What Autism Has Taught Me
By Karen Kaplan, MS
As Autism Awareness Month approaches, I reflect on what autism has taught me through the 40 years I have engaged in understanding those on the spectrum, their families, their services, and support providers.
In the beginning, autism taught me that brains work differently for different people. It taught me to see possibilities, capabilities, and solutions to each problem I was asked to think about.
Autism taught me that the individual on the spectrum was more like me than different. Autism parents taught me that one of my key roles was to help them have hope, find another way, connect them to resources, and keep trying to create a meaningful program that could help their individual reach their true potential.
Autism taught me to put my detective hat on and ask at least seven questions about an incident, action, challenge, and difference before developing an effective solution.
Autism taught me to keep learning, reading, and connecting with researchers who are curious about how come and why.
Autism showed me that it was best to observe first, then meet the individual where they are, perhaps doing what they are engaged in, joining, thus developing trust, and then trying to expand the connection and finally build on it.
Autism taught me that acquiring effective language understanding and communication expression skills were critical in helping those on the spectrum decrease anxiety, ask for help, obtain needs, and demonstrate refusal, confusion, and frustration.
Autism taught me that teaching those on the spectrum to co-regulate through sensory strategies would lead to self-regulation in time. I learned that when those on the spectrum find ways to calm their sensory input, they problem-solve and engage better. So, even a hat, gloves, sunglasses, or earplugs can offer some calmness. A young woman on the spectrum taught me that meditation and breathing strategies help her. She later became a Zen practitioner and provided sessions to those with neurodiversity.
Children on the spectrum showed me that after they engage in proprioceptive activities, running up and down hills, jumping, swimming, weights or weeding, moving furniture, and pushing a heavy grocery cart, can help them regulate. It is that deep pressure and joint compression that help them be less anxious.
Others on the spectrum have taught me that time alone in their rooms after stressful school or work days helps them regulate.
Autism parents have shown me their desperation, their deep commitment to helping their son or daughter, their hope, their grief, loss, their isolation, their sadness, their lack of sleep, and most of all, their helplessness at times. I learned to listen and find something positive to share with them so they could see some light.
Autism taught me that everyone needs a voice and that we must help them have one in some way. It could be through pictures, sign language, the written word, body gestures, a drawing, or even a song. It might even be through a video, film, or action hero.
Autism taught me to find a way for everyone to see the glass half full. For years, each April 2nd, Autism Awareness Day, the media always emphasized what was lacking (understanding, supports, services, programs, etc.). So those on the spectrum joined me in demonstrating their capabilities at an autism awesomeness event I hosted for seven years. Dancers, artists, musicians, authors, Zen practitioners, inventors, and software programmers demonstrated their strengths, interests, and capabilities at the event. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and therapists attended and let me know that this event demonstrated hope.
I am grateful for what I have been taught by autism. Never give up. Look for the positives. Find another way. Keep asking why or how come. Hear the parent, put myself in their place, and find a way to acknowledge and then guide them. At the same time, I must remember to hold the parent responsible for nurturing independence as well. I am very grateful to have learned how to teach others to understand those with autism and to have inspired them to create and develop and lead in programs for those on the spectrum.
Autism gifted me with one of my meaningful purposes in life. It shared its growth and development for over forty years with me. Today it still guides me to help others, to teach, to find solutions, to work collaboratively, and to see possibilities.
I was lucky to meet a young boy named Rusty during my college years while obtaining my speech therapy degree and special education credential. He and his mother inspired me on this autism journey. Rusty was the first to teach me that it is more important to find internal motivators to lead engagement and teach rather than to offer a sticker, money, a bribe, or to use some negativity in some way. Meeting Rusty moved me from working with deaf individuals to understanding how to teach a child on the spectrum.
I was lucky to have parents who believed in my dreams of creating and opening a residential school for children with autism. I believed that children did not belong in a state hospital. My father believed in my potential, like parents of those on the spectrum who believe in their child’s potential. You see, we are all more alike than different. He backed my first school. He joined me on the journey of helping.
So, I encourage you to learn about autism. See possibilities. Perhaps that journey will be a teacher to you as it has been to me.
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” —Helen Keller
Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in Speech Pathology and Audiology. She minored in Special Education and obtained her Speech Therapist and Special Education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for both public schools and private schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism spectrum disorders. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 additional years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges. Karan founded a small non-profit, Offerings, which travels globally helping other cultures understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an Autism Awesomeness event yearly, showcasing the strengths and talents of those who live on the spectrum. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. She has published articles to help bring ideas and strategies to families and professionals, providing hope. Karen authored Reach Me Teach Me in the early 70s and went on to publish her second book, On the Yellow Brick Road Finding Hope for Autism, in 2017. Her third book, Typing to Heaven and Back, is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love. Be sure to connect with Karen—she is always ready to listen and think of the possibilities.