are still signs we can pick up on as early as six months old. By six months old, babies that could potentially have autism might have no big smiles or show any warm or joyful emotions. They could fail to show any engaging expressions and possibly have a lack of eye contact. By twelve months, there will be little to no babbling, hand gestures from the baby, or any facial expressions such as smiles or excitement. By sixteen months, the baby will have said little to no words; the words that are potentially said will be very simple and generic, such as “mom” or “dad.” By 24 months, there would be no meaningful words or phrases said, but this does not include imitation or repeating something they heard. 

There are five different types of autism on the spectrum: Kanner’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Rett Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and the most common, Asperger’s Syndrome. However, some common traits of a person with autism can be among the following, according to autismspeaks.org:

  • Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
  • Delayed language development
  • Persistent repetition of words or phrases (echolalia)
  • Resistance to minor changes in routine or surroundings
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetitive behaviors (flapping, rocking, spinning, etc.)
  • Unusual and intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Persistent preference for solitude
  • Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling or social skills

Despite many people being diagnosed with autism sharing similar symptoms, they should not be classified to fall under the same umbrella. Individuals with autism still have their own personalities, just like anyone who does not have autism.

Mrs. Danielle D’Aponte, a special education teacher here at Farmingdale High School, made it very clear that no student is identical and they all have their own personalities and are special in their own way. However, that does not go without challenges. Mrs. D’Aponte says each student’s actions and educational progress can vary each day and the biggest issue faced on a challenging day is behavior. Reasons for students acting out can vary; however, the most common trigger for them is when they do not perform well in class. For instance, getting a question wrong in class can be a trigger for some students. According to Mrs. D’Aponte, there is no specific way to make them feel comfortable, the best thing to do is treat them like you would any other student and let them know it is okay to make mistakes. She says that her students with autism will know if they are being treated differently, and this can result in confusion and discomfort. 

Academically, students with autism face their own challenges and successes. Mrs. D’Aponte credits her students for showing vast improvement throughout the year. Students that were struggling with certain subjects early on, make phenomenal progress as the year goes on and that is one of the things teachers are most proud of in their students.

Some students with autism tend to struggle more socially than academically, saying things that come off as socially awkward. Students with autism can have trouble with the social aspect of life; they can often struggle to pick up on people’s social cues. They can also hit certain social walls and have trouble responding to questions they do not understand. Mrs. D’Aponte stressed that it is important to treat students with autism like any other student and give them their own time and let them discover their own ways to cope with their challenges, as well as to help provide them with strategies to deal with daily social struggles.

Here at Farmingdale High School, to help students with autism feel more comfortable by allowing space and time to form relationships with students without autism, Smile Club was launched. Smile Club is meant to help students make better connections with other students, teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers. This program helps everyone feel comfortable and accepted at school. In the Smile Club, everyone can be involved.

My personal experiences helping students with autism feel wanted and accepted, as well as giving them a friend to always count on, has helped me grow as a person as well. From going to wrestling events, to attending movies, to playing hockey and just eating lunch with some of my classmates with autism, helped teach me so much. I’ve been able to see students with autism in a new light. Seeing the joy in their faces and watching them act completely differently in these social situations than I may see them in the hallway at school has given me a better understanding of autism. Just like everyone else, they just appreciate the opportunity to have fun and be themselves.

So back to where we started. It is true that we are all born unique and have to find our own qualities that make us who we are. And no matter what challenges we face, either big or small, it should never stop us from doing everything in our power to make sure we are the best versions of ourselves we can be. The effort we put in to get to know and to be kind to each other, and to accept each other’s unique traits and challenges, goes a very long way, longer than we think.