I was traveling with my family from Lahore to Bahawal Nagar. There is a steady slowdown of traffic in front of us on our way. My son, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at an early age, starts to show his agitation. Anxiety violently announces itself in the form of rapid-fire questions.
“Why are we stopping?”
“How long is this going to take?”
“Are we going to be late?”
I patiently reply as I always do, knowing full well he is not looking for an answer. I say, “There could be an accident,” or maybe, “Someone’s car could be stuck.” It doesn’t really matter. The answers that I give him do not serve to explain anything; they are simply a device to calm him. If we are successful, he will be able to tell me an alternative route—not by using a smartphone or GPS but because he has memorized our entire trip. With ease, he can tell you every detail, the names of the roads and where the restaurants and shopping centers are.
I suppose we could explain away all of his behaviors as some type of disorder caused by an ability. His extraordinary sense of the geography of our route leads to inflexible notions about the trip and how it will progress, and when reality does not comport to his expectations, it is unbearable. That’s autism. Or is that too easy an explanation?
Once a diagnosis like autism has been applied to your child, it becomes almost instinctive to attribute every behavior to the child’s disorder. But what if he is bothered by traffic, not because of his autism, but because traffic is bothersome? After all, does anyone love to be stuck in traffic? By automatically using your child’s disorder as an explanation, you unnecessarily distance the child from yourself and from others.
I have heard a few descriptions of the person with autism as to why it may take longer to do certain things. They are static thinkers living in a dynamic world. They have comorbidities like processing, sensory, and learning disorders. I won’t deny that people with autism are often more sensitive, or that they can take a little longer to process. But using these diagnostic labels to explain away every behavior rather than taking the time to figure out what could be causing the reaction only disables the person even further.
Have you ever watched people going into a pool or the ocean? Some jump in right away while others need more time to get used to the water. Both go in. Just because it takes one person longer to get in the water than someone else does not mean they have a sensory disorder. The same concept holds true for those on the autism spectrum. Just because I learned to tie my shoes faster than you doesn’t mean that you have a learning disability.