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The Difference Between Our Worlds – A Story About Justine

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Sometimes Autism ‘looks like’ Autism. Sometimes social integration is a visibly painful experience. And sometimes, if we watch closely and learn from observation, we the support workers, family and friends can have a little idea of how hard it is for someone diagnosed with ASD, to be amongst others day to day; and try to understand and make appropriate adjustments. Justine * is what many might describe as being ‘typical Autistic’. She rarely spoke to others, she never mixed socially with her peers, she did not join in group tasks and found making eye contact difficult.

Justine was a bright, intelligent young woman; as evidenced by the good grades she obtained at school. She was creative and talented as a ‘maker’ in arts and crafts. However, she struggled desperately with the social side of college.

She could have been mistaken for being extremely shy; however, one day I observed her sitting with a small group around a table during break. Someone told a funny story and everyone laughed – except Justine. Justine, I realised, did not understand the concept of humour. What she did do was to smile when everyone else smiled, except it was an odd rictus of a grimace; all mouth and no eyes, there was no humour there.

I understood that someone had taught her, or she had learnt, to copy what others did facially.

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On another occasion, Justine needed to put some paper into the bin. The class were all about to leave at the end of the day and so were standing, with bags on shoulders, scattered about the room. The route to the bin was via some students and I watched in dismay as Justine went first one way, then the next, trying to find a clear way through to the bin without engaging with anyone. I saw the panic on her face – she looked to me, like a cornered animal.

I motioned for Justine and she came to me. I told her, “All you need to do is say to that person there, ‘can I get through please.’” She went and repeated the line, the other student stepped aside and she completed her minor task.

Not so minor task for Justine though!

It did not and never would occur to Justine that she could ask someone to do something. It never occurred to Justine that she could initiate a conversation. It never occurred to Justine that she could simply leave the paper on a table for someone else to clean up.

The world as I know it was, to Justine, a world of loud noises, bizarre rituals, indecipherable facial expressions, habits, customs and behaviours that meant little or nothing. I suppose it could be equated with arriving in a foreign land. Justine’s world was mostly a puzzle to me and others; primarily, because Justine spoke only to me; and even then, rarely. But working with Justine gave me an insight into how extremely difficult and painful it can be to live in an ‘extrovert world’.

Patience is not only a virtue, it can be the key to unlocking the secrets of the ASD person. Being attentive to the needs of people with ASD; especially those who are ‘higher’ up the scale, can reap its own rewards. We learn to visualise the world from someone else’s viewpoint. We appreciate how hard they work; day to day, to simply be amongst others. This understanding and appreciation means that we do not make the individual fit a shape we think they should. We can see aspects that we might, as none ASD people, value and in doing so, value those individuals who are ‘not like us’.

*Name changed to protect identity.

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About the author:

Alexandra Peel is a contributing writer for The School of Autism blog. She is the author of Sticks & Stones and writes the blog, Flailing Through Life. She is also a Learning Support Practitioner at an F.E/H.E College, England.

Visit Ms. Alexandra Peel’s blog.

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About the School For Autism, Hyderabad

School For Autism is based in Hyderabad and provides therapy to people with autism, irrespective of age. To know more about the school, click here.

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