Those of us considered to be ‘neurotypical’ who have gotten to know an individual with autism, have likely come to regard that relationship as a gift. We don’t deny that there are difficult moments, nor do we pretend that the relationship is perfect. But we are grossly aware of and appreciative of the fact that all of the ‘little things’ that occur between us are felt so much more profoundly. We notice that their senses are much more finely-tuned than ours, that they have something that we don’t. One could argue that we are more alike than different, but there are differences, nonetheless. And while each person with autism is unique, we can say that as a whole, they often have qualities that make them stand out.
One child that I see on a regular basis has very obvious visual perceptions that far exceed what I am able to see. He is literally mesmerized by the visual impact of paint or glue drying on a piece of paper. When you watch him looking at a wet painting that has been hung to dry, you can sense that he is experiencing something extraordinary. There is a peacefulness on his face, a twinkle in his eye- something is moving him.
This is but one tiny example of an ability that is different from my own experience. I would say that his ability of extreme visual perception pans out to be ‘more than’ my own, comparatively speaking. I’m sure that most of you could come up with similar stories involving abilities that far exceed what you and I are capable of. But just as we don’t refer to people on the spectrum as having ‘superabilities’, I question why we are still using the language of ‘disabilities’, suggesting abilities that are ‘less than’.
During a recent training on positive behavior supports, the speaker, who seemed to genuinely care about the people that she served, noted that many, if not most, of them were on the autism spectrum. Despite her concise delivery and knowledge of the material being covered, I couldn’t help but cringe every time the umbrella term ‘developmental disabilities’ was used. And I especially couldn’t help but wonder how a man in attendance, that I’ll call David , was feeling. David had revealed to the group that he had Asperger’s. He is a skilled musician, a public speaker, an office manager, a magician, and more. I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to hear yourself categorized as ‘less than’, no matter how much you bring to the world, and how that might affect the perception of oneself. I wanted to ask him, but I felt awkward about it.
I’m still fiercely curious…but for now, when I submit my monthly time sheets to ‘Seniors and People w/ Disabilities’, I will continue to address the envelope to ‘Seniors and People w/ Different Abilities’ for the postal workers and all who handle that envelope to see and ponder. And maybe someday I will muster the courage to talk to David about his thoughts on this….
Rachel Strasler is currently in training to become an RDI Certified Consultant. Her background is in Psychology and Primate Behavior & Ecology. She has worked in Early Childhood Special Ed and spent 17 years in preschool classrooms serving a diverse array of students. and running inclusive art camps and classes.