This Friday (April 2nd) is World Autism Awareness Day. The annual observance aims to put a spotlight on the hurdles that people with autism face every day. As a growing global health issue only known to most in the last half century and only more recently becoming common knowledge, autism is an issue that is only gaining more understanding.
World Autism Awareness Day is intended to raise public awareness and to celebrate the unique talents of those with autism.
Most people are aware that there are different types of autism and different degrees. You may or may not be aware that some famous individuals are/were autistic. Among them was Albert Einstein. Others include Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple; poets Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats; authors Hans Christian Anderson, James Joyce ("Ulysses") and Lewis Carroll ("Alice in Wonderland"); America's third President, Thomas Jefferson; artist Andy Warhol; inventor Nikola Tesla; comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Dan Aykroyd, a member of the original 'not ready for prime time players' on "Saturday Night Live;" Charles Darwin (theory of evolution); actress Daryl Hannah; movie directors Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick; composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and many others. While autism did not become the mainstream diagnosis it is today until well into the 20th century, history is full of people who many consider to be or have been somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Kirk Herbertson, who contributes photos to the Lincoln Herald and who served four years on the Lincoln County Board of Education, has Asperger's, one form of autism.
Four years ago, he penned a Lincoln Herald article about living with autism.
"I have have Asperger's Syndrome, which is high-functioning autism. Autism is a brain disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and often restricted and repetitive behavior. Parents usually notice signs in the first two years of their child's life. Signs of Autism often develop gradually, though some children with autism develop at a normal pace and then regress. Autism affects information processing in the brain by altering nerve cells and their connection. The criteria for diagnosis is that symptoms are there, by childhood, usually before age three.
"That was the case with me; I did not get an accurate diagnosis until I was 37 years old.
" It all started when I was four, in kindergarten, when one of my teachers noticed I was shy and not playing and associating with the other kids and not progressing as a four year old should. She suggested my parents have me tested. I was tested by Doctors at Ladsen, located down near Charleston, SC, and at Bowman-Gray in Winston Salem. They said, I would 'never graduate, never play the piano and never be able to live on my own,' but I didn't listen to the nay-sayers. My first diagnosis was minimal brain dysfunction, followed by ADD, ADHD, OCD--just to name a few. One reason for this is that Asperger's Syndrome was not widely known in this country until about 20 years ago, after my initial testing.
"I did have some friends in elementary and high school--but not many. The friends I did have were friends who would stick by me, friends I could play with and hang out with. I was scared of balloons when I was younger, and one of my female friends used to go to the trouble of hiding the balloons in the closet when she would invite me to her birthday parties. Now I play a clown--Lampy--for birthday parties, giving out already blown up balloons on a string. I was in regular classes but would leave to go to special-ed classes and speech therapy in elementary school. I was teased and bullied in elementary and high school--I was teased for the music I listened to, I was teased because of how I crossed my legs, I was teased because I wasn't interested in sports, and for the clothes I wore. I was called names, including "retarded" as well as many others; even a special-ed teacher at my high school teased and bullied me, but I never got into fights in school. Instead I would take it all in, taking it out at home in different ways on my sister and parents. I now deal with bullying by forgiving, and not caring about what people think or say, I just let it go.
"I believe math was my worst subject in school, because I had trouble counting out money, decimals, rounding numbers and division. I could do basic addition and subtraction and multiplication, but in high school I could not understand algebra and the other higher math courses. I liked English, which may have been my best subject because I enjoyed spelling, literature, and writing stories and poems."
Kirk's advice for parents who have a child they suspect may be autistic or adults who have never been properly diagnosed:
"Get an accurate diagnosis. Persist. Test results may not tell the full story. The autism spectrum is very broad. Start with your family doctor, but don't accept just one answer. You may need to try other testing options until you find what makes sense. Don't be embarrassed about being different. Being awesome means being who you really are, not who other people expect you to be. Stop worrying about what other people think. Instead of trying to live in accordance with other people's expectations, live in accordance with your values.
"Be authentically you. Be the awesome, quirky, unique person that you are. Belonging comes from being yourself and finding people who love you that way, not from pretending to be someone else."