What it’s like to live with autism?

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By Robert J. Szczerba 

The Cherokee tribe of Native Americans had a well-known proverb stating that you “shouldn’t judge a person before you have walked a mile in their shoes”. It’s practical advice to view a situation from the perspective of another before rendering an opinion. One can see how this type of thinking can lead to greater compassion and understanding of those around us.

But how can one really experience the perspective of another? It’s certainly easier said than done. Consider the case of individuals with autism. These days almost everyone has heard of autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASD), both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and possible repetitive behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the current incidence of autism is 1 in 68 children.

As the father of a wonderful 11-year-old boy with autism, I constantly try to view the world from his perspective, hoping to gain insights into why he interacts with his environment in the unique way that he does. But, how many people have even the faintest idea of what it’s like to have this disorder? And what an individual must endure going through what others would call a “typical” day?

One of the main symptoms for individuals with autism is an inability to process all the different sensory inputs in their environment. Many times individuals on the spectrum have hypersensitivity to sights and sounds. This generally leads to an increase in anxiety and stress. A person with autism may flap their arms, rock back and forth, or make other “unnatural gestures” as a way to cope with the chaos they are experiencing in their mind.

Since sensory overload and the accompanying anxiety and confusion are key aspects of understanding autism, it’s important to be able to replicate this experience for neurotypical individuals. The following video is a great attempt to help us understand what it feels like to have autism.

Warning: this film contains flashing lights, bright colors and loud, sudden noises

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