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Autism: More Than a Label

By Amanda Folan

     Autism Spectrum Disorder affects 1 in 68 children in the United States, according to Autism Speaks. There is no cure. It affects both genders but is more likely to occur in boys. One third of people with autism are nonverbal. Many people with autism have additional mental health issues that can range from depression to seizures. Now I could continue listing all these facts, but I am instead going to talk about how we can help, because 1 in 68 is a huge amount of people.


     Not everyone knows what autism is, but it does not only affect the person, but also their families, teachers, and peers. Having a brother with autism, I could go on and on about the struggles I faced, how my family spends thousands of dollars with no support just to get him a good education, but I would rather use my experience for good and have others be aware that being autistic or being on the spectrum does not make one an alien. So I’m going to address some things people assume about people with autism or asperger's (which is similar to autism but described as more high functioning) and provide some possible solutions:

  • “Is he ok?”


I have gotten this from close friends and complete strangers. Most of the time the strangers are little children asking why my brother is flapping his hands and speaking differently. He is good as far as I know, would you appreciate it if I asked if you were ok? And I don't mean in a “how are you?” sense. When people usually ask this they care more about my brother’s mental state than his own feelings. Asking me if he is ok will not make his autism go away. When it comes to any mental illness or developmental disorder, it is important to recognize that these people have likes and dislikes just like you do. My brother likes to draw, watch TV, tell jokes, and do the laundry (which I still can’t understand). I will agree it is hard to communicate with him, that is why I hope children at a young age (especially if non-verbal) can learn sign language. My brother, Kevin, learned very little American Sign Language (ASL) when he was little and can still remember it today at 16 years old. Autism research institute says “teaching sign language along with speech will likely accelerate a person’s ability to speak.” I believe it would have helped my brother if they kept teaching him, which is why I encourage schools to teach ASL to those with disabilities who need a way to communicate or learn speech. Wouldn’t you feel free if you didn’t have to keep all your thoughts trapped inside your head anymore?

  • “People with autism spectrum disorder have no empathy”


OK. Empathy is hard for a lot of people to understand and one does not need to be autistic to have trouble being empathetic. This is a common stereotype that avoids the truth that autistic people do have empathy. Sometimes I feel like those who are autistic have too much empathy at points. I've heard from many that having autism is like being in a play and not having a script. They may know exactly how you are feeling but they can’t find a way to help, which leaves them frustrated later on.

  • “Your life must be so much easier! My siblings are a pain!”


Yes, someone actually said this to me. I agree siblings can be annoying but having an autistic sibling is not even close to living in paradise. He has outbursts but instead of feeling bad for me and my family, please find ways to help. Donate to charities, do some research on autism, realize this is a lot of people’s lives, most of all treat everyone with kindness and respect no matter what disability they have. And I don’t mean give a quick hi and never talk to the person again, have a genuine conversation!  Talk about their favorite movie or place, what many people with ASD need the most is a friend. They don’t need an acquaintance who acts nice because they feel bad, they need a person who sees them beyond their autism. I will make it clear that I do not speak for all those who are autistic because autism is a very broad spectrum and affects each person differently. But I will say that taking some time to have a good conversation with someone who has ASD is a great learning experience and another friend! Depression and anxiety are common in a lot of people on the spectrum, so having someone to talk to is helpful for those who want someone to talk (or communicate) with about how they are feeling.

  • “What’s his special ability?”


I actually laugh at this sometimes. There is some assumption that all autistic people have a super talent or they are a genious. It is true that there are some brilliant autistic people out there who have a genious mind or talents (Temple Grandin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein etc.), but that does not apply to every autistic person (although I think that would be cool).

  • “That’s so retarded!”


There are numerous reasons why I have a problem with this word. I hear people use this word constantly and it is very derogatory to any person who has a disability. I’m not sure whether people use this and don’t know the meaning behind it or they do know the meaning and just don’t care. My advice is if you are using this as a substitute for the word “stupid” sit down and think about it for a second. Your friends are not stupid, do not use this to describe them, if they act stupid and make those choices then you shouldn't be friends with them. People with disabilities already have to deal with what they were either born with or got so it makes you look bad if you throw this word around insulting people about something they cannot control and may have to deal with for the rest of their lives. Instead, sign up for Special Olympics and see these kids conquer the world. If you're an athlete, you may use sports to help you escape or to feel better about yourself. The kids in Special Olympics are no different and feel the same freedom that you do when you cross the finish line or score a goal. So instead of calling people names, let's make some use of our time and help those who need it.


     Speaking of help, there are multiple charities that help those with ASD. Autism Speaks is a great charity that advocates for those with ASD and does research, volunteer work, and helps many families who need it. April is autism awareness month and this year all the monuments lit up blue around the world. It is moments like this that show that we can come together and make a difference in the lives of those with autism.


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