Thought for the day: I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. Maya Angelou
April is Autism Awareness Month, and with statistics showing that autism currently affects anywhere from one in 120 to one in 150 of the babies born in the US, you may already know one of these children ... or adults ... personally. In any case, in honor of autism awareness, I'd like to share a few things about this brain disorder with you, based solely on what I've learned from books and personal observations.
When I was growing up, I don't remember hearing anything about autism. In those days, children with special needs were lumped together in a special education classroom at school, or relegated to the mercies of a state facility.
In the late 60s, I briefly volunteered at one of those state facilities. My friend, a co-worker and fellow do-gooder, and I were closed into a medium-sized room with 35-40 children. The only furniture in that room was a TV set, which sat on a shelf mounted high up on the wall beyond the reach of little fingers; and the only toys, rubber balls. Lots and lots of rubber balls. All colors, all sizes. And those balls were in constant motion. Rolling around the floor, bouncing off the walls, smacking into the children, smacking into us. Four or five children screamed non-stop. Two spun in circles until they fell to the floor. Then, they'd get up and spin some more. Two others curled on the floor at opposite sides of the room, either in drug-induced stupors, or near-catatonic states brought on by their conditions. Another child banged his head against the wall. Some children, who were incredibly strong, reached for us, and in their enthusiasm, pulled us to the floor.
In retrospect, it's very likely that some of those children were autistic, but at that time, from what I saw, those children, as wards of the state, were simply being warehoused. All thrown together, regardless of diagnosis, if there even was a diagnosis. From what I learned later, the spinning behavior and general disconnect we observed at that institution are typical manifestations of autism.
Fast forward ...
During the eighties, I volunteered at our church's respite care program. This was a two-Saturdays-a-month venture, in which parents could get a much-needed respite by leaving their special needs children in our care for the day. Many of these children were autistic, enrolled in a special school, and receiving the best help available. Some of them also had severe physical challenges. But, all in all, they were amazing children, and they taught me a lot about the human spirit.
Autism strikes four times as many boys as girls, so that may explain why we had more boys than girls in our care. I'd like to tell you about one of these boys. His name was Steven.
Unable to speak, he'd make loud gutteral noises, shake his head back and forth, and flail his arms. We'd wipe the spittle from his chin, but tears would fill his eyes.
Then, he got an amazing electronic keyboard fitted to the tray of his wheelchair. Teachers showed him how to use it, and boyohboy, he was a fast learner. And know what? He became calmer. For the first time in his life, he could press a button, and a computer would say, "I'm thirsty!" or, "I'm hungry!" or simply, "I'm mad!"
And to everyone's delight, we discovered that he had a sense of humor.
Steven taught me, taught all of us, to always look for and remember the person inside. No wonder he was angry! He was trapped inside of a body that didn't work, but his spirit proved to be strong, once he was given a way to express himself.
I recently read a book called "The Tell-Tale Brain", by V.S. Ramachandran, which he describes as "a neuroscientist's quest for what makes us human." He accomplishes that by exploring the workings of the human brain, and he also does an excellent job of explaining some of the differences in the autistic brain.
There are specialized neurons in the human brain called mirror-neurons. Say you're watching someone scratch his nose. These mirror-neurons will trigger activity within your brain that's identical to the activity that would be triggered if you were scratching your own nose. You don't actually move your hand to your nose, but at a basic level, you can relate. As you can imagine, these neurons are essential in the development of empathy, and in the formation of connections to the people around us. And there is a stark deficiency of these cells in the autistic brain.
So, without a innate sense of connection, these children, these people, find it very difficult to connect. Often can't look another person in the eyes. Don't want to be touched. Have a sense of isolation. It's been theorized that because of this sense of disconnect and isolation, some of these children inflict wounds upon themselves just to reassure themselves that they're alive. Sensory overload is a major issue. Too much light, too much noise, too much activity are all maddening to an autistic person. Strict routines and a reliably non-changing environment are important. The spectrum of autism is wide, and the degree of functionality and integration into society vary greatly. Great strides have been made in understanding and treating autism, but there is still a long long way to go.
In this, Autism Awareness Month, let us all be more aware of these struggling children, of their parents, often divorced and/or isolated themselves, who care for them. There, but for the grace of God.
Sorry I didn't make you laugh today, but some things just aren't funny.
So I can work on my book tomorrow, I've decided to skip the blog tomorrow. But, fear not! No weirdest news story of the week for tomorrow, because I'm gonna sock it to you TODAY!
Until Monday, take care of yourselves. And each other.
Weirdest news story of the week: In December, a Swedish couple embarked on what was to have been an idyllic four-month honeymoon. Must be nice, you say? Not so fast. Wait until you hear about their adventure. Their first stop was Germany, where they got stranded in Munich. Why? Worst snowstorm ever. Then, they headed for Cairns, Australia, which was then promptly struck by one of the most ferocious cyclones in the country's history. They had to spend the next 24 hours sheltered in a cozy little love nest with 2500 other people. In a shopping center. Sleeping on a concrete floor. Next stop? South to Brisbane, but massive flooding there convinced them it was time to move on to Perth. Unfortunately, when they got to Perth, they were met by raging bush fires, and had to flee to Christchurch, New Zealand. Got there right after the place was hit by a 6.3 earthquake. From there, the hapless honeymooners headed for Japan. You guessed it. They arrived in time to experience the 9.0 tornado, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Before going back to Sweden, they were able to enjoy a calm visit to China. Tell ya what, with that kind of beginning, this couple can make it through ANYTHING! (But I don't believe I'll be inviting them over for dinner ...)