A little over a year ago, I met a boy who had Asperger’s, a more mild condition on the autism spectrum. I say that he was a boy with autism and not an autistic boy because he is a person first, a boy first.
This boy opened up my mind.
He was incredibly intelligent, but his brain worked differently than mine does, which is something that’s hard to grasp. He was able to focus and read about and understand many abstract concepts, some topics that hurt my brain a little just to think about. He also would get very excited about certain events or topics of discussion and his eyes would light up and he would use his whole body to explain to you what he was thinking and why it was important.
He taught me a lot about autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. I had already known what most of you know: ASD is a developmental disorder. Many people with autism struggle with social situations and have repetitive behaviors. What I didn’t know, or even know to think about, was how people with ASD think, what life looks like from their eyes or with their brains.
People with autism spectrum disorder don’t think like I do. They often don’t process information the same way I do or react to environmental stimuli like I do.
He also taught me a word: neurodiversity. It’s actually a movement to restructure how we as a society approach autism spectrum disorder. It tells us that the goal isn’t necessarily to make his brain work like mine does, even though I’m labeled ‘neurotypical.’ It tells us that in the attempt to find common ground, he shouldn’t be the only one trying to grasp how other people think.
He summed it up better than I ever could. He said, “Everyone needs to take steps to understand each other, across all ends of neurodiversity, so as to create an environment where everyone is welcome.”
We should all be taking this perspective to heart. Respecting those with ASD should mean more than being nice or even contributing to help them with their various difficulties with communication or the like. Respecting those with ASD should also mean trying to understand not just their indicators, but their eccentricities and their minds. It should be about recognizing that their minds may not be as disabled as we think, they may just be different.
Jenny Jiao, ’16