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Different . . .Not less

Tom and I watched the film, “Temple Grandin”.  If you have not yet had a chance to see it, then I highly recommend that you do – especially if you know someone autistic. The directors did a wonderful job of capturing the curious behaviors and mannerisms of Temple’s autism. Many of the mannerisms shown in the movie have been observed in my own son, Matt.  As I watched I couldn’t help but think of Matt – both about the similarities and the differences.  Although both Temple and Matt are what professionals would consider high-functioning, they are still very different in almost as many ways as they are the same. 


Temple’s mother stressed to her that she was different . . . not less.  I have stressed this same view of autism to Matt.  Among other similarities is the ability to think in pictures.  They both see minute details that we neurotypical individuals do not notice without a bit of help. Ask a question about the solar system or a jet flying overhead (two of Matt’s favorite subjects) and he will give you all the details. With Temple it was cow behavior, with Matt, it is space, military armament, and video games. Both have favorite shows on television and both recite lines from their favorite show repeatedly.  Both were diagnosed during a time when the condition was rare (1:10,000) and both mothers were advised to place their autistic child in a home.  During the time of Temple’s diagnosis the experts thought the condition was caused by cold, aloof mothers.  Matt was diagnosed several years later and the refrigerator mother hypothesis was finally in dispute.  I heard it only a few times and was able to refute the misconception. I did not have to endure that accusation very often, thank goodness.


Differences between the two are obvious to me.  Matt can not communicate as well as Temple could.  It is a facet of his condition, something we work on daily, but the fact of the matter is, Matt may never be a very good communicator.  Autism is a spectrum diagnosis - no two children are alike. That means that although both Temple and Matt are considered high functioning for various reasons, their progression toward independence is vastly different. Matt does not hold conversations, can not voice his opinion whenever he needs to, can’t drive where he wants to go and can not yet live on his own.  We are working on each of these areas as they are the goals that must be reached if he is to achieve his independence.  Unfortunately, the simple fact is, Matt does not communicate as well as Temple. Consider what communication or the lack there of means to our overall ability to fend for ourselves.  Not being able to directly communicate a thought has consequences in such everyday activities as driving, education, securing employment and performing a job. If the power goes out, can he call the electric company? If he hits a deer with his car, can he figure out what to do? Even worse, if he is in an accident, can he handle the barrage of questions from an officer?  If he runs low on groceries or other supplies before he gets paid, can he ask someone for help?  If a pan gets too hot on the stove and sets off the fire alarm, can he handle the situation?  If, heaven forbid, a fire breaks out, can he get himself out and call the fire department? 


Of all the goals we set for our autistic children, communicationis the absolute key to their independence. Matt is considered high functioning because he has left many of his childhood mannerisms behind.  He will talk to others if prompted and will interact with family and friends – not as much as Temple can, but he has come an extremely long way from where he started.  In the film it was obvious that Temple’s ability to communicate is far more advanced than Matt’s. It was her ability to speak her thoughts that allowed her to press on in her education, write her many papers, live on her own, and drive.  When we look at the one thing we want for our children, verbal communication should be toward the top of the list.  Early diagnosis and speech therapy are an absolute necessity. 


We watched the film and cried during several scenes as Temple struggled with interactions with her family, her peers and with strangers. These are all areas that I know Matt struggles with too.  Temple was able to over come this aspect of her autism, Matt has not. Matt is different than Temple– but not less. Temple showed more difficulty with displays of emotion than Matt. Matt can tell me “I love you” and it is heartfelt. Matt gives me strong, warm hugs.  Matt can empathize with emotional pain.  He has learned to read many emotions.  I still can remember him practicing his many facial expressions and emotions in a mirror when he was little. Emotions are very difficult for Temple Grandin.


I am Matt’s mother and his best friend and I have to say that a hug from Matt is worth more to me than I can express.  As a matter of fact, if I were given the choice between Matt sharing his emotions or him being able to communicate better, I would have to choose the emotion. By being able to bond with me emotionally I have what some parents of autistic children may never have – a visible, tactile, expression of love. It may be selfish of me to put his ability to form emotional bonds over his the ability to verbally express himself, but then again, Matt is my son, the light of my life, and a hug and a kiss from Matt is oh, so special.  It’s special because it’s something I never dreamed I would experience.  


On the autism spectrum Matt is considered high functioning, as is Temple Grandin. They are the same in many ways and different in many more.  I would wager Temple to be much higher on the scale than Matt in many aspects, and Matt to be higher in others.  Each is different . . . not less.      


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