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Occupational Therapy Corner: Why We Need Autism

By: Bek Wiltbank, Occupational Therapist
I love people with Autism. All ages, all types, every one of them. Many questions loom over our society, Why is Autism so prevalent? Where has it come from? Some people ask, How can we cure it? How can we make our kids develop typically? To all those questions I reply, I love Autism. I love the gifts behind their faces. I love the unique and amazing ways people with Autism see the world. I love the way they move their bodies. I love Autism. It brings joy to my heart when ever I’m in the presence of Autism. It also invokes in me the desire to understand how each individual communicates, how I can have a relationship with them. How can I adjust to make a connection with this one child, this one adult, this one teenager, regardless of their neurological difference.
Am I a hyper-optimist? Do I not see the aches and pains that families and children go through when Autism is present in a family? I do. I also see the thousands of ways our society has found on how to create comfort, success and relationships with people with Autism. In watching the film Loving Lampposts by Todd Drezner, a woman with Autism said, “Autism is a gift disguised as a dilemma.” Yes, a gift. In fact a myriad of gifts.
In my work as an Occupational Therapist I’ve worked with hundreds of families who have just received the news that their child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Each time the family reacts with the grief of the loss of the dreams they had for their child. The reality is that as the families spend more time with their child, guided by a therapist who believes in the ability of the child to build relationships and to learn, they discover unique gifts and talents in their child that they had not seen before. Previously they had not seen past the troublesome behaviors, had not seen how to connect with their child, had not seen the ‘gift disguised as a dilemma.’
The key to moving from grief and distress to gratitude and joy is the development of a relationship, a connection with the child as they are. For those that are seeking a ‘cure’ I ask, would you want to have a relationship with someone who was actively trying to change you? Would you want a relationship with someone who said to you, I love you but, you don’t meet all my conditions of how a human should behave, learn and be. Or, would you be more inclined to open up to connecting with someone who said, ‘No matter how you behave, no matter what you like, I accept you exactly as you are today.’ The primary relationship affects all other relationships, one’s ability to learn, and one’s ability to love themselves. In Loving Lampposts Todd Drezner states, “I would not want a fight against Autism to become a fight against Sam (his son).”
Why DO we need Autism?
Autism teaches us to clean up our environment. There is a huge movement to provide organic, preservative free, gluten free, and caseine free diets for kids on the Autism Spectrum. The original push behind this is to ‘cure Autism’. I think the actual result is that it provides kids with more physical comfort and thus they are clearer mentally, reducing stress as they work on creating relationships and learning. People with Autism have physical sensitivities and symptoms that are alleviated when they eat a whole foods diet. And I ask you this, isn’t that true for every human being? I know when I eat a diet rich in organic and whole foods, my mind and body are clearer, I sleep more soundly, and my digestive system runs more smoothly. In addition, many believe that other environmental toxins can be reduced to alleviate the discomfort that often accompanies Autism. Air filters, water filters, reduced light and noise pollution reduce environmental stressors. Autism is teaching us that we need to clean up our act. We have allowed our food, air, water and earth to become toxic. Autism is asking us to take notice, and take action on treating our bodies as the temples that they are. Thanks Autism!
Autism teaches us to be present. To be present is to let go of what happened 5 minutes ago, or last week, to release what might happen in an hour or in 10 years. It teaches us to play with our kids right now, and not miss the chance to connect because we were wondering if they’d ever go to college. Kids with Autism require us to play with them in the present moment. Full attention right here, and I’ll engage with you. This is a part of the DIR/Floortime model of therapy for kids on the spectrum. The premise being that you join in the activity that the child enjoys, imitate their activities, join in their play, and be present in this moment. When we do this with persistence, consistency, love, and enjoyment there is a rich and warm connection created, and the space opens up for you to learn about how the child learns. The child begins to trust you, notice you, and you are rewarded for your presence. Angeles Arien, a cultural anthropologist, states that anxiety is the state of being either in the future or in the past, not in the present moment. So, if we can be present and notice what is right now, we will let go of anxiety. Thanks Autism!
Autism teaches us the joy of and need for movement. We have become a sedentary society in many ways. Kids with Autism do not tolerate a day without movement, and if we try to make them, they act out, and we say they have a behavior problem. Kids on the Autism Spectrum require daily and rigorous activity to assist in the integration of sensory experiences and learning, and increase emotional regulation. I’ve seen kids who are able to read if they are pacing in the classroom, but are unable to sit to read. We must allow them to pace. I worked with a child who was not permitted to move while doing his school work, and then lost his recess time if he didn’t finish his work, thus compounding the issue. Once we realized that movement was the key to him being able to learn, his classroom success increased, his relationships improved, and he was no longer a regular in the principal’s office. Autism is teaching us that ALL children must be able to participate in movement to support their learning. Reducing and eliminating physical education and recess is a huge error that needs to be corrected, and children with Autism will not be able to conform to a school day without movement. Why do we ask typically developing kids to do so? The human body is made to move, and movement supports learning. Autism is teaching us this is not an area we can compromise. If childhood obesity rates are not enough to change our food and movement educations, then Autism will come in and echo what we need, healthier food and more movement. Thanks Autism!
Autism is teaching us to bring the family back home. For several decades we have seen the movement toward two parents working outside the home, and having kids in daycare. Kids have been somewhat accommodating; kids without Autism are more adaptable and have been tolerant of decreased family time at home, to a certain degree. Certainly more could be said about the challenges of kids being in daycare. However, children with Autism are not even permitted into standard daycare settings. They often are not potty trained or have needs that require more attention than most daycares will provide. Therefore, the majority of families I’ve worked with have made decisions to have one of the parents stay at home, or have a combination of schedules that increase the kids’ time with the parents. The child with Autism requires a more concentrated effort from the parents to develop a primary relationship, and this takes more time and effort from the parents. This can be a stressor on parents, especially if the task at hand is seen as an effort to ‘cure’ or change the child. However, if the gift of that child is accepted, and the challenge accepted, and the beauty acknowledged, it can be an enormous gift to the entire family. Estee Klar, the founder of The Autism Acceptance Project states that, “We need to derive joy from our families as they are.” I also like what Noah’s mom said in Loving Lampposts, “A lot of people look at Autism as a tragedy…but it hasn’t been a tragedy to me and to my family, because I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for all the things that Noah has taught me. He has been my greatest teacher.” Autism is teaching us to check our priorities regarding the raising of our children. Certainly there are benefits to parents working outside the home, and certainly there are ways to accommodate the needs of the adults AND the children in the family. There is also a great need to increase the amount of direct parenting we provide our own children. Autism is requiring that of us. Thanks Autism!
Autism teaches us to accept our children for who they are, and thus accept ourselves for who we are. Autism teaches us to increase our ability to connect with a variety of people in unique ways. We can no longer assume that others understand our subtle social cues, and expect that our children will conform to what we have in mind for them. Thank God! Autism teaches us that we need to drop the agendas we have for our children; it requires that we be open to however our children want and need to be. It teaches us to accept our children for exactly who they are. What if we could accept a child who rocks back and forth at the table of a public restaurant, what if we didn’t ask her to change or stop? Why do we? What if our child needed to wear only sweat suits and wore a necklace he could chew on? What if we accept our own quirks and differences? How many of us stuff down our own needs because we think they may be socially unacceptable? Certainly there are behaviors that are private, and if we have a relationship with our children that allows us to teach them, that information can be shared. But why do we ask our kids to stop rocking, to name just one benign behavior? Today I was rocking back and forth while sitting in the yard, I found it calming and comforting. When my neighbor drove up, I stopped. Why? I thought he might think I’m weird. Why do I care? What if I accepted myself and knew it was just fine to be exactly who I am at all times? This is self-esteem. This is self-empowerment. This is what children on the Autism spectrum require, that we accept what they need to feel like their best selves. Autism is teaching us to let go of the inane social rules that we seem to think have a bearing on someone’s intelligence or success. The truth is we need to educate people on the acceptance if differences, in every area, not only Autism acceptance. Additionally, if a parent is focused on changing their child, and is focused on what’s not working or what they want that they don’t have, the self-esteem of the child will eventually suffer. “You cannot build self-esteem if you’re perseverating about a cure,” Ralph James Savarese. Autism is teaching us to accept each other for who we are, which build communities, builds love, builds fun, and builds relationships. Thanks Autism!
I ask that we all look at people with Autism as a gift, instead of a burden. My hope is that as people learn about self-acceptance, they will be able to offer acceptance to everyone else. Each person is a gift. Autism is a gift. I hope that we can learn from it, and we are. Some of the greatest inventions and innovations brought to our world have come through people with Autism. Some of my favorite moments of all time with kids have been with kids with Autism. I ask that you give it a try. Try to love Autism. It really makes the whole journey a lot more fun.
Featured Author: Bek Wiltbank
Bek Wiltbank is an Occupational Therapist and Shamanic Practitioner who has worked with people of all ages throughout her career. She brings a wealth of experience and wisdom from her work in hospitals, nursing homes, early intervention centers, elementary schools, and high schools. Bek is a certified Shamanic Practitioner through the Sundust Oracle Institute, where she completed a 3 year training and initiation program. Bek continues her work at The Sundust Oracle Institute as a Teacher’s Assistant, and through continued study in the Mentorship and Leadership Program. Bek studied Craniosacral Therapy through the Upledger Institute and Bastyr University. Bek helps integrate the physical, psychological, and spiritual systems of the body through her therapeutic, educational, and spiritual services.

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