Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Attitudes toward autism have gone through many changes. In my first twenty years as an occupation therapist, I had two clients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They were considered exotic birds, their rocking, spinning and hand flapping were called “self-stimming,” and their behavior was blamed squarely on the coldness of their “refrigerator moms.”

Now, these once atypical children are common in my caseload, and self-stimulating behavior is more accurately acknowledged as self-calming. Instead of being blamed, their moms are honored for their ability to cope with their sensitive children.

The jury is still out on the cause of autism, but what is apparent is that the brains of these children process information differently. Now that we understand the plasticity of the brain, modern therapies are aimed towards helping these children connect the dots in ways that other children do so they can better fit into our world.

There are even people nowadays who propose that children in the spectrum and with sensory processing disorders (SPD) are more advanced rather than less than their peers. A growing awareness of autistic savants, with genius mixed into their social differences, adds some muscle to that theory.

It’s an interesting thought. I think of Reggie, one of “my” kids. I was watching him blow bubbles recently and saw him mesmerized by the way the light refracted off the iridescent bubbles. If you really pay attention, bubbles are amazingly beautiful and Reggie was just as delighted and appreciative of the fortieth bubble blown as he was of the first. (Talk about being in the present moment!) Reggie’s ability to notice details also makes him the only one in his pre-school class to know the names and sounds of every letter in the alphabet. I envy his contentment in solitary play and not seeming to care or notice what others think of him.

What would it be like if kids like Reggie were just seen as one in a variety of human possibilities? I won’t be surprised if sometime in the not too distant future, it might be considered "cool" to be autistic or to have unique ways of processing the world. Terms such as Sensory Processing Differences will be used instead of Disorders and we all will learn to be sensitive to our needs and how to regulate and calm our systems.

Meanwhile, we parents and therapist and friends who love these children can make them feel welcomed and find ways to help them acquire needed skills. One way will always be playing. Play is the brain’s way of learning and our way to enjoy our lives and to give love to each other. Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant whose skills may make "Rainman" look like he had memory problems, points out in his book, Born on a Blue Day, that what made his childhood miserable were the children who couldn’t accept him as he was, but what made his development flourish was his parents who did.

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