With an increasing number of children born on the autistic spectrum, it’s time to think beyond negative stereotypes. A staggering 1 in 68 students are now struggling through special ed classes (with varying degrees of success). Legal rights and support services are abundantly available for the youngest children, but almost non-existent for emerging adults who are currently looking for jobs and striving for independence.
Individuals ALL learn differently from one another
Not only do individuals on the spectrum learn differently from neurotypical kids, they also learn differently from each other. A variety of sensory issues may mean that one child is more of a visual or auditory learner, while another child benefits from repetition across several sensory modalities. One type of special ed classroom does NOT fit all. The ASD diagnostic label embraces a broad “spectrum”—from those with non-verbal, more severe autism symptoms to the milder, less symptomatic individuals with PDD, PDD-NOS and Asperger’s Syndrome. Regardless of developmental level, each child has an interest and skill, even if their activities at first seem excessive or repetitive.
Encourage their dreams!
Like neurotypical kids, children on the spectrum grow into adults and should be encouraged to pursue their dreams as much as possible. For parents starting on the autism journey, I believe it’s imperative to unearth and nurture children’s talents, side by side with offering speech therapy, ABA and other treatments to address their challenges. Not only does this positive approach raise the self-esteem of the child, but it also allows parents to hold onto some—if not all—of their dreams for the future, resulting in a victory for the family and our society as a whole.
About Samantha’s Success on the Spectrum
Our family was fortunate to discover that our daughter Samantha had perfect pitch when she was only 7. As our daughter matured and her behavior improved, we gave her singing lessons at age 10 and took her to Broadway musicals. We also enjoyed watching her have fun in her own performances: children’s showcases, school and camp musicals. Fast forward to Samantha’s college years (an impossible dream according to some of the “experts” who counseled us) where she sang in choral groups and played small roles on stage. At age 22, she co-starred in an award-winning short film, Keep the Change, about young adults on the spectrum trying to find love and connection while navigating the neurotypical world. At that time, my daughter broke a stereotype by playing a love interest in a narrative film (not a documentary). Rachel Israel, the director, cast Samantha in this challenging role precisely because she felt the story could not blossom with the same authenticity if the love interest was played by one of the many neurotypical actors who auditioned.
Breaking Stereotypes: Using Actors on the Spectrum
Based on the success of the short version of Keep the Change, the director spent several years expanding the movie into a full-length feature. Not only did Rachel keep her original stars on the spectrum, but she also added MORE actors with autism and deepened the love story. Some professors from Rachel’s film school advised her that it might be too difficult to direct more than one actor on the spectrum in the short film. Happily, Rachel ignored that advice. In April, the full-length version of Keep the Change will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and be eligible for awards.
More successes on the spectrum
My daughter—now 26—is not the only young adult on the spectrum transcending academic and professional expectations. Today I spoke to the father of a young man on the spectrum who is a gifted jazz pianist, and at 25, he’s already a member of the musician’s union. Like me, this dad is creating opportunities for his son and for other musicians with disabilities by creating a 501C3. I helped to start E.P.I.C Players, a theater company whose mission is to prepare talented young adults with autism to perform professionally. Several of E.P.I.C.’s cast members also had roles in Keep the Change. Last summer E.P.I.C. actors were paid to participate in a Robert Pattinson film scheduled for release in December 2017. While Samantha has enjoyed some exciting and unusual accomplishments, she has not yet managed to find a full or even a part-time job. As she continues to pursue her passions, I know that many challenges still lie ahead.
Sometimes the advice to “be realistic” is not the best
When my daughter’s psychiatrist asked Samantha what she might like to do, other than acting or working with young children, she looked at him blankly. “She wasn’t even willing to think about it,” the psychiatrist complained to me.
“Her neurotypical twin brother, a screenwriter, would have given you the same blank stare,” I answered, slightly annoyed. “At 26, he’s not thinking about what he’ll do if he fails.”
Many neurotypical adults who aspire to be actors and writers are often disappointed. Samantha’s psychiatrist probably felt it was part of his job to persuade my daughter to “be realistic” (lower her standards) and consider other options.
“That question was too abstract and overwhelming,” I explained to the doctor, even though he’s an expert on autism. “If you offer Samantha specific alternatives to being a movie star or a teacher, like working in a children’s library or doing drama therapy with special needs kids, you might find her interested in those compromises.”
Don’t make stereotypes self-fulfilling prophecies
While all adults need to recognize their limitations—disabled or not—children and young adults MUST be encouraged to follow their dreams. If society assumes that kids on the spectrum will not make it through college, will not find jobs or sustain relationships, then these stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies. Better to shoot for the stars and end up somewhere between earth and sky than to be grounded from the start.
Written by Marguerite Elisofon, author of My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism.