So, what is autism? Well, as noted by the Autism Society:
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental disability; signs typically appear during early childhood and affect a person’s ability to communicate, and interact with others. ASD is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause of autism, but increased awareness and early diagnosis and intervention and access to appropriate services/supports lead to significantly improved outcomes. Some of the behaviors associated with autism include delayed learning of language; difficulty making eye contact or holding a conversation; difficulty with executive functioning, which relates to reasoning and planning; narrow, intense interests; poor motor skills’ and sensory sensitivities. Again, a person on the spectrum might follow many of these behaviors or just a few, or many others besides. The diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is applied based on analysis of all behaviors and their severity.
Well, this explains the technical terms of autism. But this definition will never outline the pain, struggle, joys and burdens that come with this growing disorder.
(From an article I first penned for Madame Noire three years ago):
At the age of five, my younger sister was declared autistic. The pain of that revelation has burdened my mother from the moment she heard the news until this very day, but it never really hit me until I was old enough to comprehend what it meant. Growing up, there were times when I would lock myself in my room and cry. Agony flooded my being and I would sob because my sister was unable to hold a simple conversation with me. I still feel hurt knowing that there’s a possibility that I will never get to experience what it’s like to have a normal sisterly bond with Glennise; to go shopping with her, to exchange clothes, secrets and funny stories.
[So when] the month of April comes to a close, many of you will forget about autism and move on to the next disease, disorder, or ailment related to the succeeding months. But I can’t forget. Autism is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Although it may sound like a sob story, the purpose of this article is not to evoke pity. I’m not looking for condolences, sympathy or rue for my sister or myself. I’ve always loved Glennise and learned to appreciate her for who she is long ago. And believe me, she’s one of the happiest people on the planet (as is the case with most autistic individuals). My goal is to educate—I just want people to take the time to be aware of what autism is and learn to be accepting of those who aren’t what we perceive as normal.
People who deal with autism on a daily basis have it hard enough, and we shouldn’t have to live in a world where we feel our loved ones are ostracized or viewed as unequal. And if you took the time to get to know someone with autism, you’d discover that they are some of the funniest and most intriguing people around. Anyone who has spent a day with Glennise, interacting with her and observing her antics, will tell you that at some point, she has had them dying with laughter.
Though her autism is often difficult to manage, one of the worst parts of her condition is not the disorder itself, but the discrimination that it ignites. People whisper and stare when they see her jump around, rock or make idiosyncratic sounds unfamiliar to them. Even some of our own family members have made unpleasant comments and are embarrassed to have her around, fearful of what others may think. I can’t count how many times I’ve ended up in arguments or have wanted to fight at the mere glimpse of someone giving Glennise a side eye or hearing a snide remark. But I’m learning to look beyond that. I know the best way to fight ignorance is not with your fists, but with knowledge.
From time to time, I still find myself asking ‘Why?’ Why did God choose to make her autistic? Why was I burdened with the crying spells, the hard-to-deal with behavioral patterns, the constant sacrifice that it takes to help care for her, or feeling like most people don’t want my sister, this little girl whom I love so much, around? Although I’m still not 100 percent sure of the answer, Glennise’s autism has made me view life through a unique lens, and I know that dealing with her condition has played a major role in the way I think and who I am today.
So as I return to my daily life living with my complex, yet beautifully magnetic sister, here’s something I want you all to think about: A new study showed that [1 out of every 68] American children is somewhere on autism’s spectrum. Those numbers are pretty high, and sadly, they continue to grow. So before you point fingers or toot your nose up at a person who looks, sounds, or behaves a little differently, step back and catch yourself, because at some point, autism could affect you or someone you love too.