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Living with Autism: One Teacher’s Perspectives On The Autistic Mind

Lilies are my favorite flower. Opening slowly, they unveil their trumpet-shaped beauty over time. These delicate flowers have a splendid (albeit strong) scent and symbolize humility and devotion.

On one particularly lovely Monday, I was the lucky recipient of a bouquet of white lilies. They rested on a small table in my office, filling the room with their incredible fragrance.

My Experience Working With Autism

I’ll never forget that day. Mondays were reserved for my students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)—helping these students predict, plan, and approach their weeks. When my first student entered the office, he was immediately drawn to the flowers. This student, a brilliant and talented art and history major, also happened to be non-verbal. He utilized a small text-to-speech device to communicate in the classroom and during our sessions.

As the student stood over the flowers, it quickly occurred to me that the scent might be overwhelming to his sensitive sensory system. I offered to remove the flowers. But he protested by reaching out to touch the flower petals, as if to take in the scent and beauty of the entire flower.

Although I liked the bouquet, I had not taken the time to fully explore it or appreciate all of its attributes. After an extended silence, the student smiled. He turned to me and said, “Beautiful.” As I held back tears, I realized that the flower’s scent, when received in a warm, welcoming, and safe space, were not an assault on his sensory system, but rather an adventure and awakening to the splendor around him. That day changed the trajectory of my career forever. I was, and remain, humbled by the beauty of the autistic mind.

Working With The Autistic Mind

In working with families, students, and professionals, I consistently remind others to stop and appreciate the beauty of the autistic mind. Individuals on the spectrum don’t need to change in order to adapt and “fit in” with society. Rather, society needs to broaden its view of “normal”. The very same qualities that lead to a diagnosis of ASD also allow for discovery, innovation, intense focus, specialization, transparency, and inquiry. As Kerri, a single mother of two boys explains, “Autism does not go away. But it can be shaped, guided, and nurtured into a unique ‘quality’ to contribute to the world.”

So how do we, as a society, balance the need for social norms while embracing behavioral and cognitive differences? We can start with education around differences, exposure to individuals on the spectrum, and a move to embrace neurodiversity as yet another layer of our wonderfully diverse world. The articles in this series and the respectful decision to retain the “voice” of the individual on the spectrum, is a worthy step in that direction. The experts on ASD are, first and foremost, those diagnosed with ASD. They’re followed by their partners, parents, physicians, and other providers who work as a team to support them. Finding support through vetted and respected community organizations ensures that resources are allocated appropriately and focused on evidence-based supports.

As I read through the articles for this series on Autism, I was struck by one parent’s statement. “It’s worth the time we take to help them find that balance between accepting themselves and making changes. The world needs their insights as much as they need ours—maybe more.” I try to approach my work with students with the same humility and devotion symbolized in those lilies and to embrace the differences. Without the wonder of the autistic mind, we would all be relegated to a vanilla world void of colorful sprinkles.

One mom’s perspective on raising a son with autism.

Another mom’s perspective on her teenager with autism.

What one teenager says it’s like to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

A teenager’s story of growing up with a brother who has autism.

Dr. Lisa Meeks is director of disability services at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. She is author of multiple books and articles on the topic of ASD, mother of two amazing young adults and splits her time between San Francisco and Cleveland, OH.

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