What I just learned about autism

My friend Cathy gave me a book for Christmas entitled Why I Jump by Naoki Higashida.  What an eyeopener!  How I wish I had read it back in August/September when I started working with some children who were more challenged than any I had ever supported in six years of parapro-ing.

The author is a 13-year-old boy at the extreme end of the autism spectrum–very intelligent but non-verbal.  He has learned to use a letter grid and keyboard to express himself and so is now able to give the reader a window into the autistic mind.  I can’t even count how many times I have remarked, “If I only knew what he/she was thinking.”  Now, to some degree, I can make an educated guess.

I plan on reading it again with a highlighter, but these are my immediate lessons:

1. Whereas  a non-autistic person sees a big picture then focuses on details, someone with autism is bombarded by the details and has to put the big picture together like a puzzle.  In other words, don’t show them something and expect that they are seeing what you see.

2. An autistic person is never really comfortable in his/her own body.  When he is still, he becomes very aware of his legs and arms as different entities and has trouble coordinating them into one whole person.  Being in constant motion relieves that stress of self-awareness.  Telling an autistic person to “calm down” means that he needs to be moving, not the other way around.

3. For people without autism memory is a linear thing.  Someone tells you something, you learn it/remember it, and then you go on to the next thing.  For a person with autism, his memory is like a “pool of dots.”  He picks an answer and then tries to find out what question it matches.  As a result, a person with autism often asks the same question over and over to the exasperation of the person being asked.  I can also imagine, by the way, that sometimes it happens in reverse.  We as teachers or parents ask them a question and don’t understand why they have so much difficulty retrieving the answer.  They are wading through the dots trying to find the right one.

There is a lot more, and I certainly recommend the book to anyone who works with an autistic person in any way.  In the blink of an eye, my attitude has changed toward my students.  I hope that means I will serve them better from now on.

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