By: Gretchen Gramer, M.A., CCC-SLP, speech language pathologist for Kootenai Health Rehabilitation Services
April is autism acceptance month, which is a recent change in language from what was previously referred to as autism awareness month. Why has there been a shift in language? As awareness about autism has increased in recent years, many advocates within the autism community have moved from just the idea that autism is not a condition that must be fixed, but rather a neurotype – or way of thinking and experiencing the world – that should be supported and celebrated.
As a pediatric speech and language pathologist, I work with many children on the autism spectrum to support their communication skills. Sometimes my work includes play-based therapy with a 2-year-old and their caregiver as I explore different ways to improve their joint engagement as a building block for communication. Other times it looks like working with a school-aged patient to help shape their frequent use of scripting. Scripting includes repetition or reciting of lines from movies, television, books, or words other people have said into language that is more meaningful to those around them. Other times I get to help teach my patient and their family how to use a speech generating device if using traditional mouth-words is not their preferred mode of communication. As children get older, the focus of speech therapy often transitions into working on social skills, including navigating relationships, problem solving, and role-playing real life social scenarios.
The overarching theme that informs my work with kids on the spectrum and their vast array of strengths, is that they are always working on skills so that they better fit into the norm. This includes expected milestones we know about first words and early language development, the way in which we expect kids and adults to express how they feel, and the conversational norms that we have established in our culture. During our therapy sessions, the goal is to behave and communicate like everyone else. In recent years, I’ve heard from many autism advocates who’ve explained how exhausting it is for people with autism to have to constantly work to fit into a culture that does not feel natural to them, often referred to as masking. How frustrated would I feel if I had to change myself on a daily basis to fit the mold and make others feel more comfortable?
While I understand the importance of providing my autistic patients with tools and strategies so they can communicate effectively in a world that isn’t quite designed for them, I have also come to realize how much more I can do to meet them in the middle.
Autism acceptance can look like a lot of things, but to me, it looks like having more empathy in my day-to-day life. The child having a meltdown at the grocery store may be over-stimulated and does not yet have the language to state what they need. A colleague who might be misinterpreted as “rude” may not be aware of the social norms most people understand intuitively. The person who uses a tablet to talk may need a little bit of extra time to express themselves as they find the words to form a sentence. Everyone experiences the world differently, whether you have autism or not, and we can all work toward being more understanding, and changing our own communication styles to better accommodate those around us.
To learn more, visit the autismsociety.org, with our local chapter being the Autism Society of North Idaho. Today, about 1 in 36 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, which means that you likely know a child or an adult on the spectrum. If anyone in your life identifies as being autistic, I encourage you to open a discussion with them about what autism acceptance looks like to them and how you can be more supportive.