Learning To Read Autism
by Fran Withrow
As a teacher of young children, I naturally gravitate toward books that will help me in my work, so I was immediately drawn to Barry Prizant’s excellent book, Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. I sat down to read just the first few pages and was so entranced that before I knew it I was half way through.
Prizant’s book is divided into two sections: the first helps the reader understand autism, and the second gives guidance for living with an individual on the autistic spectrum. The book is engaging, readable, and positive in outlook. It should be of great comfort to families, especially those whose children have recently been diagnosed. Filled with stories from his decades of work with children (and adults) with autism, Prizant deftly guides the reader in understanding what it is like to be autistic. Rather than a list of behaviors, autism should be defined as “difficulty staying well regulated emotionally and physiologically:” in other words, dysregulation. While everyone feels dysregulated occasionally, the person with autism is less able to deal with this because of his neurology. The world seems frightening, and the individual copes through what seems to be atypical behaviors.
In the past, therapy has focused strictly on eliminating those behaviors. However, Prizant explains that people with autism are trying to control their world and their bodies to counteract their fear, so therapeutic goals should focus on helping individuals feel safe. The opposite of anxiety isn’t calm, it’s trust, he quotes one adult with Asperger’s (a form of autism) as saying.
Rather than focusing on simply wiping out negative behaviors, we should focus on the why. Why is this child acting this way? Is he trying to calm himself? Is she trying to communicate something, even if she can’t talk? Is he engaging with others in some way? If we ask why, respecting the person for who he is and where he is, we can often support him in a more productive, compassionate way. We can also use those things she is obsessive about (her enthusiasms, as he delightfully refers to them) to build skills and strengthen communication.
I found the second section of the book equally insightful. Prizant reminds parents that development and growth are lifelong processes, so parents should not be discouraged if their child does not follow a particular time line for skills acquisition. He discusses how parents can work with support personnel, including difficult ones, and offers many suggestions for helping parents advocate for their child.
His goal for people with autism is that they find happiness and a sense of self rather than academic success. Find the child’s strengths rather than focusing on what she can’t do, and academics will follow more naturally. He acknowledges there are many challenges and hard work inherent in living with individuals with autism. However, he maintains that with appropriate support, an understanding of the child, and a community that offers choices and means of empowerment, individuals with autism and their families can still enjoy lives of meaning and satisfaction.
“Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism”
by Barry M. Prizant, PhD
Simon and Schuster