World Autism Awareness Day
Good morning! In case you missed it, today is World Autism Awareness Day. April is both National Autism Awareness and National Occupational Therapy month! Amidst the chaos and changes we are all experiencing right now, let’s take a moment to celebrate those in our lives who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and spread awareness to create a more accepting community.
Autism is perhaps best known as a “spectrum” disorder, meaning severity and signs will vary from individual to individual. I would like to ‘virtually’ introduce everyone to my cousin, Joshua (you can call him Josh). Josh is currently taking photography classes at his local university. He just turned 19 and hopes to become a teacher for students with special needs. While Josh was diagnosed with autism around age 5, he is just like the rest of us. He enjoys anything outside, watches too much Netflix, cannot get enough ice cream, and loves making new friends. Some small differences that you might see with Josh however, is limited eye contact and verbal communication, restricted behaviors, deficits in social skills, and sensory sensitivities. Nevertheless, looking at his huge smile, you would never know.
An “Invisible” Diagnosis
With autism, there are no outward physical characteristics that differentiate an individual. Unfortunately, for those who are not as understanding or patient, behavioral signs of Josh’s diagnosis become an issue. What I find most upsetting is when people pester Josh for his lack of eye-contact, or for shying away from a hug. For us, it comes as a mild annoyance to hug that one uncle that you are not particularly fond of. Yet for Josh, with his hypersensitivity to touch, imagine an undesired hug feeling as though a roof has collapsed on you. You cannot breathe, there is no space to move, and you feel as though your whole body might explode from the pressure.
Social Participation & Autism
Some believe that individuals with autism lack interest in social interactions. For many, like Josh, people with ASD have difficulty interpreting non-verbal information. Imagine talking with your best friend about their workday. They might say, “my day was fine,” but we can tell from body language and tone that it clearly was not. For Josh, he takes that person’s statement at face value and moves on with the conversation. With the strategies learned in speech and occupational therapy (OT), Josh has significantly improved his social skills, and we have learned how to effectively communicate with him. Josh is a social butterfly and can talk for ages. He can be empathetic and supportive when he needs to be, he just does not always know how.
Why I Chose Pediatrics as an OT
Pediatrics sometimes feels like a completely different world from other OT specialities where it looks like we play all day long. However, when I was competing in wheel-barrow races or spinning around on a “moon swing” during Josh’s sessions, I had no idea I was improving fine motor strength, body awareness, upper-body strengthening, motor-planning and bilateral coordination just from having a good time. It was tagging along and being incorporated into Josh’s OT sessions that initially sparked my interest in field. There is so much room for creativity and once you have your set activities in mind and know exactly what skills you will be targeting in treatment, then it does feel like your day job consists of playing around on giant obstacle courses and I have no complaints!
Occupational Therapy & Autism
While the type and severity of symptoms are a “spectrum” across individuals, Josh’s symptoms include limited social skills, restricted behaviors, and sensory sensitivities, which are common with autism. Josh has worked incredibly hard in occupational therapy (OT) to get to where he is today. Before OT, a change in his schedule, or a stranger accidentally brushing past him would result in a tumultuous tantrum that was truly impressive for someone as small as he was. In therapy, we learned about strategies to facilitate social and communicative skills, awesome adaptive equipment like noise-cancelling headphones and weighted blankets, and coping strategies to use when unexpected events occur. OT’s are experts at tailoring sessions for our client’s strengths and weaknesses.
Unfortunately, many people with autism are marginalized or treated poorly by people who simply do not understand what it looks like to have this “invisible diagnosis.” You and I would hold the door open for someone on crutches because we can see that they have a physical deficit. When people would hear Josh repeating phrases from his favorite movie as a way of answering their questions, they would brush him off as “weird”, or worse, bully him because they could not ‘see’ or begin to understand his diagnosis. Although these occurrences are less frequent these days, I am still extremely bothered when I see people reacting this way. I wanted to use this day as a way to spread awareness to the public so the future Josh’s of the world experience a better childhood/adult life.