Understanding autism is important for social awareness

My little sister was diagnosed with a specific form of autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, at a very young age. I didn’t understand what it meant or what she had until I was nearly a teenager, but I understood that she was different. I used to have to organize things for her and hunt down her bullies, but we also would argue over the television and whose turn it was to play Sims, just like any other sisters.

April is Autism Awareness Month, in case you didn’t know, and it’s a big deal. The most recent data shows that one out of every 88 U.S. children, including one out of every 54 boys, is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diagnosis isn’t always an easy task. It’s done by a developmental examination, which looks at many behaviors; saying very few words, not making eye contact and getting upset by any changes to their routine are some usual factors.

Children with autism, or anyone at all with autism, are not necessarily alike. My little sister withdrew socially at a very young age and still has a lot of social difficulties today.

She had friends in middle school, but since high school, her social interactions have declined. She happens to have a high I.Q. but nearly failed out of high school because she didn’t do her assignments.

These were normal areas of concern for her, but others with similar diagnoses can have very different problems.

We write off those with obvious disabilities, but we don’t bother to understand our peers who are just “different” without realizing they have disabilities as well. As a community, we need to understand what autism — in its many forms — is, and look not to push these people away for being socially awkward or uncomfortable to be around.

A lot of my friends meet my sister and have no idea she’s different. If they know beforehand, they usually try to navigate her over-excited awkward forms of talking. If they don’t know, they usually react to her with smirks and jokes, not realizing she doesn’t understand. My sister usually has no idea how she’s making others feel, unless the expression is obvious or clearly said. Her differences don’t scream “autistic” and others just assume she’s weird.

Autism is best understood as a “spectrum.” There are high-functioning autistics, like my sister, and others who range on numerous areas of the scale. While my sister does have developmental problems in the areas of social interaction and maturity, she ranks as high functioning for her ability to clearly communicate and look others in the eye. Many others don’t have those skills, and can lack in other areas when growing up.

Some stereotypes of autism are imagining people who rock back-and-forth in their chairs or shake and throw fits. But these are a small fraction of what autism can mean for its bearers. Autistic people can be incredibly smart, the way my sister is, or have many other talents. Their disability isn’t always obvious to the untrained eye.

So to be aware this month, understand that autism doesn’t just fall under the “special Ed” kids from high school who rode a different bus. For all you know the kid next to you has autism, and that person deserves to be treated with an understanding of who they are, not just ignored if they made a few socially awkward comments.

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