Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Autism is Not an Illness

A Facebook status has been making the rounds lately, posted by the well-meaning folks who want to show how much they care about others who suffer quietly.  It reads as follows: 

“Hard to explain to someone who has no clue. It's a daily struggle being in pain or feeling sick on the inside while you look fine on the outside. Please put this as your status for at least 1 hour if you or someone you know has an invisible illness: addiction, crohn's, ptsd, anxiety, bipolar, depression, diabetes, lupus, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, ME, Arthritis, Cancer, Heart Disease, Epilepsy, Autism, M.D., Histiocytosis etc. Never judge what you don't understand, I know which of my friends will copy and paste.” 

Now, I completely understand the kind sentiment behind this statement.  And I appreciate that some people do care about those who are suffering from some ‘invisible’ issue that makes life difficult.  But at the same time, this status infuriates me and my husband because it lists autism as an illness. 

Autism is not an illness.  As defined on the PubMed Health site, it is “... a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills ... Autism is a physical condition linked to abnormal biology and chemistry in the brain.” 

Autism also often means extreme sensitivity to one’s environment.  Loud noises, chaotic visuals like a crowded store, and the feeling of certain textures can drive someone who is on the autism spectrum into overload. 

As the parent of a child with autism, I am perhaps more concerned with the proper definition than most.  The issue for me is the immense amount of misinformation out there.  And when that lack of accuracy continually presents itself over and over, it drives me up the wall. 

Those with autism are not contagious.  They are not suffering a malady that came from nowhere.  They are not ailing.  They were born this way, with a brain wired differently from the neuro-typical human.  And while it is a daily struggle for them to connect with a world that often doesn’t understand them, they are not ill. 

My six year old is a gifted boy with talents in art, singing, and mechanics.  His grasp of reading and math is ahead of most of his peers.  Yes, he deals with frustration by screaming.  His ability to talk to others in an interactive manner is limited.  He operates on pure impulse much of the time, which he has no control over.  But I wouldn’t change him or ‘cure’ him for all the world, because he is perfect.  Do I wish he had an easier life?  Of course.  Do I worry he will be ostracized by a society because he is the square peg trying to fit into its round holes?  Absolutely.  But he is such a unique, amazing person that I can’t imagine him any different than he is.  I trust that he will overcome his challenges in time, as most of us must, and he will be stronger for it. 

He is not sick, and putting him and others like him in that category is harmful to their self-esteem.  People with autism are not ill.  They simply deserve kindness and patience, as we all do.  If you must comment on people on the spectrum, please educate yourselves about them before you do so.  The greatest kindness you can do for those with development disorders is to not share incorrect information about them.  You may have noble intentions, but without knowing what you’re talking about, you are doing more harm than good.

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