The writer is a Psychologist, behaviour therapist, and an educational
consultant for Special Education and Autism Spectrum Disorder,
at Ottawa Carleton District School Board, Ontario, Canada
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past many years of working with individuals on the spectrum is to presume competence and prepare to be surprised. I learned that there is so much more going on with them than they might be able to express. My job is to support neurodiversity and help them learn and grow. I try my best to make the environment as amenable as possible and change their lives for the better. One day, I was in my therapy room with a student, someone almost smacked into my door and I heard a cry” If I am different, you are also different, both are alien, there is no one normal, no one complete and I wanna tell everyone this, can you help me, Miss Akram?…. I turned around, it was 8 years old Alex, one of my students in grade 3 with autism, who was upset after being told by someone that he was weird and he was alien. On his tippy toes, he got closer to me and said in a broken voice can you tell everyone that everyone is alien? He further said you taught me with the pieces of puzzles that “like the pieces of puzzles we fit together” you taught me with the example of mismatched socks that “different……? still serves the purpose”. You taught us that “we all may be fish of different kinds, but in this school, we swim together” and you know you are always my sunshine, now he was talking about his favorite song:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know dear; how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away”
His speech was stammering, and his body was twirling. I knew the challenges associated with autism, speech impediment, communication difficulties, being over-reactive to sensory stimulation, and self-regulation issues. I also had seen Alex’s different behaviors in several times and multiple situations, including his anger, tantrum, aggression, frustration, anxiety, sensory overload, boredom, fears, and tears. I also had felt his joy, laughter, excitement, thrill, curiosity, or interest. But I’d never experienced a moment like this. Alex was debating like a competent lawyer with sound realities. After a pause he said again in a little slighter tone this time, can you tell this world that everyone is alien? I could only say, yes Alex I will!
While setting up the timer for de-escalation and body break for Alex my mind was searching for the right words to say to my 8 years-old students. Since I knew the conversation would not be easy to navigate this time, still I was trying to satisfy him like ever. He was right, he was absolutely right. From a fair concession, I had no arguing point. It was a valid perspective to ponder.
Most people take autistic children as a nuisance, aggressive, angry frustrated, and unusual individuals and consider autism a severe disorder. It is not like this at all. I have spent so many years convincing people that before you call them weird you must know what they are. But I strongly realize that people can think only to the extent they know or they want to know. Even knowing is not enough, limited perception is not helpful to understand the challenges of individuals with ASD. Life with autism and living with autism is a lifetime struggle. It can be challenging but not despicable or impossible in the least. You just need to give them a tool to survive and replace their deficiencies with their strengths. Their learning style is unique, they may not learn or respond as typical people do. You must discern and categorize what they respond best to, whether it is the visual schedule, picture book, computer app, talking tools, or any other communication way. When you learn what is their communication way, then it should be your way to communicate with them. You will reconnoiter their hidden potentials and experience moments of purest joy when you are along with them. You will realize how inspiring and beautiful they are. If you just change your attitude, you can change their whole life forever.
The timer went off and the beep reminded me that it was time to step away. I had totally forgotten to issue one minute warning before the timer ends. But Alex was ready to leave without any reminder, he tidied up quickly and left the room immediately. Another surprise, transitioning had never been easy for Alex before.
I tried to focus on my work again but could not stop the ruminating thoughts. At the end of the day, while compiling case studies, recording incidents, analyzing antecedents, behaviors, and consequences, writing next steps and recommendations, and summarizing the daily report I wrote only one sentence “Everyone is Alien”.
Written by: Saima Akram, Psychologist/Behaviour Therapist, Educational Consultant for Special Education and Autism Spectrum Disorder, Ottawa Carleton District School Board, Ontario, Canada