By Joshua Smith
April was Autism Awareness Month and I feel like I need to shed some light on this subject, since I don’t see this school bringing any awareness to it. This hits home for me because I have Asperger’s Syndrome, as some of you may already know. Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of Autism.
While I can talk about my own experience, I interviewed MSA Case Manager Shana Lehar for a better sense of how to define Autism and how to think about it as a disability. Lehar has worked with special education students for about eight years.
She explained that Autism is a developmental disability but it does not necessarily affect intelligence.
“[Autism is] a disability and a spectrum disorder so it can take many different forms with many different people. But it tends to be, mostly, a social disability so it doesn’t really affect your IQ alone,” Lehar said.
“People with Autism sometimes have very high IQs but they’ll feel like they’re socially awkward and they don’t always pick up on social cues that other people are giving off, and they sometimes don’t always understand other people’s emotions around them.”
Autism can also affect a person’s senses, making them sensitive to light and sound, according to Lehar.
“People with autism will often have some sensory issues, so they’ll notice maybe fluorescent lights flashing or they’ll notice sounds,” she said.
There are many different forms of Autism, including Asperger’s Syndrome.
“Asperger’s is very high-functioning Autism,” Lehar said. “But it’s a spectrum so there will be some children or adults who will have what they call a lower-functioning Autism where they maybe are non-verbal, so they can’t speak and sometimes have difficulty with basic everyday things.”
Lehar said Autism awareness is an important issue “because it’s so prevalent.”
Autism diagnoses are up, and they are growing. One in 88 people in the United States are currently diagnosed with some form of Autism. As recently as 2007, that figure was 1 in 150. That means Autism diagnoses have almost doubled in the last five years.
“I think nowadays most everyone has either someone in their lives or someone they know with Autism,” Lehar said.
But while many people now either know someone with Autism or know of someone with Autism, Lehar said there are still myths about the disability that need to be debunked.
“I think people who maybe haven’t had much experience with Autism might think that everyone’s a savant,” she said. “There are a lot of people who think that everyone with Autism has some kind of amazing talent and they’re just a genius at something and some people are. I’ve known some kids that can do complicated puzzles in two minutes but not everyone with Autism does.”
“I think another myth is that some people will go the other way and think that people with Autism have very low IQs that they aren’t bright people and that is certainly not the case,” Lehar said. “I’ve met a lot of people with Autism who have way-above-average IQs.”
MSA Senior Joshua Joseph said he has known two different students with Autism during his grammar school and high school years.
“They seem like they’re pretty cool. I don’t know the exact book definition [of autism] but I just think that it’s a disability that makes it hard for individuals to learn. They learn at different rates, pretty much.”
Joseph said he has noticed that classmates can occasionally grow frustrated with Autistic students during class.
“I think sometimes people are quick to judge the things they do and label it not normal,” Joseph said. “Like if [autistic students] are called on to give an answer and they’re thinking about it but they’re thinking out loud, and people get impatient.”
In his experience, though, Joseph said his autistic classmates have been strong contributors in school.
“The ones I have met are pretty smart,” he said.