I spend much of my time explaining a subject that is outside of my professional
area of expertise – Autism Spectrum Disorder. I do this because I have the
I have presented my story in 30 countries across six
continents, including 45 of the United States. I always share insights and
observations based on research, practical experience working with individuals –
all from the perspective of my own life as a person anchored on the autism
The fact that I regularly speak in front of audiences as large
as 1,500 is quite surprising considering that at age 18 months I was struck by
the “autism bomb.”
My parents watched as their baby lost all functional
communications, began having meltdowns, self-stimulatory and showed abusive
behavior. In short, they suddenly had a very autistic infant on their
At that point it would have been very hard to imagine their son
would one day be a university professor researching and teaching future
educators, psychologists and social workers in linking solutions to the unique
needs of autistic individuals.
Future oratory would not have been part of
the forecast in those early days.
Although my parents rejected the
professionals’ call for institutionalization at age two, instead implementing
“home-based intensive early intervention,” my full use of speech did not begin
to evolve until age four. At six, I began to attend regular public school
kindergarten where I quickly turned into a social and academic
I remember for example, that I used to repeat the letter “B”
endlessly. This did not endear me to my classmates who responded with bullying
rather than friendship. I was soon lagging a grade behind my young peers in most
Talking with adults, ironically, came easily.
I could go
on for hours with them on the intricacies of astronomy. Unfortunately, not all
my teachers were impressed by my academic skills. In third grade, with a stack
of astronomy books on my desk at school, a teacher direly admonished that I
would never learn how to do math. Yet somehow, I manage to teach statistics at
the university level.
MIDDLE AND high school were better suited for
someone with my special abilities. I began to understand that using words
instead of sound effects from the environment greatly helped with social
Additionally, the educational framework of these grades
where students can begin to choose elective courses and join clubs focused in
areas of their interests enabled me to begin to develop socially.
fascination with music, electricity and the outdoors led me to courses and clubs
in band, electronics and rock climbing, where I discovered confidence-building
pleasure in excelling.
I really began to flourish in college where
bullying was no longer “cool.” Suddenly, for the first time, I was surrounded by
a group of friends. I finally found a place where if I wanted to ride my bicycle
at midnight I could find someone just as strange as I was to join me! My studies
focused on my interests in music, later accounting and information systems, and
eventually to completing a doctorate in special education.
I am not the
only one who has succeeded to integrate myself socially and academically,
despite the heavy odds. Temple Grandin is a celebrated example of one who
harnessed autism to build success.
Eustacia Cutler viewed her daughter
Temple’s preoccupation drawing horses as a key to expanding her world by drawing
other animals and objects. Her art progressed to drafting plans for humane
cattle-processing stockyards. Today, her ideas are used in a majority of
beef-processing plants in the United States. Temple Grandin is recognized as a
MY PARENTS similarly supported my interests.
they noticed my passion for taking apart and reassembling watches, they
encouraged this skill by providing other mechanical devices for me to explore.
Their guidance and direction eventually helped me transfer that interest to
bicycle repair, which helped me cover college expenses. When interest in
astronomy became all-consuming, a telescope appeared and we’d examine the
heavens late into the night. In fact, had I not been scared off from mathematics
in elementary school, I might well have become an astronomer.
experiences and the self-confidence instilled in me by my parents led me –
despite my challenges in communication, social interaction and sensory
differences – to engage in public speaking, an activity many loathe more than a
rootcanal appointment. How does one on the autism spectrum manage communication
and social interaction with a 1,000 or more at a conference? Beyond the
stereotypes, many autistic individuals actually make good educators.
may be because we have by necessity fine-tuned reliable means of communication;
we posses a burning desire to understand the structure of our environment and
strive to explain such matters to others.
Clearly, all these are very
important prerequisites for any good teacher.
In August, I will give a
keynote address to an important international conference in Jerusalem on Autism
(www.icare4autism.org). On that occasion, or leading a discussion in a class at
Adelphi University, or presenting to an audience of any size across the globe, I
have learned to leverage my strengths to communicate about autism while
accommodating for its difficulties.
Sensitivity to bright lights can be
handled by wearing a hat and challenges brought on by tight clothing can be
addressed by eschewing the attire of a banker or accountant. My communication
and social interaction must remain structured, orderly and predictable. The more
I can control my environment, the better I am able to limit weaknesses and draw
There are many success stories like Temple and myself.
Yet far too many people on the autism spectrum who have not yet found a way to
harness their abilities in a way that will let them contribute to, and even
lead, in our society. Many were not as lucky as I was to have been blessed with
parents and teachers who helped me develop my special skills. Perhaps they did
not have the benefit of doctors and therapists to guide them through the
difficulties we all experience in life but are so much more challenging for
those of us who are autistic.
The work of autism advocacy organizations
is vital and urgent. I will continue to do my part and devote so much of my time
reaching and teaching while using my academic, practical and personal
experiences as an “insider” to improve the lives of those with autism.
hope that society in general will redouble its commitment to develop and
advocate for the tools to help all our children fulfill everything of which they
are potentially capable.
The writer, a doctor, is an Assistant Professor
of Education at Adelphi University in New York and serves as an adviser to
ICare4Autism (www.icare4autism.org), an international organization that aims to
serve as a catalyst for autism-related research. ICare4Autism is convening the
2012 International Autism Conference in Jerusalem from August 1-2.