Children with Autism Deserve a Chance

Article excerpt

Byline: Doug Richards For The Register-Guard

On April 3, a brave cast of two dozen boys and girls took the stage at the Soreng Theater. These children had one significant thing in common - autism. For the afternoon these children were in the spotlight while autism, although still there, took a back seat. April is Autism Awareness month, and I want to help shine the spotlight on what nearly 1,000 families in Lane County live with every day.

Autism knows no boundaries with respect to race, class or geography. It indiscriminately shows up one day in a family's life, and because it is a lifelong challenge, it shows up to stay. Autism brings emotional and financial costs that are borne by the family and ultimately shouldered by our society.

The face of autism looks no different than the face of any beautiful child, but behind the smiles are intense struggles with things we take for granted every day. These obstacles can interfere with autistic children's education and their ability to help shape their own futures.

Autism is a vast and broad spectrum. Like other children, no two children with autism are the same, and like other children, education offers the best promise of a brighter future.

Imagine you are in first grade with two dozen other children. You're expected to remain seated and focused on the teacher. However, the hum from the fluorescent lights, though barely audible to most people, is physically painful, especially when combined with the scratching of your pencil across your paper. Yes, these small sounds, which most of us ignore, can cause pain - pain that prevents engagement in the classroom, and pain that is an obstacle to learning.

With autism, you see things differently. Maybe the words on the blackboard seem like a string of letters and you don't understand why copying them is so hard for you when most of your classmates manage with little or no difficulty. Somehow you endure this pain and struggle through, because you know that is what is expected.

Recess brings welcome relief, right? You leave the fluorescent hum for the cacophony of a playground with unspoken social rules that you don't know or understand, but everyone else does. You might find a swing and the back-and-forth motion may calm you, providing a temporary escape. Maybe there is no refuge, so you just run in circles around the playground as fast as you can, trying to process the cascade of colors, motions and sounds assaulting your senses.

You know the other kids notice. You know they don't understand, and some kids will hurt you because they don't understand. Then recess is over and you go back to the lights, the pencils. You have to hold it together a little longer until you can go home.

It is safe at home. You don't have to hold it together at home. Your mom and your dad can't understand how your teacher has no complaints about you at school. How is it that you sit there at your desk and cause no problems? Because at home, you're unglued - after keeping it together in school all day, at home you become a shrieking, screeching, emotional bomb who blows up any sense of normalcy for the whole family, wanting comfort one moment, raging the next, and then being disconnected and in your own world.

Maybe school is too much - you just can't endure the classroom cauldron. The sounds, the lights, your teacher's perfume are just too much to process. You become so unraveled that you knock a teacher down while trying to escape, breaking her glasses. You tear the blouse off of a teacher's assistant, then you are placed in a safe room where you begin to remove the carpet from the walls. When the teacher discovers this and tries to redirect you, you bolt, escaping from three adults, and try to get into a total stranger's car. You are an inconsolable whirlwind of chaos for 20 minutes.

Are these extreme examples? Maybe. Are these examples that we are familiar with in our house? …