Over the past 6 months I have met an abundance of people. I have met people that have changed my life in ways I never thought possible. Never once did I think my life would involve working with individuals with special needs. I never believed I had the patience or the mindset to work with individuals so different than myself. I lived my life for many years being blissfully ignorant. As hard as it is to even admit I viewed individuals with special needs as defective or lesser of people. I did not view them like this in a hateful or spiteful way, I was just uneducated and unaware (and yes that is my fault). I went through life thinking all was good and I was happy until I was given the opportunity to work with children and adults with autism (and even individuals with other special needs). I soon realized my life had been missing this huge piece. I had been missing out on the beauty of differences. Those words are so general but until I met so many of these people I did not realize that these people are not defective they are simply different, especially those with autism. Autism is not a disease or a defect or a condition….it is simply a difference in neurology. I read articles and headlines all of the time that talk about the search for a cure. These people are not sick or broken….what do they need to be cured for or from? Why is being different a bad thing. I read motivational and inspirational quotes all of the time and so many talk about being unique and embracing your unique qualities. Well, individuals with autism are simply that…unique. I have found their differences to be beautiful as well as admirable because so many of these individuals with autism have gifts and talents that I could only dream of.
The problem is not the individuals with autism but the people around them trying to mold them to fit a societal norm. Now before I get my head bitten off by saying that let me explain myself. I am an ABA therapist for children ages 2-7 on the spectrum and I am a job coach for individuals 16-22 on the spectrum. Holding both of these titles would make it obvious to the majority that my jobs are mainly to help individuals on the spectrum to become successful…..the question is, what do I help them with? I hear the term socially appropriate thrown around left and right almost every day. That term seems pretty simplistic but I, myself, can’t help but wonder who and what dictates what is and what is not socially appropriate? There are things that we think of that may be obvious like a child throwing him/herself onto the floor having a massive meltdown because he/she did not get what he/she wanted or a student spitting in the middle of class. These are things that ANY child could do….not just a child with autism. They are behaviors that do need to be addressed. I think as a society we need to broaden the horizons on what is socially appropriate. There is a young man that I work with that is 20 years old. He is part of a work program that is made up of about 7-10 students. The students do various craft projects to sell in a store. While working on the project this boy may start singing or may start talking about a bunch of nonsensical things (which is not abnormal with several individuals on the spectrum). His teachers will ask him to stop and maybe even redirect him in another direction. I don’t intervene because these people have worked with him for much longer than I have and I owe them respect but a lot goes through my mind when this happens. His actions are not hurting or harming anyone so why must be stop….simply because someone/others became annoyed? His singing/nonsensical talk makes him happy and brings him great joy….it may be even be a form of self-soothing (the same way stimming is for many individuals on the spectrum)…why would we strip him of this? Because it is not “normal”? I ask this question as I have asked it one million times over….what is normal? I guess I just can’t adjust to the idea that we all must follow a certain set of rules for living…..to be and act a certain way that is deemed appropriate. There are exceptions in every case of course but it hurts me to think of taking away the happiness of another just because their actions may be seen as “different” or “socially inappropriate”.
These individuals both big and small have changed me. They have taught me so much about what is really important in this life and their ability to achieve happiness without judgment is what I have found to be of the utmost importance. These people see each other without even noticing the differences. These people interact with each other (sometimes needing a prompt to do so) without judgment….they don’t see flaws or faults. They simply see other people that think and know different things. Take a moment to think about how beautiful that really is. We live in this society that forces us to focus on beauty and body image and all sorts of superficial things and we judge each other based on those things….we see the overweight girl hiding in the corner and we judge her. We see the boy in the old clothes that doesn’t fit society’s idea of “fashionable” and we judge him. We see the differences and we focus on them….whether or not we mean to. These beautiful children and adults that I have worked with don’t see those differences. It is as if that judgmental part of their brain is turned off. They may take note of something different in someone else but they don’t linger on it….they don’t hold onto it. That is a quality I could only dream of having. So, I guess I am different than many in that I love the differences…I embrace the differences….I, sometimes, to others dismay, encourage the differences. I thrive to help others succeed in life but I never want to mold someone. If I tried to do that then I am taking them away from their true self and that would be nothing but disheartening. These beautiful individuals with autism/special needs are and always will be people first.