HEALTH & FITNESS - Celebrate autism? Actually, yes, let's

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April is Autism Awareness Month, a time when we encourage early identification and intervention and work to increase tolerance and acceptance. This April, I am going to take it a step further, and celebrate autism spectrum disorders.

It sounds strange, celebrate a neurological disorder that can make life so challenging and even painful for both those affected by it and those that love them, but I have to say, there is something about people affected by an ASD that really does make them extraordinary.

So here are the top five characteristics that place those affected by an ASD above many neurotypicals. Of course, not every person affected by an ASD has every one of these characteristics; I don't intend to generalize, only to celebrate.

5) Organization. Every book in its place, the crayons lined up in order according to color, pencils sharpened and papers straightened -- this is not the desk of a neurotypcial child. Even if the organization is not apparent to others, everything has its place and that is where it needs to be. John's stuffed animals will always be in order, his DVDs remain straight on the shelf and his favorite blanket will be in a ball, behind his pillow.

4) Persistence -- steadfastly working on a task until it is finished. No jumping from pillar to pole, each job is given the attention it requires until it is completed. There is a great satisfaction in a job well done and there is no walking away while it remains unfinished. Mike will always finish the puzzle before leaving, he will do every last math problem and pick up every Lego before moving on.

3) Focus. Even as I write this, I am distracted by the music on the radio, the people walking outside my window, the smell of cinnamon rolls, even my own thoughts of things I need to finish, for I am merely neurotypical. When an individual affected by an ASD chooses to focus, they have a sniper rifle mind, able to concentrate on the smallest of details to perfection. It is this focus that propels individuals like Temple Grandin to be the very best at what they do.

2) Honesty. If my breath stinks, a colleague may just turn away and tell another coworker, but Amy will tell me, "Your breath smells bad." I appreciate that honesty; I can't fix the problem if I don't know there is one. The honesty is deeper than just the words she says, it is in the emotions she projects and the actions she chooses. If Amy is happy, she will laugh and she cries when she is sad. She screams when she is angry and dances when she feels joy. Amy has never had a poker face and doesn't want one. Why hide your true feelings?

1) Uniqueness. If Chris likes his blue soft shirt, he will wear that shirt, regardless of fashion or the opinion of others. Unhindered by social pressures, Chris walks the way he wants to walk, dances without concern, listens to the music that he likes, dresses in clothing that makes him happy and is altogether unique.

A friend asked me recently where I stood on the "Finding a cure for autism" debate. My answer was, "I don't have the right to have an opinion."

I know families who have found this disorder to be devastating, turning their lives upside down and filling them with grief as they watch their child struggle daily.

I also know individuals who are themselves affected by an ASD and fiercely proud. Proud of their exceptional abilities and insights, they wouldn't think of searching for a cure as they feel ASD has made them distinctive, not disordered.

As I am neither affected myself, nor do I have a child affected, I don't have enough information to weigh in on that argument. But as an advocate and friend, I can say that I will work to help these children and families find happiness and success.

For Autism Awareness Month, I do encourage everyone to know the early warning signs of an ASD and to seek early intervention if they have concerns. I also urge our community to become more tolerant and understanding of all people with neurological differences, we really aren't that different.

As for me, I will try to be a little more organized, persistent and focused. I will strive to be honest in my words and actions and I will allow myself to be unique and not try to fit into someone else's idea of who I should be. I will work to be a little more autistic this month.

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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