Autism: A difference, not a disorder

by Neha Sriram – As a child I was exposed very early to the idea of autism. My mother used to volunteer at special schools, and sometimes she used to take me along to play with the children there. As I grew up, these memories have stayed with me and developed into a curiosity for neuroscience.

Last year, I decided to volunteer at Pragati, a vocational training centre for autistic individuals. They have children as young as thirteen, while the oldest adults are in their early thirties. At Pragati, they identify the strengths of the students and match these strengths with a corresponding job skill. Further, they develop job skills with the goal of turning it into a livelihood. Students learn how to make jewelry, handicrafts, embroider pouches and block print on cloth. These tasks involve repetition and precision, two skills that autistic individuals innately possess. They also have multimedia sessions where they learn how to use Photoshop. Hospitality classes train the students in hotel management as well. I also went with them to the Cisco office in Marathalli for an inclusion workshop, where each Pragati trainee was paired up with a Cisco employee as their ‘buddy’ for the day.  Together they participated in various games and activities.

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Paintings by Pragati trainees at Cisco

From my observations and research, here is what I learned. Autism is known as a spectrum because there is wide variation in the type of traits people have. The main characteristics of people with autism are:

Communication skills:

A trait that I have observed in some autistic individuals is their limited range of communication. Their topics of conversation are confined to what is “taught” to them and their areas of interest. At times they either only speak very loudly or very softly. A lot of their conversing is in a very flat tone with no intonation. Usually their conversation involves relaying what is taught to them or what they are obsessed with.

Social interaction:

Autistic individuals often avoid eye contact with other people. They often don’t have much interest in conversation. They are attracted towards objects on which they prefer to spend their time. They are withdrawn in nature. They struggle to pick up social cues and learn from the environment. Therefore, social interactions must be taught to them – how to respond to situations and what to say and when. They might not understand facial expressions and fail to express their feelings through facial expressions themselves.

Repetitive behavior:

The lives of autistic individuals often revolve around their obsessions. These are generally their main topics of conversation and they lay emphasis on them repeatedly, like what they got for lunch (“I got curry and mutton rice!”). They love patterns and sequences and can go on creating them for hours together. They also can exhibit echolalia, which is repetition of another person’s spoken words (For example, if you wish an autistic person “happy birthday”, they might repeat “happy birthday” back).

I observed something very interesting at Cisco during a group yoga session. There was an instructor doing yoga poses and everyone was trying to follow them. Each of the trainees was being helped by a buddy. It was amazing to see how different combinations of the traits mentioned above were displayed by different sets of people. This, again, just goes to show how every autistic individual is unique.

Many of the world’s most successful people have autism. Their success can be credited to them channeling these traits in a productive way. It is very interesting to look into the brain of an autistic individual and we can all learn a lot from each other. It’s like I said: Autism is a difference, not a disorder.

Editor’s NOTE:  Neha was a wonderful summer intern with us studying learning in pollinators.  She has a keen interest in neuroscience, which she discusses here in the context of autism. We wish her the best in her very promising career!

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