More light shed on autism

oprahautism.jpgIt seemed pretty natural to turn on the TV this afternoon and find that Oprah was doing a segment on autism. Entitled The Faces of Autism, the piece took viewers into the homes of families living with the disorder, and talked with parents and siblings of children with autism. Then Oprah admitted this is the first time she's covered the topic in all the years she's been on television. That's what surprised me, since autism seems to have affected so many people I've known. Until today, though, I hadn't realized just how many people actually are affected. According to this segment, it's now believed that one in 150 children are being diagnosed with autism.

Exposure to the topic has peppered my life off and on since high school when I volunteered with the Special Olympics and partnered with a young autistic girl for an afternoon. Later, babysitting for a family touched by the disorder, I observed still other ways in which people are affected, and still later continued to learn by visiting the classroom of my friend who teaches students with special needs. And of course, nearly all of us watched Rain Man.

My real sliver of education came later, though. When I was in college, I created a small photodocumentary for an independent study in photography I was completing, attempting to combine some of the themes I was concerned with, in a single project. The images were of a young teenager who was combatting some of the challenges of his autism through horseback riding therapy. What I learned, and hopefully conveyed in the exhibit, was a bit about how people with autism, specifically, respond to horses. And vice versa. There is a similiarity between the way each experiences the world: the person with autism and the horse. So, I learned, when Joey was sitting on his horse, he was able to somehow respond better to the requests of his threapist than when he was sitting in a classroom and was given requests by his teacher. It was a valuable experience for me.

And watching some of this Oprah episode today, the part that struck me the most was when the parents talked about the need for education. They shared how it feels when uneducated people criticize or scorn them because of the "inappropriate behavior" their children exhibit in public. Watching this made me sit with that thought for a bit, and consider just what it would feel like to be in their position. Not only having all the hard work of being a parent in the first place, (if I didn't "get it" before, that parenting was indescribably hard work, just helping out with The Sultan of Cool once or twice a week has reminded me of what all the parents I know have been trying to tell us all these years,) but adding to that the layered challenges that come when a family is dealing with autism... I felt so sad to think of how this must feel.

Then I felt relieved that Oprah chose to do this show. Regardless of how one feels about Oprah, there's no denying that she has the platform from which to bring information to a vast audience. And so although I'm perhaps crediting the impact of her segment more heavily than it should be weighed, I'm feeling hope that some of those families will benefit from the educational benefits today's show will have on our society. I certainly like to think so.

And now I'm thinking of my friend, Tamara, a loving mother of both her children: the one with autism as well as the one without. "Loving mother" is among the first descriptions that come to mind when I think of Tamara. And I also know she's very tired much of the time. So the hopes I hold out, imagining that more people will be kinder, more understanding when they encounter an atypical situation caused by the behavior of someone affected with autism... these hopes have a face on them. I'm thinking of Tamara's family, specifically, and also of Joey's family, and those other people I've known over the years. Perhaps you're thinking of someone specific, too...