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Personal Experience With Autism

Updated on February 19, 2011

I live in Bristol, Virginia, which is a twin-state city, as it borders the line of Virginia and Tennessee. The welcome sign states that the population is 44,000, but I think that's a figure encompassing the surrounding areas as well as the city proper. The city's "claim to fame" is the Bristol Motor Speedway which is on the NASCAR cup circuit.

In this very small town, I personally know several people who are either autistic or have an autistic child. The odds of someone personally knowing such a number of persons/children with this specific disorder in one area is very great. Yet here I am and there they are.

A 20-something young man that works at the local McDonald's has autism. My boyfriend's neice has an autistic son. A former manager at Walmart has an autistic son. A married couple we used to be very good friends with have an autistic son. Another single mother friend of ours has an autistic son. All boys, ranging in age from five to 23.

Autism is a disorder that the medical profession knows almost nothing about. They do not know what causes it or contributes to its cause, and only speculate with regard to what might be a potential risk factor (drugs, genetics, IQ, etc). There is no cure. There aren't even really any definitive symptoms of autism, just a wide range of potential behaviors that may indicate that a child has the disorder.

In 2010, one in every 100 children is born autistic. The rate of children born autistic has increased nationwide approximately 57% to 84% in the past decade (figures vary based on geographic region). Autism is 4 times more likely to occur in boys than girls.

Among the people I know with autistic children, there is a vast disparity in their parenting methods. Some of them treat their child no better than the family dog...pat him on the head, give him a bowl of dry cereal, and tell him to go play. He's treated like he has a problem, so he'll grow up acting like he has a problem. Another couple treats their child like he's no different from his "normal" siblings, and he acts, plays, and communicates in a way that shows very little difference from them. Another just throws up her hands and says, "Well, he's got the mind of a three year old so what can I do?" And yet another seems insistent upon the fact that her son has a "problem" and he should be treated "special" because you can't possibly treat him like he's "normal" since he's so obviously not. And then there's the 23 year old, who holds a job, drives a car, carries conversations, cracks jokes, has dreams and goals and aspirations, loves football, and is able to perform in an adult capacity with very little sign of his disorder.

Some of the parents of these autistic children spend as much time as they can with their "special needs" child, talking and playing, reading and drawing, hiking and engaging in sports.  Other parents spend as little time as possible with their child, banishing the child to another room and barely acknowledging that the kid exists, except to feed the child and then send it to bed at bedtime.  Some parents have more than one child and the other children are not autistic, and they treat the autistic child as though he/she is deserving of better treatment than the other child(ren) simply because he/she is mentally challenged.  Trust me, the other children see this, recognize it for what it is, and not only resent the parents for the disparate treatment but also resent the "special" sibling(s) for it, too.

Sometimes, when discussing autism with some of these parents, they claim that their child is less autistic than they clearly are, or that they are autistic when a diagnosis of mental retardation would be vastly more accurate, or that their child is "so different" from other autistic children because he/she does "this" or "that" in a way that is atypical of autistic children (which, to me, would mean that he/she isn't actually autistic at all).  If asked how they know their child is autistic, they generally received the diagnosis from one physician when they child was very young (before preschool age) and at a time when nearly all "normal" children exhibit behaviors that are diagnostically symptomatic of autism.  They didn't get a second or third opinion, and overdose their children on medication to "treat" the disorder, one that the child was probably misdiagnosed with in the first place.

Other parents can be educated on what can or cannot help with management of their autistic child, agree that it should be done, and then ignore it.  For example, some autistic children can have their symptoms drastically minimized just by changing their diet.  Eliminating caffeine and excess sugar.  Tell a parent that and see what happens.  They agree with you and then do nothing.  Basically, they are demonstrating how little concern they have for their child.  Just because an allegedly autistic child might prefer a diet consisting solely of chicken nuggets, PopTarts, or vanilla ice cream DOES NOT mean that he/she should be given that sort of half-assed nutrition.  A child will eat whatever you put on the table in front of them if they get hungry enough, and no parent should ever let their children dictate what should be served for dinner on a regular basis...autistic or not.

I believe very strongly that the WORST thing any of these parents can do is treat their child like he/she has a disorder. If you single your kid out in any way, they know it, even if they do have the intellectual capacity of a three year old. If you treat them different, they will feel and act different. If you make concessions for their "disorder" they will expect special treatment. All this does is further handicap them and set them up for failure in their futures, because if you treat a child like he/she is a child all their life, that's all they will know.

Also, one of the worst things the parent of an autistic child can do is act like he/she already knows all there is to know about autism. I know quite a bit and have done a great deal of research, just because I know so many people with autistic kids. I wanted to be able to discuss their children in an intelligent and informed way. There are things I know that they don't, and to assume they can't learn anything new about their child is yet another way they will cripple their child's development in the future.

Autism is increasing steadily and has already overtaken most childhood disorders. With all the diseases and disorders in our world today that CAN be diagnosed, cured, or treated, why is this one so vastly different and such a challenge to learn anything about?


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    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 5 years ago from Florida

      Great article, thank you for writing it, this is a big topic we cannot discuss enough in our country.

    • emmy1980 profile image

      emmy1980 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for the article. While Patty is right; you can't fully understand what it's like to be a parent of a child with autism unless you ARE one, I do agree with you on some points. I have very few "autism friends" because of the stuff you described. A lot of them treat their child like something that has to be fixed - which I understand, because we all want to help our kids, but there's a point where some parents cross the line into harming their child with too many snake oil therapies or treating them like they have a disease. Then, of course, are the ones who do nothing at all, and just accept that their child is severely crippled and allow them to have no quality of life through their lack of actions. I find it hard to get along with any of these people, even though I understand what a challenge it is, and that we all have different reactions.

      I have gently and slowly forced mine into the real world, and they were uncomfortable with some things at first but I did it gradually and compassionately. I'm proud to say I have two sons who now are able to participate in pretty much everything life has to offer, and they're happier for it.

      So while some parents might find your article a tad judgemental, I get what you're trying to say and agree with you. There is a balance in everything, and balancing between helping your child, but not going overboard, but being gentle and compassionate about it is very difficult. Thanks for your perspective.

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      Patty 6 years ago

      I am a parent of an autistic child and I wish you would not comment on what you do not understand. With all due respect if you think you can treat a child with autism the same way you treat other people, you will live in a fantasy land. Autistic children have a different biology, pure and simple. They have SEVERE sensory issues and many cannot even tolerate the simple things we take for granted.

      I love my son to death and so does my husband. However if we brought him to the 'normal' things we go to he would be absolutely miserable. You talk about if you do things differently for them they will expect it. What you do not know however is that most of these children are not able to communicate properly what they need so there it is simply impossible for them to manipulate others. If a blind person couldn't see would you expect them to drive, walk down the street without help or sit in a classroom without assistance? It's simply ludicrious what you are stating above. My friend, if you read day and night you'd still be clueless to what its like to be a parent of a child with autism.

      I wouldn't change my son for anything. He has been my best teacher. We aren't trying to change him but we're trying to love him and nurture him the way HE needs it, not the way I think or you think, or anyone for that matter. He shows me what he needs b/c I watch, learn, ask what questions I can that he is able to answer. I almost feel sorry for people without a child with autism b/c it's such an amazing experience. I am trying to help my son everyday but in a loving, respectful and supportive way. When he is able to tolerate situations THEN AND ONLY THEN will we go to places, do things and be in situations that are not helpful for him at this time. So please, you would not want someone commenting and judging you about something you have alot of experience in so on behalf of all the parents out there, please do not write about what you do not understand.

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      CBiscuit 7 years ago

      It's a good question and one many are trying to figure out. I absolutely agree with you with treating your child as if nothing is wrong with them at all. Nothing IS wrong with them. They are just different. Not less.