Puzzle me this: Who's the real mystery here?

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The puzzle piece is often used as a symbol of autism, why is this?

Some people embrace this symbol because it embodies the "puzzling nature" of autism. Others feel a pieced-together logo signifies how the social deficits produced by autism cause individuals to have a hard time fitting in. Still more people think this sign denotes what they see as a "mechanical nature" in the autistic thought process.

There are those who object to the puzzle piece, particularly individuals who are affected by autism. The feeling is, "I am not a puzzle." I agree with that sentiment, but I also feel the puzzle piece is an appropriate icon for autism, not because those affected by autism are an enigma, but because the rest of us, the neurotypicals, are quite the puzzle. Consider the following situations and you decide who the real riddle is.

Barry, a middle school boy with Asperger's syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder in which the individual's ability to speak and cognitive ability are not delayed) walks over to a bench where Amber, a "popular" girl is sitting and asks, "Can I sit here?"

Amber looks at the socially awkward young man, sneers and replies with searing sarcasm, "Yea, like I've always wanted you to sit by me." To our young Aspy, she has just invited him to sit and even let him know that she has been looking forward to this day. Barry sits by her happily. Amber is bewildered.

Tim, a second-grade student with classic autism, goes to PE in the gym with Mr. Dexter for the first time. All of the children are lined up against the wall. Already anxious about this brand new experience, Tim is on high alert, clenching his fists, rocking slightly back and forth, his eyes are wide, his ears listening for any sign of danger. The tall, unfamiliar man who is teaching this class approaches the students and says in a commanding voice, "OK, all eyes on me." Tim screams and covers his eyes to protect them from being removed and placed on this big scary guy. Mr. Dexter can't understand why Tim "freaks out" when he sees him now.

Karen goes to visit the Clements family and while there says, "Are you all ready to go to the lake this weekend?" unaware that the family hadn't told Sam, their autistic son, about the trip.

Mom says, "Uh-oh, you let the cat out of the bag."

Sam looks around confused and says, "Who put the cat in the bag?" All of the adults laugh at how "cute" Sam is, Sam leaves the room thinking about how weird adults are.

Shouldn't we be able to trust the words people say? Shouldn't "yes" mean yes? But it doesn't. Some studies have suggested that up to 93 percent of communication is non-verbal, and it is these nonverbals that are such a conundrum to someone affected by autism.

Why? This goes right back to the biology of autism; those differences in both the connections in the brain and how the brain is used.

Remember the amygdala, one of the brain structures that is often different in individuals affected by autism. It is not only the center of fear, it is also responsible for processing the human face, and over half of communication is facial expressions.

What about that white matter, the connective tissue in the brain? If over-wiring has caused your vision to be exaggerated to the point that the dust in the air is clearly visible at all times and the birds in the field 50 yards away appear as central and important as the person standing directly in front of you, those little nonverbal rules like "eye contact shows interest and respect but too much eye contact can be seen as confrontational or intrusive" slip right by you.

What can we do? Keep in mind that sarcasm is never a good idea, say what you mean. Watch out for clichs and metaphors. And, as always, be tolerant. Our rules for conversation and socialization are really quite arbitrary and complex. To expect an individual with the brain biology of autism to understand all of the idiosyncrasies of nonverbal communication isn't fair.

So when you see the puzzle piece symbol, remember who the real puzzle is and try to help others "solve" the world around them.

Kathleen Gilmore, a resident of Walla Walla, has taught individuals affected by autism spectrum disorders for more than seven years. She has a master's degree in education and is enrolled in a board certified behavior analyst certification program. She is the founder and president of Eastern Washington Autism Spectrum Disorder Association, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and helping families affected by autism. She can be reached through the group's website at www.ewasda.org.

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