Awareness helps those with autism

Melissa Irish, Features Editor

Although it is much better understood than it was fifty years ago, many neurotypical people still find themselves lacking in what they know about autism.  This disability is prevalent in modern society, increasing the need to comprehend its effects.

Autism is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs an individual’s ability to communicate.  However, a father of a student with autism believed that this isn’t the best way to describe his daughter’s condition.

“It’s not really something that can be defined,” Jeff Kazmierski said.  “You get all kinds of clinical definitions of it, but it’s really a unique way of thinking and experiencing the world.”

Autism impacts each individual with it differently, and seldom do two individuals with autism have the same exact set of effects.

“It is extremely diverse,” school psychologist Joni Christensen said.  “You can go all the way from an individual that is completely nonverbal and does not have a communication device to individuals that are worldly scholars that do public speaking.”

Those with high-functioning autism face issues too, even though they are not always as obvious.  Jeff’s daughter, junior Sophia Kazmierski, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, described some setbacks she and others who are high-functioning face in everyday life.

“They’re usually very smart but sometimes it can be hard to think of the right words to say,” junior Sophia said.  “Sometimes things can be really stressful for them, like I have a hard time adjusting to schedule changes and sometimes being in a new place can take a little longer to adjust to.”

Like many other disorders, there is often a stigma attached to autism.  Sophia’s mother pointed out one common assumption that is typically a result of those with autism’s impaired communication skills.

“I think that one of the stigmas is that people think that people with autism don’t have feelings or empathy,” Sharon Kazmierski said.  “I think that people with autism have a great deal of empathy, perhaps more than ‘normal’ people.  I think what we perceive as not caring often is that they care very much.  Just because a person can’t verbally express their feelings doesn’t mean that they don’t have those feelings.”

Christensen felt that the stigma can be combated by awareness, which she believed is increasing.

“I think that people are becoming more aware of what autism is, but it looks so differently in each individual,” Christensen said.  “A lot of times they’re maybe viewed as odd or strange because they have different interest areas than others and they’re very hyperfocused on those interest areas.”

Individuals who have high-functioning autism do not typically exhibit as obvious of symptoms as others.  However, they do face their own struggles.

“Some people might experience problems with learning stuff like being able to focus in the classroom,” Sophia said.  “Some people might be socially awkward, but not everyone experiences the same things from having autism.  Each person has their own difficulties and each person has their own strengths.”

Especially when students with autism aren’t as high-functioning, their actions can garner some looks.  However, Christensen thought that was not as big of an issue within the school.

“I think the students at Bellevue West are wonderful about embracing student differences,” Christensen said.  “We have our Circle of Friends group here that’s geared specifically for students that are on the autism spectrum and that helps them work on social skills and gives them safe and familiar people within the building.”

Some believe that autism is something that should be cured, but Sophia disagreed.

“I don’t think it should be cured,” Sophia said.  “Each person with autism has a unique personality and there are a lot of things I do not want to change about myself.”

Christensen agreed that not everyone with autism is the same.

“They should know that if they met one person with autism, they’ve truly met one person with autism,” Christensen said.  “They are all so different.  If you just take a little bit of time and get to know them, they are truly fascinating, wonderful people.  Just like everyone else, they want to belong, they want a sense of community, and they want their interests and ideas to be heard and recognized.”

Sophia had a message for those without autism as well.

“I think they should know that having autism can be a challenge, but sometimes what we need is encouragement,” Sophia said.  “It may be hard at first to find the right things to say, but if you just give us a little time, we’ll figure it out.”