|Having Asperger's, like Shane Mizell, means|
sometimes blending in, sometimes not.
“That guy must be retarded.”
“He’s just strange!”
Shane Mizell knows other people see him this way, although he’s none of these things. But first impressions form quickly when he’s bagging groceries at the supermarket, sitting in the stands at a baseball game, or just walking down the street. Most people would never suspect that Shane, 21, has an autism spectrum disorder.
“People with autism don’t often have ‘a look,’ so they’re not as easily identified,” says Heidi Mizell, Shane’s mom, who became all too familiar with others’ misunderstandings in the course of raising her son. “Our children look so ‘normal,’ and when they have an unexpected behavior, the public is critical and judgmental.” Indeed, when you meet someone who blends in one minute and appears “different” the next, how to react?
Autism is a spectrum, with mild and severe forms. Shane’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome means he meets many, but not all criteria for autistic disorder. He has difficulty socializing with peers, verbalizing his thoughts, and knowing what someone else is thinking. But even mild autism comes with severe challenges.
When Shane was younger, teachers misread his behavior. “He would be paying attention when it appeared he wasn’t,” Heidi recalls. “He’s one of those kids who needs to fidget to listen, or ‘not look’ to listen.” His teachers were simply unaware a person with autism will typically not look someone in the eye. This is not out of rudeness; they simply prefer to concentrate by processing one of their senses at a time.
Autism is not a disease, but a neurological condition. The autistic brain is slower to recognize social signals like facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, and all the subtle information they contain. Ambiguity or surprises can be upsetting, as can crowds or noise. Shane describes it as sensory overload.
“It feels like everything’s starting to surround me,” he explains, “And I need to get to somewhere quiet and calm, and stay there for the rest of the day.” If removing himself from the location is not an option, he may “shut down” and be silent.
People with autism may also appear to have “super senses” due to a highly sensitive brain. “I can hear things that people usually wouldn’t hear,” Shane says. “Really high pitched sounds. I have to point to it and say, ‘I can hear that!’” But sometimes people don’t believe him, he says with a laugh, so he stopped pointing out his super-hearing.
Shane also interprets things literally. Due to a neurological delay in reading others’ tone of voice, people with autism are slower to detect sarcasm or idioms, as Heidi learned on one memorable trip.
“I have to watch how I say things. We almost had an incident in New York City. He stopped in the middle of the street when I told him to ‘walk on ahead.’ He just stopped, because he thought that was humorous!”
Despite its challenges, autism has positive aspects. People with autism tend to be honest, detail-oriented, and good problem-solvers. Often, they focus on a specific subject and achieve high levels of success. But other times, their strengths go unnoticed.
At his supermarket job, Shane has been assigned to bag groceries or retrieve carts. He’d like to do more, like stocking shelves, but doubts they’d trust him with the responsibility.
“I could probably do a lot more. I’m used to being able to do lots of stuff,” he says, unsure of how to approach his supervisor about it. “I’m like the other people. I’m not a different person.”
Families like the Mizells hope to raise awareness and increase the public’s comfort level in interacting with people with autism. After all, many are already among us in everyday life. Most of all, Heidi says, people with autism deserve the same respect as others.
“I like to talk to my friends with autism directly. You can talk directly to somebody with autism. I think many people would prefer to be talked to, than at.”
Shane, for his part, takes his differences in stride. Anyone who takes time to know him will see he is intelligent and polite, with his own sense of humor. Those who don’t take the time, don’t bother him.
“I really could care less about what they think,” he says. With a condition as “invisible” as autism, a little knowledge and respect can go a long way.
This article appears as a leadup to Autistics Speaking Day. On November 1, 2011, autistic people, along with our non-autistic allies, will take a stand in support of autism awareness and autism allies and speak out about our experiences. Visit Autistics Speaking Day on Facebook for more information.