Alice sipped her tea and smiled as she described Owen, her 14-year-old son.
“He’s bright and enjoys learning, and he’s very sensitive. He likes cute animals, but he’s also interested in scary and unusual things. He’s got his hair cut Emo now and dyed black — it’s a bit of a protective thing to make him seem more tough.”
Owen sounds like a typical teenager, and in many ways he is. But he also has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.
As a young boy, Owen did well at school and enjoyed many extra-curricular activities. Alice described him as social, and always seeking connections with people. “When he was young he would just go up and start talking to anybody.”
Other children, in the younger years, were accepting of Owen and it was easy to find playmates.
Owen developed an early interest in art, but had very high expectations for himself.
“He actually thought he should be doing Leonardo [da Vinci]-type work when he was five. I tried to reason with him, but he didn’t hear that. He just said, ‘That is good; mine is crap.’ ”
Owen’s perfectionism led to anxiety. “It was really his high level of anxiety that led to his diagnosis at age nine.”
The challenges of autism change as a child develops, and overlap with challenges typical kids may have. Typical teens are highly self-conscious and aware of their appearance. For an autistic teen, these traits may be stronger or more intense.
“He obsesses over his appearance, even more than typical teens. There’s a list of things that he thinks is wrong with him; right now it’s his teeth.”
Owen is also a perfectionist academically.
“If there’s trouble with math, a typical teen might just say, ‘Me and math don’t get along’ but Owen is very hard on himself. He’ll say, ‘I’m so stupid; I’m the dumbest person in the world.’ ”
Owen, like many on the autism spectrum, has specific areas of interest that border on obsession. These come and go.
“He likes steam punks, grumpy cat, and watching home-video shows with cute animals.”
Owen sometimes talks at length about his interests. “He’s better now, but he still really focuses on what he’s interested in talking about, and may not realize that the other person is just being polite and doesn’t want to spend two hours listening.”
Fortunately, Owen does have friends who share his interests, but he would really like to make more friends. “He definitely strives for connections; he would love to have lots of friends.”
The social world is challenging enough for typical teenagers, but it is far more challenging for a teen on the autism spectrum. Autistics are often type-caste as antisocial, and “in their own world” but this not always the case.
Many people with autism really do wish to fit in, have friends, and connect with people. Owen is no exception.
People on the spectrum have difficulty with the nuances of social communication. Interpreting people’s facial expressions, body language and emotions can be baffling.
The wiring of an autistic’s brain is simply different. They are logical, concrete thinkers, liking rules and regularity. Many autistics think in pictures, and are much stronger visually than aurally. Rapid verbal exchanges and the constant changes of the human face are difficult to process.
Many teens with autism are bullied, but not always in an overt way, as Alice explains.
“Autistic kids get ignored more than bullied. It’s a passive form of bullying because they are not being included — which is a way of saying there’s something wrong with you. If someone moves away when you sit beside them at lunch, it feels as bad as being bullied.”
In our conversation, Alice kept returning to the fact that Owen’s social well-being was her biggest concern. “It would be great if parents could talk to their kids about autism so that they could understand more about it.”
Unlike many of his peers, Owen has no interest in sports, but has diverse interests in other areas.
“Apart from his interests-of-the-moment he really likes art, the natural world, and sciences. I’m sure anybody could find something to talk to him about. If people could just make a bit of effort to connect with him — that would be my greatest wish.”
We finished our tea and I said goodbye to Alice, thanking her for sharing Owen with me.
Alice’s wish seemed reasonable; if autistic kids have to work so hard on their social skills, surely we can all try harder on our end. We can engage, and make an effort to understand. We are all human, autistic or not, and we all have the same needs at heart, and share many of the same challenges.
One in 88 children are diagnosed with autism in B.C. Asperger’s Syndrome, now considered under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), refers to those with normal-range speech and cognitive development.
People with autism may be highly intelligent, often excelling in their area of interest. Given time and patience, they can greatly improve their social abilities, and go on to have mutually fulfilling relationships with others.
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The Comox Valley Autism Spectrum Parent Support Group meets on the first Wednesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Comox Valley Child Development Association.
For more information, check out the website at http://comoxvalleyautismsupportgroup.com.