“Different, not less”

What a wonderful morning! One of those where it’s a bit overcast and you’re wishing you’d never scheduled those outside meetings on a Friday because you’re so content to work from home. That is how the silvery light in my golden room looked today as I roused myself and vowed to keep my commitment. I’d set up coffee and an interview with Brooke Young, Autism Specialist with the Colorado Department of Education to discuss autism; not something I normally bounce out of bed for. I headed downtown to one of fifteen Starbucks in a five block radius, ordered my Joe and asked around to see if any of the blondes in line was Brooke. Feeling luckily out of luck, I sat to write and enjoy my overpriced java, secretly hoping I was at the wrong Starbucks and guiltily scrolling the Blackberry to find her number. A minute later in walked Brooke, apologetic for having gone to the wrong Starbucks, along with Gina Quintana, Significant Support Needs Specialist, also with the CDE. And the next two hours of conversation were amazing!
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a cognitive disability identified by a triangle of attributes within target areas of brain; communication, social relatedness and repetitive behaviors. Many of us function well in the world with slight variations in these areas of neurological development, but when added together they prevent social adaptation for the person with ASD. There is no known cause and no cure. What we do know is that the numbers of children being identified is growing globally at a staggering rate, each one exhibiting the disorder individually. As Gina put it, “To know a child with autism is just that”, the philosophy being person first, disorder second.
The movie “Rain Man” is to autism what Helen Keller is to the deaf/blind community. They were both anomalies that brought mass attention to our brothers and sisters living with these disabilities but to Brooke and Gina they are sweeping generalities. No one knows what it’s like to live with autism except for those who have it, it’s hard to even imagine. The hearing/sighted world can establish empathy with the deaf/blind experience through sensory deprivation, but it’s impossible to wrap your head around the autistic experience. And though we see commonalities within families of children with autism, even their experiences are singular because autism presents in such a wide variety of ways. Television shows are on the bandwagon now with the introduction of characters with autism, most recently “Parenthood”. So far, it is the HBO special on CSU Professor, Dr. Temple Grandin which presents the most practical, pragmatic look at autism. Temple’s mother, Eustacia reframed the challenge: “Different Not Less,” with the banner that she waved to threads.
Ms. Young is headed to the Southwest Region this week to implement a model program of training and dialogue between educators, families and students in the Telluride, Ouray, Ridgway, Norwood and the West End. Having spent my Friday morning in the inspirational and compassionate company of these two, I can’t help but think how lucky the families and students they so fervently serve are.