Fourteen-year-old Max Braverman is stoked to go on an overnight trip with his school to Sacramento.
Everything goes well until his teacher finds him curled up in a ball on the floor of the hotel lobby. Max won’t budge, no matter how much his teacher persuades him to explain what's wrong. Finally, his parents arrive, and Max quickly gets up and, without making eye contact, asks to be taken home immediately.
The above story is fictional. It’s a scene from the NBC television show Parenthood and it’s also a spot-on depiction of a teenager with ASD. Max (played by the talented actor Max Burkholder) has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The spectrum is a broad category used for a number of developmental disorders, including Asperger’s Syndrome (the form of ASD Max has).
To be on the spectrum affects a person’s ability to socialize, communicate, behave, and interact with others. But the degree to which being on the spectrum can disrupt everyday functioning varies from individual to individual.
Don't be confused if someone uses "Asperger's" and "Autism" in the same sentence. The two terms are often used interchangeably. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5) no longer includes Asperger’s, but instead lists the characteristics of Asperger’s within the broader range of ASD classified symptoms. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) ASD includes autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. Also, recently the rarer genetic disorder Fragile X has been added to the list.
Some kids on the autistic spectrum have severe symptoms and are unable to perform basic life functions, while others have moderate symptoms related to the spectrum, and can eventually learn to live on their own without the supervision of caretakers.
In some cases, kids (and adults) with ASD can possess extraordinary verbal and mathematical skills, but may be relatively weak in acquiring social and life skills. In the classroom (despite their sometimes superior cognitive abilities) kids with ASD struggle when it comes to social interactions, making eye contact, or reading body language that neurotypicals (the term used for anyone not on the spectrum) take for granted. Children with ASD can find it hard to see another person’s point of view and may come across as lacking empathy and it is not uncommon for those on the spectrum to be averse to physical touch or hugging.
Being on the spectrum can be especially difficult for teenagers, because they are old enough to notice they are different from their neurotypical peers. This awareness can be especially painful. It is a misconception that children on the spectrum do not “get" emotions; in fact, they are often very much aware of their emotions, but may have difficulty expressing themselves in the same way their friends or family do. In fact, that was what happened to Max. Kids were relentlessly teasing him about his ASD, which caused him to crawl into a ball until his parents came to pick him up. He was feeling the pain of rejection by his peers, but unable to find a means in which to express his emotions to those around him.
While it is becoming en vogue to be designated an “Aspie," thankfully being on the spectrum has more and more entered public awareness. Not only a television series like Parenthood, but novels for Young Adults, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, have been successful in showing neurotypicals what it is like to be on the spectrum. You can even take a test to find out if you are neurotypical (tongue in cheek).
With their unconventional way of looking at things, those with ASD have contributed to new ways in which we understand our world. Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science who devised a method to reduce the suffering experienced by cattle as they enter a slaughterhouse, has ASD (and has also championed Autism awareness). Claire Danes portrayed her in a made for HBO docudrama. Susan Boyle, the star of Britain’s Got Talent, revealed that she was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Albert Einstein, the famed astrophysicist who thought up the theory of relativity, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the British philosopher famous for his thoughts on language games, also were believed to be on the spectrum.
People on the spectrum see the world differently. The word “disorder" seems too harsh a word to describe ASD. It’s a more of a reordering of the world, seeing the world askew — and that can be a good thing.
According to a recent study, about one in 68 children have been diagnosed with ASD. So whether you yourself are on the spectrum, or someone in your family or circle of friends has ASD, it matters to learn something about it (and medical scientists admit there is still plenty to learn).
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