By Danielle Jean Visina
Graduate Student Intern
Autism is a disorder that comes in all shapes and sizes; hence why it is considered to be a spectrum disorder. The spectrum represents the variety of signs and symptoms, severity levels, biological areas involved, and people it effects. The tricky part, however, is that no matter how much research a person does, the ability to truly understand how many different ways autism can show up cannot be achieved until it is experienced.
Now in my second year of graduate school, and soon to be released into the world as a licensed speech-language pathologist, I have been given the opportunity to provide speech and language therapy to a wide array of individuals, all with their own unique communication needs. However, until recently, I had minimal experience with children who had autism. I had an idea of what autism should look like and of how to provide therapy to individuals with this diagnosis; but once I was actually in the therapy room, working with the children who have autism, I discovered how little I actually knew.
It was my first week of working with these special little people that I realized that AUTISM IS NOT GENERIC. For example, Molly is a little girl who recently received an official diagnosis of autism from her medical doctor. However, the professionals at the school Molly attends disagree with this diagnosis. At first, I was in agreement with the school. This little girl interacts with the people in the room; she makes intentional attempts at speech to gain the attention of others; and her behavior is not as “routine-like” as most other children with a diagnosis of autism—at least the children that I have met. Where on earth was the autism? I knew that there had to be some reason behind receiving this diagnosis and I was determined to figure out where it was.
After a few more sessions and some critical observation, I realized that the autism really did exist. Yes, Molly is interacting with others, but she is using those people like tools. She is not making an emotional connection with other people. She is simply using people as a means of fulfilling her own desires. Also, Molly uses a lot of rote language. What I had seen at first was what I thought to be novel utterances used in contextually appropriate situations. Over time, however, I was not seeing the generalization of these statements into activities outside of the original. And finally, Molly did have some very strict routines by which she completed tasks, but they were a bit more subtle than most of the routines I had been seeing with other children.
Let me share with you the metaphor that I developed as a result of experiences similar to the one described above:
As previously stated, autism comes in many shapes and sizes. In fact, I would compare autism to cancer (not in the mortality aspect), in the sense that cancer can show up in a multitude of places throughout the human body; it can be mild or severe, slow growing or fast paced; it can drastically impact one’s daily life, or it can be overcome through incorporation of a single compensatory technique (i.e. some medical treatment or another). But the key factor in all of this is that cancer is cancer because of its attack on human body cells. Regardless of where and how wide spread the cancer occurs, it is still cancer.
Now at this point, you may be asking yourself, where on earth is this writer going with this? Let me explain. Autism affects everybody differently. It can be mild on the spectrum or severe. It can affect daily life, or only require a few compensatory strategies to allow for the person with autism to function well in society. The signs and symptoms of autism may impact different biological and behavioral processes (i.e. mental health, emotional stability, speech and language, etc.). But here’s the kicker... autism continues to be autism due to a few key ingredients. People with autism, regardless of how the autism manifests itself, share the same basis: a neurological disorder that causes differences in processing incoming and outgoing information in regards to all senses; and a significant lack of typical social relationships and behaviors.
Having come to this realization, I feel that I can be more competent in my skills as a speech-language pathologist. I am thankful to have realized all that I did not know about autism, because it has given me the drive to learn all that I can…through experience.