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Saturday, December 2, 2023


We need to change the way we think about Autism

A puzzle piece, usually representative of autism but controversial amongst autism rights advocates, is crossed out by a large red X

Jose Gonzalez-Campelo/The Cougar

Dealing with the idea of raising a child that’s “different” than their peers can be scary, even heartbreaking. But in many cases, the fear surrounding autism is misplaced, and giving into it can cause serious harm.

Fears of autism don’t just come out of nowhere; parents are pushed to think this way. From characters on “Boy Meets World” acting like their friend’s autism diagnosis is a death sentence to advertisements depicting sobbing parents, the cultural image of autism is not a pretty one.

These images don’t just exist in a vacuum, either. In many ways, a parent’s only experience with what autism is comes from popular culture, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it can contribute to everything from parenting styles to treatment plans for autistic children.

Many parents want to be seen as normal, and they want their children to be perceived the same way. The problem with this core line of thinking is that you have to consider: Who gets to decide what “normal” means?

In most cases, “normality” is defined by non-autistic parents, teachers and physicians. The treatment for children with autism is rarely designed to help the kids adjust to the world around them. Autistic children and adults are often completely left out of these discussions.

And as anyone who has been through the American public school system can tell you, one size does not fit all. Children with autism, ADHD and other “disorders” frequently need different kinds of support.

Multiple autistic traits, including noise sensitivity, the tendency to “stim”, or repeat body movements and noises, and the potential for overstimulation can make sitting quietly in a classroom an immense challenge.

Imagine if there was constantly someone sitting directly behind you in class continuously poking you or making annoying noises in your ear. It would be nearly impossible to focus, and if they refused to stop you might be tempted to snap at them or tell them to knock it off.

Now imagine if no one else could see that person, and whenever you tried to stop them from poking you, your teacher got angry with you instead.

While this is a deeply oversimplified example, many autistic children have reported feeling similarly punished for trying to stop overstimulation. Some struggle with how clothing feels on them, while others are particularly perceptive and can hear electricity buzzing when others can’t.

This level of stimulation can be hard to explain, and when it becomes too much, meltdowns are likely to occur. But instead of taking measures to understand their child, many parents rush to a doctor, convinced that something is wrong with them.

At this point, a lot of autistic children are then placed in behavioral therapy clinics where they receive Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. ABA therapy is meant to help autistic children learn life skills and do schoolwork in a less stressful environment.

For many children, especially autistic kids that need more support, ABA can be a godsend. Having dedicated clinical staff working with children on a regular basis can help kids in a way that overstaffed school systems might be unable to.

But for some kids, ABA therapy is nothing less than a nightmare. Using methods as intense as electroshock therapy and repetitive punishment, clinicians aim to reduce “incorrect” behaviors in favor of “correct” ones.

While these extreme methods arguably work, the cost on clients’ mental health can be high. Children who have undergone this treatment might fidget less or make smaller amounts of noise, but their odds of suffering from PTSD are immensely increased.

Even more “mild” forms of ABA therapy still have issues at their core. For many kids that need more support, dedicated staff can teach them how to tie their shoes or develop language skills. But for some kids, they’re essentially tortured into conformity no matter how high the cost.

Advocates of this kind of therapy might say that if these behaviors aren’t trained out of children, they’ll never make it in the “real world”. But what if we could imagine the “real world” itself to be better?

Think about it. Whether autistic or not, everyone needs some kind of support at one point or another. Odds are good that all kinds of workplaces could benefit from available headphones for overstimulated employees or an option to take more breaks as needed.

At their core, autistic people deserve to be treated as people. They’re not special snowflakes who need to be handled extra carefully, but they’re also not animals who need to be trained into compliance.

They’re doing their best to make it in this world just like anyone else, and they deserve the support necessary to achieve their goals. So rather than asking “how can we fix that person?” maybe it’s time to ask, “How can we support them?”

Malachi Key is a Journalism senior who can be reached at¬†[email protected].

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