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Well Intended / April: A month to learn about differences

Published 12:21 pm, Thursday, March 28, 2013
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April is National Autism Awareness month. As the mother of an amazing girl who has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, the month can be a bit of a challenge. In the early days of parenting a toddler on the autistic spectrum, relatives used to call in April, "Did you see that amazing story on `60 Minutes?' A kid is a concert pianist and he has autism!" The dozens of news stories inspired forwarded articles and well-meaning comments from people who wanted to better understand our girl.

She self-identifies with her diagnosis now and understands her strengths and works to improve in her areas of deficit. She is certainly more aware of herself than I was at her age. Last April, I was called midday to pick her up as she had suffered a meltdown at her middle school. It was a rare and serious incident, and I hurried to the school, signed in at the office and made my way past dozens of hand-drawn Autism Awareness Month signs to the occupational therapy room where she was recovering. A kind boy had made a movie featuring my daughter, which, was to be shown the next day in all the homerooms. I think it was too much for her. In middle school, everyone is a foreigner.

This year, we have steadied ourselves for April. She says she is ready for the reminders of her differentness and is inspired to help others understand kids like her. That's important. I told her about a neighbor boy I knew when I was growing up. He was quirky and not easy to connect with. To be honest his differentness frightened me a little. Johann was obsessed with the specifics of equine diseases, and as an owner of a beloved spotted pony, it kind of freaked me out the way he could bring any topic back to his favorite. I don't know if he was autistic; I doubt if he or his parents knew at that time. But now I wonder if I had understood that people approach things differently, when I was a girl, if I would have avoided him a bit less. I might have felt more comfortable, had I been better informed.

And thus, Autism Awareness Month, no matter how awkward, is important. My daughter is blessed to have had understanding and gracious peers. It says a lot about our community that the kids we have come to know have accepted her. Autism, as social disability, is challenging for those of us who are neurotypical to understand. Lack of eye contact can feel like disinterest to us. Autistic individuals don't play by the same rules and that can feel uncomfortable. It's tempting to want to "cure" them; hoping to make them just like us. As someone who has been blessed to love a girl on the autistic spectrum, I wouldn't change a thing about her. She looks at life from a different perspective and I have found that it has encouraged me to do the same. We are tempted to go about life not questioning what we think we know. Sometimes it takes someone with a fresh approach to show us the way.

Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at kristarichardsmann@gmail.com.