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Autism and life-long learning

We never stop learning – any of us.  After high school there’s college.  After college there’s that on-the-job training we all must endure as we get to know our new place of employment and the specific skills we have learned come into play every day along with even more new skills.  Of course, some of us hit that bump in the road where we feel we are starting all over again as down-sizing of the work place throws many of us back into school and again we learn new skills so that we can once again become employed – with another set of specific skills ready to be put to use in another new environment.  In addition, technology has been changing so quickly it is difficult sometimes to just keep up - from that new DVD player with a thousand buttons to an iPad with a thousand apps, life just keeps us on our toes in the learning arena.  Autism is not any different in that respect. The autistic person is also a life-long learner.  I know this and yet when my autistic son, Matt, continues to learn new things each year – and he’s almost 27 years old now– I am always pleasantly surprised.  So why is it that I continue to be amazed by the new things he learns when I know he is fully capable of learning anything he puts his mind too?

Maybe it’s because we started out on such a dismal road.  Matt’s doctors encouraged us to institutionalize him, feeling we could not handle the stresses that come with having a severely handicapped child. You see, Matt is very autistic.  He’s one of those rare individuals that are hovering between moderate and severe. It’s hard to put a degree on it because he has some areas of higher functioning than others, something observed in many autistic individuals. But not many autistic individuals are on the same playing field as Matt.  I never realized this until the Internet came along and I started seeing parent blogs and blogs by adults with autism and it really hit me hard.  Here I had thought for many years that Matt’s autism was getting milder with each new thing he could learn and do.  It seems naive and silly to me now that I could have been so uninformed – but I had never, ever known another living soul with autism – ever. It was rare when Matt was growing up, 1:10,000.  What did I know of autism or the changes that come with age?  What did I know of overall ability?  I soon discovered that someone mildly autistic has only a few common points with my son, and if they can speak, well then …. they have even less in common.  So yes, there’s a huge difference among autistic individuals even if they do have the same diagnosis.  They are different in every major aspect of autism; sensory integration, communication, and socialization.  I am sure we all agree… no two autistic people are alike in their ability in each of these areas, but they all can and do learn.  As parents, don’t we all hope to see the same thing?  Don’t we all look each day hoping to see a new skill or advances in their speech, personal hygiene skills, life skills, reading, writing, an education, the ability to perform household chores, socialize, communicate a little better, maybe drive a car or have a job, and don’t we all want what they want - the ultimate goal of independence?

All children can learn – autistic or not. I assure you Matt has learned a great many skills and he can do so much and he can do all of these things without using much speech. Yes, Matt can speak - but there’s a huge difference in being able to speak and wanting to.  Matt simply doesn’t want to.  The English language is very complicated and confusing.  Human emotions are complicated and confusing. Social interactions are complicated and confusing. Now combine them… see the problem, right? His desire to not speak is a direct consequence of his autism.  I bring up his speech as I feel that maybe the reason I am always so pleasantly surprised by a new skill is because we don’t talk about it much.  I explain something to him the easiest way I can, we practice together and then he flies solo.  Some things are fun to witness and experience with him – riding a bike or driving the car. Some things that I teach him leave me wondering just how much he understood and I am forced to play the “wait and see” game.   Its skills concerning the later that always seem to catch me off guard when they all of sudden appear as a natural part of his daily living. 

Recently, I showed Matt how to keep track of his finances.  There is a special book and he must jot down everything he buys and pays for as a part of learning to manage his own money.  When he lives on his own it is something that he must be able to do so that he will always have food, shelter, medical and emergency money from the first of the month to the last of the month.  Matt is on disability and needs to be able to live on a very, very low income (if you are against SSI and disability you should probably stop reading now).  This is his only source of income and it must not only last, but some must be put away for later.  He needs to be able to shop for himself, purchase items by himself and make a note of items he needs – all of which he has done for several years now.  Keeping track of the actual finances is the new skill. He has been writing down his expenses in detail (woohoo!) but the best part is his ability to think quickly on how to solve a financial problem.

Matt was shopping with his step-daddy (Tom) on the last week of the month.  Matt had decided he wanted to purchase both a book and a music CD. Tom then explained to him that he didn’t think Matt had enough money in his account to purchase these items in addition to his regular Friday-nightpizza (2 pepperoni pizzas for $11.00). Matt stood still for a few minutes, the expression on his face revealed deep concentration, then all of a sudden he turned and walked off – putting back the CD. Tom noticed he still held on to the book and again explained his concern about how much Matt would need for both pizza and his book.  Matt confidently replied, “On Friday I will get 1 pizza”.  He understood that the book was only $9.81 and if he got 1 pizza instead of 2, he could cover his book financially.  Problem solved, and he conveyed this in very few words.

Such a simple exchange between two adults – and yet, it revealed so much.  Matt is on his way toward independence – and I know this. He is a life-long learner and his future can’t be seen with any  certainty – but it sure looks bright from where I sit.  What wonderful experiences will he have?  What will he be able to achieve?  No one can assume anything where autism is concerned.  We are all life-longlearners, all of us.  Yet, I can’t help but be both amazed and pleasantly surprised by each knowledgeable step he takes toward his one and only ultimate goal of independence.  I know it’s probably just a parent thing, but I think this guy is AWESOME!


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