How autism was explained to me

My First Job Working With Kids With Autism

The first time I remember learning about Autism was when I was working at a summer camp for people with disabilities in Salt Lake City, Utah.  We were preparing for a week when several of the kids coming had autism. 

At this point in my life, I had already been working with people with various developmental disabilities, but none of the people I had worked with had autism.

They had someone come talk to us counselors, but I don’t remember her name. What she said has stayed with me over the years though.  This was back in 2004.

An Explanation of Autism

It went something like this:

Imagine you are in a foreign country, one that you’ve never been to and aren’t familiar with.  You’re going along minding your own business when suddenly all these people start coming towards you. Your anxiety starts to rise as they approach you.

They’re saying something and they look upset but you don’t understand them.  They start raising their voices as if that will help you understand what they’re saying, but you don’t speak their language.  

They start waving their arms, and you can tell they’re upset, but you still don’t know why.  How are you supposed to fix it when you don’t know what happened?

We All React In Different Ways

So, what do you do?  Fight or flight.

You may want to curl up in a ball, hiding your face from them.  You may want to plug your ears to tune them out.  You may want to start screaming back at them in your own language. You may want to run away.  Or maybe you start doing something to help yourself calm down.

We all react in different ways.

You can see how this situation may be a bit frightening, uncomfortable, and intimidating.

This Was So Relatable

She went on to explain that this may be how some of these kiddos are feeling.  Sometimes they don’t understand our language, or our culture.  We may get upset because they did something that according to us was not right, but they may not understand why.  And sometimes even when we are explaining it to them, we are not speaking the same language and they still don’t understand.

When they become overwhelmed and frightened, they may start doing things like plugging their ears, screaming, running away, rocking, looking away, etc.

Her Explanation Changed How I Respond

When she told us this scenario, my eyes were opened.  I felt like this didn’t just apply to autism, but to a lot of situations.  It put me in a situation that I could imagine myself in, and it made me have more empathy for all the people I had ever worked with and would work with.

As Temple Grandin said in her presentation the other week, her “fear center” is 3 times as big as is expected in a brain.  Can you imagine how certain situations that may seem “normal” to us can be very frightening for someone with autism?

I don’t know how accurate this little story is, but I’m grateful for it because it changed me early in my career as how to approach various situations and how to have more empathy for those reacting differently than I would to those situations.

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