After every seven correct answers or so, I would hand Jake a puzzle piece. Jake would look at the piece for a moment, then his little hand would slide the piece into place.
He had not seen this puzzle before and had not even seen what the full picture would end up being. Still, his little hands somehow found the exact place that his puzzle piece went. Then, we would start our process again. I would ask him roughly seven questions rather rapidly one after another, and Jake would answer his questions as fast as he could to earn his next puzzle piece.
Did I mention that Jake is 4? He puts together 36-piece puzzles without ever seeing the puzzles’ pictures. He is answering questions such as his mom’s job, what street he lives on and identifying the letters of the alphabet.
He sounds like a pretty advanced 4 year old, right? Well, Jake is an advanced learner, and he also has autism.
I spent my summer working as a line therapist with the Early Autism Project, and this experience opened my eyes to autism. Autism, along with other learning and mental disabilities, has a negative connotation in our society.
When a child with autism screams out in a public place, I have seen the dirty looks that are shot in the direction of the parent trying to calm their child down. I, at one time, was one of those people throwing dirty looks. There is a negative stigma attached to mental, learning and developmental disabilities.
It is said that we fear or shy away from things we do not understand, and that is what I believe happens with mental disabilities. Many people do not understand what mental or learning disabilities are. They see mental illness demonstrated in movies and television where it is dramatized and emphasized.
In the month of October there is a week dedicated to the awareness of mental illnesses. Although autism is labeled as a developmental disorder, it could be helpful for people to take advantage of this week to educate themselves about the mental disorders and illnesses that affect people.
If people seek out the information and more clearly understand the different types of mental illnesses, they will likely find that they are more accepting of individuals with these types of disabilities. I did not fully understand autism before this summer, but I no longer view the disability negatively. I no longer give dirty looks to those with disabilities.
I believe that an increased understanding of autism changed my perception and reception of those with the disability. This could be applied to all mental illnesses. If we educate ourselves, there is no longer anything to fear, and this can help to eliminate the negative feelings that can be felt towards mental, developmental and learning disorders.
When you come in close contact with someone who has some type of disability as I did with the kids this summer, you get to see the person instead of the disability. You become more aware of how human these people are.
I stand with autism. I stand with mental awareness. I stand with mental health. Individuals who suffer from any of the aforementioned illnesses are still people. They still have feelings. They are just like you and me. Their brains may not process information in the same way that mine does, but why should that make them less valuable than I? It should not. It does not.
* The name of the child in this story was changed to protect his identity.