We are more alike than different – Part 1

In a blink of an eye, week 2 in Pathlight has been a thing of history, chronologically, but not personally. Because I find myself growing everyday interacting with the students here and my experiences in school has really made me mature emotionally, as well as in my depth of understanding of autism as a childhood pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).

I have been wanting to write up this post ever since I penned down my reflections the last weekend, however I hadn’t had the luxury of time to do so! I initially intended to pen down my thoughts for my personal growth sake, however I felt that the insight I have gained in this field has to be shared. I will first give an introduction to what exactly is autism, before sharing what I’ve discovered in my short stint here at Pathlight.

What is Autism? 

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex disorders of brain development. It is defined broadly by a dyad of defining impairments:
1) Difficulties in social communication and interaction

2) Rigidity – Fixated interests and Repetitive Behaviors 

Children with Autism may have difficulties in maintaining eye contact, expressing themselves, difficulties in controlling their own emotions, short attention span, as well as delays in language processing. They tend to cope poorly with changes in schedules due to their rigidity, and most of them tend to be visual learners, as contrasted with auditory learning. Some of them may have specific interests such as in buses, trains, dinosaurs, or even water pipes; while some may have repetitive movements such as flapping or echolalia (a condition where they would repeat whatever they hear constantly). These are just some of the few symptoms of autism, however, it does not apply to every single individual with autism as all of them differs in some way or another in terms of frequency, intensity and spectrum — High functioning (Aspergers’) vs. Low functioning. Their lack of social appropriateness, and the difficulty in learning the volatile social norms, tend to be one of their biggest difficulty they have in social interaction.

With this brief introduction, let me start with the 4 main insights that I have gained in this short span of 1 week or so.

1) They are more similar than different to us

Yes, this is the biggest discovery for me ever since I’ve set foot in this school. As we now know that people with autism tend to be poor at adapting to changes in their schedule, and their lives are pretty routine based, understandably they get anxious and frustrated when their routine is disrupted or when there is unpredictability or lack of concreteness in instructions.

On my first day of school, the first thing that I was taken aback was that every lesson was schedule based. Before every lesson, teachers would breakdown the schedule of the particular lesson on the board with check boxes, which they would tend tick them off when it’s completed, even for PE, and the students would comply to it wholeheartedly. For example in PE, the whiteboard would look like that:

  • Greetings
  • Warm-up (Static)
  • Warm-up (Rhythmic)
  • Jogging (_ rounds)
  • Rest
  • Jogging (_ rounds)
  • Cool down
  • Return to class

Well, I am surprised that the schedule has to be broken down like this for every lesson, because in school, we all have the schema of things, and we know what will happen or what is going to happen in a particular lesson, hence there is no need for such a schedule. And the reason why i say that the students comply to this schedule because if one would need to go to the toilet and we don’t allow them to go at a point of time, the way to get them to give up asking, is just to insert an extra bullet after let’s say, jogging, and they would stop asking and go automatically after that.

Even though we may not require such a schedule or routine-based structure in our daily lives, we have to admit that some times, we do make check lists like that especially when we want to structure and manage our time well, especially during the exam period, and make sure that we are kept in check, at least for me, I do. And these children with autism, just like us, they prefer their time to be structured all the time, in their case.

Also, on the point of being anxious and frustrated when there are changes in their schedules or unpredictability, I have been more in touch and aware with my own emotions ever since I’ve interacted with these students. What I have realized is that, myself too, have such issues whenever I’m faced with uncertain situations or have changes made to my schedule. Whenever I’m not given answer or I am unable to plan my day ahead, I’ll feel annoyed and a little lost due to the lack of structure. Similarly, whenever there are changes made to my routine, I may feel, albeit slight, some form of frustration or stress. Unfamiliarity often scares us and being not used to our environments may also cause some form of increased stress. One good example about my own insecurities with changes was the day when we had to train at the outdoor court, after a year of training at utown, I was definitely experiencing heightened arousal due to the unfamiliarity, and the number of easy baskets I missed and the lack of focus, says it all about how unfamiliarity causes stress. Likewise, people with autism experience such emotions as well, although they may react at higher intensities and may result in a meltdown.

They simply lack the regulation mechanisms that we may have to calm ourselves down or keep our emotions in check when faced with changes like these, but we all, as humans experience such frustrations similarly, except that we express them in different intensities.

It is really fun interacting with them because, when you want them to listen to your instructions, all you have to do is to hold a clipboard, and list down your instructions for them, and most of them would tend to obey them. I love how innocent these students are, and such innocence really makes you smile, no matter how difficult they can get at times. :)

As this is getting longer than I expected, I have decided to break this post into several parts. In the following posts, I hope that you would be able to see more clearly, to why I say we are all more similar than we are different. Really, I wish I had the linguistic capabilities to share my experiences with you guys easily, and to let you guys learn what I have, because it has certainly been one hell of a learning experience.

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