HEALTH & FITNESS - Snapshot of lives affected by autism shed light on disorder


Sitting in an airport, my favorite activity is watching people.

As I sit quietly, a myriad of humans pass me by. Quick-stepping high heels talking on a cell phone, skipping sandals singing happily and shuffling orthopedics being steadied by a kind arm, they keep coming, a never-ending supply of amusement.

Now my eye is caught by a towheaded little boy being led by his weary mother; holding the boy's hand, a baby carrier and a backpack on her back, it is apparent her day has been long. The boy's free hand is in front of his face, waving quickly, fingers spread apart. He doesn't seem to see the circus of people all around him, his eyes stay focused on his own dancing fingers.

Seeing a couple of open seats in a corner, the mother quickly lands, setting down the baby, taking off the backpack and releasing her hold on the boy. Patting a seat she says, "Joe, sit." Joe still stands, flashing his hand madly in front of his face. "Joe, sit," Mom repeats, a little louder, with an edge in her voice. Joe is unmoved. Mom sighs and gently nudges Joe to the chair, helping him hop up.

As Mom opens the backpack, Joe pops out of the seat quickly and snatches a baby bottle from the backpack, Mom tries to grab it back, but he is too quick. In a wink the lid is off and Joe has discarded the bottle, its contents spilling on the neutral airport carpet. Joe is only interested in the top.

As Mom works to mop up the mess, Joe crouches in the corner and spins the top of the bottle with the skill of a circus performer. With each spin he smiles wider and his actions become more animated. Within two minutes he is throwing his arms up and squealing with delight at every spin. Soon he adds his own acrobatic spin nearly matching the velocity of the gyrating bottle top.

I become aware that I am smiling, too, taking pleasure watching this little boy light up. I also notice that not everyone shares in his joy. Sideways, disapproving looks, pointing fingers, knit brows and shaking heads are paired with judgmental comments. "Look at that kid, is he crazy?" "Why doesn't she control him?" "He's like a weird little monkey." But the kid is not crazy, the kid is not weird, the kid is autistic.

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. Characterized by impaired social interactions, impaired communication and repetitive behavior and limited interests, autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning there is a large variation in skills and abilities among individuals affected.

Neurological differences in individuals affected by autism are largely caused by differences in white matter. Gray matter in the brain is similar to computer chips. White matter is the connections, the wiring of the brain. The autistic brain has significantly more white matter in some areas of the brain and less in others. Not always the same amount, not always the same areas, there are considerable differences from person to person. But just like changing the wiring of a computer would affect its ability to process information, so the wiring of the brain changes the way Joe sees, hears, feels, experiences his world.

BONG BING BONG... "Attention Passengers, Flight 262 will now begin boarding."

Joe covers his ears and screams. Apparently the wiring in Joe's brain has caused sounds to be amplified to a painful level, not uncommon in autism. Mom attempts to calm him. The baby wakes up and begins to scream. Joe jumps up and runs, madly from the siren of the baby's wails. I stand and block his progress as everyone else sits, just watching, with mouths open and eyes wide. Mom is there in an instant and scoops Joe up, carrying him kicking a screaming back to their corner.

As she walks away, I notice she keeps her head high, she has no shame, and she shouldn't. She has learned to ignore the negative reactions she witnesses daily. She knows Joe is a great kid. She knows he is bright and gifted. She knows his sparkling eyes are worth more than the approval of three airports full of ignorant adults. Joe is in good hands.

Kathleen Gilmore of Walla Walla is founder and president of the Eastern Washington Autism Spectrum Disorder Association. For more information, go to


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