This is Noah. He’s my little cousin. If I were to describe Noah to someone who’s never had the privilege of meeting him, I’d use words like perceptive, clever, hilarious, loyal, inquisitive, honest and fun. He also has Autism, as the Centers for Disease Control tells us one in 68 American children do (CNN).
According to the Mayo Clinic, Autism is defined as follows: “Autism spectrum disorder is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It also includes restricted repetitive behaviors, interests and activities. These issues cause significant impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning.”
The Mayo Clinic recommends early intervention as soon as possible after being diagnosed. My cousin Rachel, Noah’s mom, and her husband Carl wasted no time after Noah’s diagnosis. They researched and found the best school for Noah, and they started him in speech and occupational therapy right away.
I’ve learned a lot about Autism by hanging around with Noah. Before Noah, I didn’t know anything concrete about autism. Any preconceived notions I might have had were based on TV and movies which often focus on the worst-case scenario, painting the diagnosis of Autism as some kind of sentence. Some family members who know even less than I do assumed that Noah was developmentally, mentally or emotionally disabled. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Noah is very intelligent. He learns quickly and rarely forgets a fact. If he’s particularly interested in the topic, for example video games, he is more than capable of retaining tons of facts and statistics, and he’s eager to share his knowledge. He’s also able to make connections between fiction and real life. Few kids his age are able to do that.
When Noah is feeling stressed or keyed up, he skips. He also will use a shoe string or something similar to make circles with until he feels better. It’s really no different from me biting my nails.
Some people believe that autistic kids can’t relate to others and struggle socially. Not Noah. I have never seen a more popular kid! His house has more foot traffic than Graceland. Neighborhood kids trek in and out, wanting to hang out with Noah. They sometimes hang out until Rachel sends them home.
At school, Noah is Mr. Popularity. He’s always surrounded by friends and his teachers and basically the entire staff are Noah fans. One of the reasons why is because Noah is seriously funny. The kid is always cracking me up. When he came to visit me in Texas for the first time (I think he was 4), I opened the door and the very first thing he says to me is a very dramatic, “Cousin Tina. You live SO FAR AWAY. Why did you move here? It’s such a long drive.” Then he went to my fridge to look for snacks.
Noah doesn’t lie. He tells it like it is. If I ask him “Does my hair look weird?” He’ll tell me. I know it will be the truth.
He’s also extremely creative. Once, he hugged me and declared that I smelled like fairies. He called me “Christmas Tina” for the first year we hung out. Tell me that wouldn’t inspire your loyalty.
It’s because of Noah that I’ve taken the time to learn more about autism, in order to better understand this wonderful boy. One of the reasons for my personal confusion about Autism is that the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder is that it can mean so many separate things…it’s such a large umbrella and sometimes it is used as a blanket diagnosis (Mayo Clinic). It makes no distinction between high-functioning kids like Noah and kids who have Aspergers, pervasive developmental disorders and other childhood disintegrative disorders (Mayo Clinic). This just adds to the ambiguity of the diagnosis and leads to misconceptions and confusion.
You can imagine a young parent hearing the words “autism” can initially be very frightening. Rachel and Carl have taught me that it doesn’t have to be. In Noah’s case, it’s more of a blessing. It’s not a limitation for him. This kid can be anything he wants to. In fact, one article featured by NPR argues that kids with Autism can thrive in high-tech jobs. Another article discusses the idea that kids with Autism are quicker to detect motion than other kids, demonstrating enhanced motion perception than their peers. I guess the take-home message is that if experts are still in search of understanding of Autism, who am I to think I know it all? Or anything at all? And in the end, does it even matter?
Because when I love Noah, I don’t separate him from his diagnosis. I don’t even think about it. Rather than hampering him, I feel his Autism is just a tiny part of who he is, and if anything it makes him even more special. He reaches out to people who most kids would ignore. He touches lives by just being himself. He’s taught me to not see him as Autistic, but just as Noah, who is pretty amazing all on his own.
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