April is Autism Awareness Month, and autism spectrum disorders are big news lately. Autism spectrum disorder now encompasses autism, Asperger's and pervasive developmental disorder, making autism more common than Down syndrome, mental retardation, and cystic fibrosis combined. But even as overall diagnoses climb to one in 88 people - double the figure from just five years ago - the American Psychiatric Association is working on redefining autism spectrum disorder. Even so, the term isn't well understood, eliciting negative reactions like fear.
Just who is autistic? Some see a person who flaps hands, throws chairs and has frequent behavioral outbursts. Others see autistic savants like Raymond from "Rain Man." Still others speculate that Albert Einstein, who was a late talker, was prone to tantrums, disliked crowds and had few friends, was autistic.
The spectrum is wide. One autistic child rocks rhythmically back and forth, stares at clothes spinning in the dryer and doesn't utter a word. Another has no trouble talking but is obsessed with trains, methodically naming every station in his state. Another is highly intelligent but has trouble fitting in, his straightforward ways perceived as rude.
Many individuals on the spectrum fall through the cracks, bumbling their way through life, never understanding why they don't fit in or why they can't succeed. Unable to integrate into society, they're stigmatized and seen as failures. Later in life, they get a diagnosis or identify with the autism community. I am one of these.
Autism is an identity that comes with rewards and challenges, both of which contribute to our uniqueness. It's a different way of being, defining who we are and which paths we choose to follow. We often perceive things differently from the norm and go our own way, taking the road less traveled. We're not swayed by popular opinion and will often stand up for what we believe.
Autistic peculiarities are symptoms of a lifelong disabling disorder, implying a lack of typical function. Our society expects adults to be autonomous, independent and economically productive. But many people on the spectrum don't fit in and can't measure up because autism makes some things on life's journey baffling. Many have high book-learning intelligence or vast knowledge about a quirky subject, but are socially inept. And social skills are important to interpersonal relationships at school and work.
Many autistic people seem quite normal, yet struggle to fit into neurotypical society. This makes the disorder less obvious, or even invisible. Some people find us quirky or odd, causing misunderstandings. Yet when we have trouble adjusting to neurotypical ways of doing things, others may refuse to accommodate our differences. We're seen as lazy, told we're making excuses for not trying hard enough. We're blamed for things we cannot help. Would anyone say to a diabetic, "Hey, it's rude of you to refuse the cookies I'm offering. I'm sure if you had enough willpower, you could make your body produce insulin"? Or expect a blind person to read print, or someone in a wheelchair to get up and walk? Such refusal to accept us with our quirks can be painful.
The autism spectrum has a wide range of abilities, skills, needs and challenges. A small minority are savants. Another minority cannot communicate at all. Some have above-average IQs, others below average, and still others fall right in the middle. Every autistic person is different from every other autistic person.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and writes North Country Kitchen, a weekly cooking column in the Enterprise.