07/10/2015 8:22 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Why You Are So Wrong In Thinking That Autism Is A Disability

Sharon Dominick


Time stood still as I watched him play. Just four years old and he had me wrapped around his little finger.

He played with his dad and built a farm consisting of cows, horses and a fence. All of these were made with blocks. Then he became an electrician putting up a grid. He used make-believe tools and clay for fixing this grid. It was amazing to watch him in action.

"He has an engineer's mind," I said to his parents. "Oh, I am an engineer too," said the dad.

Well, like father like son!

Except that this little boy has autism.

That all people on the autism spectrum are intellectually impaired is hopefully a myth that has been blown to smithereens.

The latest research says that 60% of people on the spectrum have average or above average IQs.

This four-year-old is remarkably bright.

"According to me, there is no problem. Except that each of these young people does not learn the conventional way."

Is that uncommon? Does this also apply to the adolescents and adults that I work with?

Here are some snapshots. You can take a call.

Snapshot 1

This 20-year-old boy cooks amazingly well. His mother says that when he adds the spices, the dish tastes fantastic. He learns primarily by listening (the auditory channel). Lately, we have worked on a few visual foundations that were out of sync and his progress has been spectacular. Some gaps to be plugged here and there and this talented young man should be on his way to meaningful employment.

Snapshot 2

At a recent school party, this 16-year-old took centrestage and belted out one number after another. He knows thousands of songs! I tried tricking him by asking him to sing Salman Khan's latest -- "Chal beta selfie lele re". Since it's a new song, I thought he may not remember the lyrics. I couldn't be more wrong. He left us adults far behind. He also learns primarily via the auditory channel. Plus he has an enviable memory.

Snapshot 3

This young man is an artist. I watch him create a masterpiece with acrylics, oil pastels and water colours. Each time he uses oil pastels, he runs his fingers across the work created to feel the texture. On one side he creates a medley with red and blue paint, using his fingers. Suddenly, he highlights with purple oil pastels. I stand mesmerised. How does he figure out the various permutations and combinations? Mind you, he cannot expressively label these colours. But he plays around extensively with these combinations in each of his artworks. He seems to be a kinesthetic and visual learner. And oh, did I mention that he is my son?

Snapshot 4

He is the heartthrob of his teachers. Caring and loving, he remembers details about people and places effortlessly. He makes it a point to greet people a day before their birthdays, as their phone lines are too busy on the big day! Besides, he wants to be the first to wish them. He is in the 9th grade. Last year he scored 70%, which he was not too happy with. His mother has figured out exactly how he learns. He reads, then they make a précis, and he rewrites it. He also has a great memory which is evident from his uncanny ability to remember dates like a historian.

Each of these individuals is on the autism spectrum. And yet, each of them learns differently.

Each of them is spectacular.

Each of them is super-talented.

Ironically, most of them show mild to moderate intellectual impairment.

How can this be possible? What is the actual issue?

According to me, there is no problem. Except that each of these young people does not learn the conventional way.

Which leads me to a question -- How do people learn?

Is it just the neuro-linguistic and mathematical logical way? Or are there other modalities of learning? The former is mostly what IQ tests measure. However, I believe in the latter.

Of much interest to me is Howard Gardner's work, which talks about multiple intelligences.

"I want to create the 'I can' network for my son, for each of my students, and for every individual on the autism spectrum."

He talks about other significant modalities such as musical, visual, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic, in addition to linguistic and logical. Gardner believes that every individual has a unique blend of these. This concept of multiple intelligences should be used to "empower learners" and not restrict them to a particular modality of learning.

How wonderful would it be if the four students mentioned above were evaluated on the basis of multiple intelligences! Unfortunately, we don't have tests to measure a person's intelligence based on this as of now.

I believe that there are no coincidences in life. As I was working on this article, I came across a spectacular video.

Do hear it straight from someone on the spectrum.

I am shaken by this video.

At the same time, I am inspired by it.

I want to be the person who enters the orbit of affected children and learns from them.

I want to create the "I can" network for my son, for each of my students, and for every individual on the autism spectrum.

Here is how we do it at SAI Connections:

1. Understand how the student learns

Is he a visual learner? Or does he like to feel things? Does he have superior musical ability? Does he learn by listening?

2. Acknowledge that one size does not fit all

It is important to have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in place for each student that we work with. This gives students, parents and teachers a roadmap to go by. This is determined by a detailed assessment.

3. Check for missing foundations

Not only do we work with enhancing students' strengths, but we also zero down on their difficulties and help them overcome those. Sometimes we have to backtrack, as some foundations may be out of sync. For example, if a child is not able to track a moving object on the floor, how is he expected to use his gaze effectively?

4. Most importantly -- train the parent

Parents are the best guides. If you're stuck in a situation, ask the mother - she usually knows. At the end of the day, the child goes home to the parents. So who must be empowered? Yes, definitely use the services of experts and consultants. But don't leave the parent out. Make them an integral part of your program.

My son is now 26. I have been studying autism ever since he was three years old. I will continue to study autism all my life. These wonderful people intrigue me. I want to get into their orbit.

I don't know how much time I have. None of us does. Tomorrow is never promised to any of us.

So today, a group of moms and I made a promise to ourselves. We will never give up on our children. We will create I can networks around them.

What about you? Are you going to join us?

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