Understanding the strengths and gifts that come with autism
By Shereen Salfity, Family Flavours’ medical student intern
It is so important for parents and teachers to keep in mind the positive aspects and strengths that come with autism, says Occupational Therapist & Special and Education Consultant Dr Widad ‘Akrouk.
This month, we talk candidly about common misperceptions and the many ways we can learn from people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Family Flavours: What are some characteristics of ASD that are important
for us to know?
‘Akrouk: Characteristics include communication challenges, language barriers and behaviour difficulties, including narrow interests and repetitive actions. These behaviours can usually be attributed to their senses being out of sync. They may be feeling, seeing and smelling things that we typically wouldn’t.
This can cause sensory overloaded and, as a result, meltdowns. Another important component involves symbolic play. Starting at a young age, children can imagine things and understand the perspectives of others. For those with autism, this concept is challenging.
Family Flavours: What are some common misperceptions about Autism Spectrum Disorder?
‘Akrouk: When a child with ASD does not play or interact with others, it isn’t that she doesn’t like to socialise but just that she lacks the social-communication skills. In many cases, the child has tried and failed. Individuals with autism definitely like to be around others, but they often don’t know the subtleties of communication; they may not know how to approach another person and start a conversation and they may have a hard time understanding body language, including facial expression.
Additionally, a person with autism may have sensory issues and difficulty processing language. However, if you reach out to an autistic child and try to communicate, you will find they will reciprocate. Autistic children are also very genuine: they don’t cheat and don’t judge others since they do not have the sub-skills to do so.
Family Flavours: In what ways do we need to continue to improve as a country with respect to our attitudes and treatment towards individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
‘Akrouk: We have made good strides and people are more accepting, but we still have a long way to go. We need to view special needs in the same way that we view ourselves as having different personalities, different colours and different genders. In every society, there are a variety of ability levels and we should accept that autism could appear in any family (oftentimes, we think of disabilities as being separate from us when, in fact, they can occur in any family). It is another form of diversity that we need to embrace. An autism diagnosis doesn’t define someone as autistic; it defines that person as a unique individual who happens to have different abilities.
Family Flavours: What are common strengths that you’ve seen with autistic individuals?
‘Akrouk: Individuals with autism are often visually oriented, which could explain their strength with numbers. Additionally, when they develop interests, they become so fascinated with them that they become experts. There are plenty of examples worldwide where individuals with autism have channelled these interests in productive ways, sometimes even finding great employment, pursuing higher education and so on. Their extreme interests in a particular field help drive them to become dedicated to continually learning more, which primes them to become productive and passionate workers in their field.
Family Flavours: How can parents, educators and others help individuals shine with their particular strengths?
‘Akrouk: It is so important for parents and teachers to keep in mind the positive aspects and strengths that come with autism. Parents should be proactive in helping their child focus on his strengths and shape them so that they become an activity that can be built upon later in life. Guardian figures should keep an open mind, as children with autism may have a variety of different passions, including drama, art and music; these abilities should be nurtured.
Family Flavours: In what ways have you witnessed families learn and grow as a result of having a child with autism?
‘Akrouk: The biggest thing you learn is acceptance and unconditional love. Whenever you’re faced with a situation like this, you have to drop all misconceptions and see the person for who they are and accept and move on. One thing that I have seen, and that literature supports, is that families with special needs members tend to become closer; siblings are more tolerant and accepting and these siblings stand out from their classmates as the most open-minded. On many levels, the experience of raising a child with autism enriches their values and changes their outlook. I have seen that these families come out as more accepting, nurturing and caring for others. They become a stronger family unit overall, despite the stresses they’ve faced.
Family Flavours: What can educators learn from the children they work with who are on the autism spectrum?
‘Akrouk: For educators and others in this field, we gradually change our perspectives over time and we, too, learn to accept others as they are, identify their abilities and build on them to help them progress. We’ve also learned to not place children in “boxes” and assume that they have a certain learning threshold; many of us have been surprised by what children with autism are able to do. This has taught us that, if we work beyond our expectations, we just might be surprised.
Family Flavours: What advice do you have for parents trying to educate and foster friendship among their children with and without ASD?
‘Akrouk: In some communities, there are support groups for both parents and siblings of individuals with special needs. We also encourage parents to take care to spend time with their other children. This could involve planning in advance to have someone watch your child with autism so you can spend one-on-one time with your other children. As siblings grow older, allow them to get involved in the care of their brother or sister so they feel they have a positive role in the situation. I also encourage parents to talk to their children openly, as this will encourage positive family dynamics in the household.
Family Flavours: What can peers learn from individuals with ASD?
‘Akrouk: Individuals with ASD and other special needs give us the opportunity to learn that people are different, and that we must view them for what they are and appreciate their inherent value. There is beauty in the fact that we all have different abilities, thus making us unique; our abilities and disabilities do not define us. Additionally, we could learn a lot from their strengths and from discussing with them what they know. For example, a child interested in plants will have a lot more knowledge to share with his classmates.
Family Flavours: What can we as a larger community learn from those with autism?
‘Akrouk: Everyone can learn the value of acceptance, the beauty of diversity and the importance of valuing human life regardless of individual abilities. Additionally, more and more special needs persons, including those with autism, are able to become working and productive members of society. There are resources available that offer job coaching, which provides individualised training to assist people with special needs and prepare them to excel in their job. Those who work with these individuals can learn the importance of hard work and dedication, finding inspiration from those who have gone the extra mile to live a productive and happy life.