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Posts tagged ‘Autism’

Pets for Children with Autism

Pets for Children on the Autism Spectrum

I, like presumably 99% of us, love animals. For most of my life I’ve had a dog in my house, and I even have experience with guinea pigs and parakeets. Our friend Erica King, who I interviewed a few weeks ago about her success as a playwright, even has a couple of hedgehogs! My point is, pets can be an important part of the family, and for children on the autism spectrum, they can be a great source of companionship and socialization in a world where those things may be difficult. There are a lot of benefits to pet ownership by itself, but from what I’ve discovered, it can really help children with ASD who are struggling to better cope with life and all its trappings. So please join me as I briefly discuss our favorite furry friends!

So the main pet that I’d like to focus on for this piece is dogs, as they’re by far the most common pet to own and the one with information the most readily available. But this can very easily apply to cats, birds and yes, even hedgehogs. There’s a surprisingly large amount of research to suggest that owning a pet can do wonders for a child with autism’s social skills. The rate at which ASD children bond with dogs in particular is extremely high. A recent study indicated that a majority of families with members who are on the spectrum own a dog, and that 94% of those children had formed a deep connection with their pet. That’s sweet and all, but that same study, as well as ones similar to it, also delves into some very interesting facts. For example, children who are brought up with a family pet have been shown to possess comparatively above average social skills, and that children with autism will showcase a temporary increase in social capacity after a productive play session with a pet, such as a guinea pig.

But while a positive connection to socialization is great, there are other ways in which dogs are helping kids on the spectrum. Some training dogs are being specially tailored to suit this demographic, and I’m delighted to see the things they’re helping our kids out with. I found an organization called Dogs for Good, who trains dogs for children with all manner of disabilities. Their dogs help kids on the spectrum with road safety, reducing family stress, sensory support, overcoming fears, and a whole host of other things. So if you’re a parent whose child may be struggling and you don’t have a pet, perhaps consider it. It can be a worthwhile endeavor, not only for the child but the whole family as well!

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Thoughts on “Atypical”

Recently I decided to give the Netflix original series “Atypical” a try, and my expectations were blown away. Starring Keir Gilchrist, the show follows Sam Gardner, an 18-year-old boy with autism, as he searches for love, acceptance, and a purpose in life. There is also a lot of focus on his family and their trials and tribulations, but for this piece I mostly want to focus on Sam and his characterization. I’ve had my issues in the past with the “Hollywood autistic” as I call it; where most people on the spectrum are typically portrayed as either some savant genius with no ability to socialize, or completely incompetent. Sam strikes a really great balance in being a realistic depiction, and I found myself relating to him on several occasions. This is a comedy series, so some things naturally are a bit exaggerated, and I enjoyed those moments, but for the most part I found Sam to be my favorite character with autism I’ve seen in a long time, if not ever.

I won’t get too deep into spoiler territory, as I highly recommend the series to anyone reading this, but I do want to cover some of the basics. The story starts off with Sam’s quest to find a girlfriend, which right off the bat I think was perfect. I’ve written before about the struggles of those on the spectrum to find meaningful relationships, and they captured the struggle really well. Eventually, that plot point gets somewhat pushed to the side in favor of discovering who he is, what he’s passionate about, what he wants to do going forward in his life, and (very importantly) how he’s going to live independently, as he’s always been with his family. Once again, I’ve written about these very things before and the challenges they bring with them.

Now I looked it up, and Robia Rashid, the show runner, is not on the spectrum, but I could’ve sworn she was due to how relatable many of these situations were. Sam’s often blunt nature which takes some getting used to, the sensory problems that can manifest in unpleasant ways, his ability to “hyper focus” on something he’s really interested in, and a brutal lack of care for that which does not. And the actor who portrays Sam, despite being neurotypical himself, does a fantastic job of showing a lot of little intricacies. As I said before, I highly recommend this show to anyone looking for an emotional yet entertaining ride, complete with a great cast of characters, one of whom happens to be an individual with autism done right.

Stress and Depression in Autism

Today I would like to tackle a darker topic, but one that I find to be incredibly important. It’s a subject that needs to be addressed in our society at large, but I want to focus on it in the realm of autism, because I’ve noticed it to a concerning degree, both from personal experience as well as observation. I’m talking about stress and depression. I’m grouping the 2 together as, in my opinion, they essentially go hand-in-hand. There are many things which cause us to feel stress in our daily lives, and for those on the autism spectrum, it can easily spiral down into a dark place of depression. Things such as an overabundance of stimuli, things not going our way at school and/or work, difficulty in our social lives, facing some level of discrimination, etc. Because of the challenges presented to us by ASD, overcoming these obstacles, keeping on the right track and steering clear of the trappings of stress/depression can be very difficult. I’ve dealt with these issues extensively over the course of my life and, while I’ve certainly recovered a great deal from the depression, I continue to struggle with constant stress and anxiety to this day. I would like to further address this topic with some of the information I learned through my research.

Now I should specify, because I’ve noticed that nowadays depression is very often misunderstood. It’s not just feeling down on yourself for a couple days. It’s a prolonged feeling of extreme sadness and hopelessness, characterized by a lack of ambition, pessimism about the future, and feeling very alone. For individuals with autism, the effects can be even worse, with some reporting “a loss of previously learned skills, greater difficulty carrying out everyday tasks, and at worst, suicide.” The findings I came to on this topic were staggering. I knew there was a problem, but I almost wasn’t expecting the severity. According to a study by Springer, nearly half of all people with autism will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives. And that’s not all it mentioned, it goes pretty in-depth into how there is a serious risk factor for those with autism, and much of it stems from our susceptibility to stress. Another thing I found morbidly interesting was that the depression rate seems highest in those with greater intelligence, and since many with autism are exceptionally gifted, you can see how there’s a vicious cycle here.

There truly needs to be more awareness on this issue. Not just for those on the autism spectrum, but for the general population. The reason I wanted to bring light to this crisis, besides personal experience, is because of the disproportionate rate at which it affects those in the autism community. I’m sure for many parents out there, either your loved one has dealt with extreme stress/depression, or maybe even you have when things got particularly rough. Just know that you’re not alone and there are always people who care about you.

Reconsidering Neurodiversity

Here at CARD, our mission is and always will be to promote good relations between those on the autism spectrum and the general public, be it in the workplace, the community, at school, or even within the family unit. We believe it is imperative that people of all abilities throughout the Tampa Bay area are treated equally and fairly, and are never impeded from living their lives because of something they can’t control. While I’m sure everyone in the special needs community (and most people in general) believe in helping individuals who require it, there is some debate over the concept of “neurodiversity,” which is defined as “an approach to learning and mental health that argues diverse neurological conditions are the result of normal variations in the human genome.” Basically, if you’re a believer in neurodiversity, then you wouldn’t really view mental disabilities as disabilities at all, just quirks that can be worked on and managed with a few key strategies. Before doing my research for this post, I never even really questioned the validity of neurodiversity, but it’s definitely gotten me to question things a bit more.

I don’t believe it’s fair to argue for or against something without at least providing the counterargument which, in the case of neurodiversity, is that mental disabilities such as ASD, schizophrenia, ADHD, etc. are socially constructed and exist naturally as a part of the neural spectrum. Proponents argue that due to the lack of understanding of how the brain works, coupled with considerable doubts regarding the field of psychiatry, it can’t be proven that there’s anything “wrong with” and autistic or schizophrenic brain. As with many others, I’m not an expert on this topic, but this is their argument put as simply as I can.

As I outlined in the case for neurodiversity, there is a significant lack of hard evidence in neuroscience. The brain is not widely understood like other parts of the body, and as far as I can tell, this fact is acknowledged by the dissenters of neurodiversity. The 2 main critiques I found which I agreed with the most came from Psychology Today, and they were: while it is a noble goal to help people with these conditions, it’s absurd and even harmful to treat them as something desirable; and that all “medical diseases—not just psychiatric disease—rests on a subjective determination about what constitutes abnormality,” and it’s up to the professionals to make those determinations. While the goal is to de-stigmatize mental disabilities, the anti- crowd argues that neurodiversity proponents are doing the opposite. If these conditions are seen as totally normal, then why would there be a push to invest in treatment? It makes sense when you think of it that way.

I’ve lived with ASD my entire life, and here’s my viewpoint. I’m not ashamed of who I am or what I have, and I’ve worked through a lot. However, I don’t think autism should necessarily be “glamorized.” It does provide some benefits, but there are plenty of handicaps as well, and I’ve now come to seriously doubt neurodiversity.

-G. Sosso

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Autism and Speech Language Pathology

It’s no secret that for many on the autism spectrum, the development of linguistics and/or speech can be stunted. This is commonly regarded as one of the defining traits of “low-functioning autism,” where problems more severe than social difficulties can manifest themselves. I’m incredibly fortunate to have never had to deal with any of these particular issues, even excelling in the language department, but others are not so lucky. In my work here at CARD and PEPSA, I’ve done a lot of editing work for various teachers around the state, and one of the common professions I kept coming across were “speech-language pathologists” (SLPs). In truth, I had never heard of that term before, and so for this piece I decided to look more into them and their relationship to ASD. After doing some research, I’ve concluded that SLPs can be lifesavers when trying to help out low-functioning people with autism, particularly children.

So, what exactly is a speech-language pathologist? According to accredited SLPs Gail Richard and Donna Murray, “The speech-language pathologist’s most-familiar role involves helping someone produce speech – making sounds, speaking words, improving articulation (intelligibility) and so on. But speech-language pathologists do so much more. They also help with the language skill of putting words together to communicate ideas – either verbally or in reading and writing.” And, perhaps most importantly, they even help articulate social communication skills. Already you can begin to see why these SLPs are so sought after in the autism community. I’ve noticed through my editing work that having a background in speech-language pathology is a huge plus when it comes to being a special needs teacher, as are many who have partnered with PEPSA all throughout Florida.

Unfortunately, I’m no expert on the subject myself and as I’ve mentioned, I never attended a session with an SLP, so I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of what exactly they do or the methods they employ. There’s plenty of independent research you can do if you’re really interested. However, I would like to discuss one of the activities they utilize that I am familiar with, so if something like this interests you, perhaps consider contacting an SLP for your own child. If you’ve never heard of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), you’ve probably at least seen an example of it before. They’re those cute little picture charts that speech-impaired people often use. The Tampa Police Department even started using them recently to serve their ASD community members thanks to the efforts of CARD! SLPs use them to teach basic communication skills, and to develop an understanding of language before delving into the actual use of language. There’s so much more that these amazing people do, but it would take an extremely long time to get into it all.

There might not be any other profession that seems more geared towards serving individuals with autism than SLPs, and I can certainly appreciate the work they do. If this seems like something helpful, there are plenty of them in the Tampa area alone, they’re all just a google search away!

Autism Across the World

As I’ve discussed many times, the rate of autism and the manner in which we address it has changed drastically throughout the 20th century and up until today. But some may forget that every year on April 2nd, we celebrate World Autism Awareness Day. Sometimes as Americans we tend to forget that there’s a whole wide world out there (I say this as affectionately as possible). And as someone whose top interests include history, international affairs, different cultures, and just generally learning about the world, I was curious as to how other countries view autism, and how prevalent it is. In my research, I discovered some very interesting trends that I would like to share with you all.

One recurring theme is that autism seems to be most common, or at least more widely diagnosed, in developed nations such as Japan, the UK, the US, Sweden, Hong Kong, etc. The data I pulled from here is consistent with every other source I found on the subject. Western Europe, North America and East Asia seem to have the highest rates of autism in the world, and a lot of that is most likely similar to what we see in the US: better awareness by advocacy groups, a more accepting social climate, and improved methods of diagnosis. Japan always seems to come in at number 1, while the US ranks anywhere between 5 and 3. The other interesting thing I found was the complete lack of autism prevalence in places like Africa and the Middle East. These areas are generally more poverty-stricken and less accepting to people’s differences, so it comes as little surprise that autism is not focused on in these places.

Speaking of, how do some other cultures view autism? Well, from what I can tell, across most of Western Europe, Australia, Canada, etc. it’s much the same as in the US, with improvements every year. However, in some places, there’s a more nuanced view of autism. For example, in South Korea, they have a phrase for autism: “chapae.” It is considered a “genetic mark of shame on the entire family, and a major obstacle to all of their children’s chances of finding suitable spouses,” and the stigma can become such a problem that Korean clinicians will intentionally misdiagnose their patients as having something else entirely. That is astounding to me that something like that is going on in such an advanced nation. Even here in America we see a different take on ASD in the Hispanic communities. Even adjusted for socioeconomic factors, rates of autism are lower in the Hispanic demographic than any other in America. It’s theorized that traits of autism can affect one’s reproductive chances.

I find it so interesting how autism is viewed so differently around the world, and how culture shapes that view so intensely. Personally, I’m glad to have it here in the US, where people are widely accepting and there are so many great resources available.

  • G. Sosso

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