When people outside of our world hear the word “autism” they tend to associate it with three things: not talking, not making eye contact, and monsters. But what people don’t realize is that our children don’t all look the same.
For some children, you can tell right off the bat that they have it. And for many others, their autism is an “invisible disability.” I don’t particularly care for this term because to me, it signifies that they aren’t real. Invisibility is a superpower that doesn’t actually exist. I would probably coin them “less obvious disabilities” or “discreet disabilities.” Or just “disabilities!” But regardless, you often can’t look at a child and know.
It doesn’t matter to me whether a child has low or high functioning autism. (See Article: There is No Easy Autism)
What I want to talk about are the misconceptions commonly associated with our children. Some of them share unique traits. Autism is not the same thing for all and does not look one way. It is not a physical deformity and despite the confusion, many of them can talk. Not every case has the same checks marked in their box. There are traits that children portray that most people wouldn’t associate with autism, traits of “invisible disabilities.”
- A trait you may notice about a child with ASD is that many want to self-direct and be in control. They can be seen as bossy and non-compliant. Some children have to be in charge and will battle over that power—to the death! It’s like a daily war we have to face. That power that they seek helps reduce their anxiety (when they feel in control) and whether it be in school or therapy—it is being worked on despite what people on the outside see.
2. Some children on the spectrum express themselves in unusual ways, especially under stress. This can include what is called stimming. They may do something as subtle as biting their nails, repetitive behaviors or language, and even something more obvious like flapping their arms. Some kids can’t sit still and will find self-soothing techniques within constant movement. Asking them to stop is like asking a bird not to fly. We’re not here to clip their wings, we are here to help them soar.
3. Meltdowns (are not tantrums!) even though they often look identical on the outside. A tantrum can stop when a child gets what they want; it is common for even typical kids to throw tantrums in public. Sometimes our kids do throw tantrums and sometimes they have meltdowns. But they are different. VERY different.
A meltdown is an emotional reaction to something that overwhelmed the child and can’t be controlled by the child. A child with ASD may even self injure during a meltdown. There is no room for reasoning with a child during this time and when parents know the difference, it looks like they are not managing or disciplining their children to the outside world. They may look like spoiled brats (as many rude bystanders will mutter under their breath as they walk by). There is a time and a place for teaching discipline and that time is not during a meltdown.
4. Some kids might apologize when they are done with #3. They may even do it a long time after an incident. After years of therapy and being taught empathy, some of our warriors realize that what they do is not polite or the social norm….and when they apologize afterward it does not mean that they are fine. It means that they have come a long way. That they are growing and developing and becoming aware of what they cannot control. And some may never be aware of or acknowledge their behavior. It all depends on the child.
5. They aren’t eating typical food or not eating at all. It may look like they manipulated their way into getting a cookie for dinner when you see a family out in a restaurant. Meanwhile, that child probably already ate and is being rewarded for some incredible milestone they hit today, this week, or month. They may have allergies. Who knows, there could be any variety of reasons why that child is using an iPad while the rest of the family eats dinner together. Maybe that family rarely gets to go out and their child ate prior because many kids with autism are regimented little soldiers who crave structure and schedules and their world falls apart without them.
Our kids work their butts off every single day on these skills, even when they continue to fail. The biggest thing people need to realize when it comes to our children is that—even when they look normal, they can still hear you. Be mindful of what flies out of your mouth!
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