3 weeks ago



Teddy 99 witnessed

Teddy 99 witnessed personal triumphs, like graduating from high school and going out on a first date. I walk a difficult line between knowing too much and too little because my clinical perspective on their family life is so limited. Typical teenagers have coaches, teachers, or Scout masters who know them well and who can talk to parents with easy knowledge of their child’s personality and temperament. It is perhaps a sad comment that so few high school teachers take an interest in adolescents with ASD that the residents at Woodview Manor have to make do with me. Of course, as at many Christmas parties, Santa Claus makes an appearance and distributes presents. The residents become incredibly excited. Many shout with glee, some jump up and down and rock back and forth. All of a sudden these formally attired young men and women act like young children. They let down their guard, their carefully constructed social armor recedes, and, for some, the autistic mannerisms, long held in private check, return. One twenty-four-year-old young man starts to repeat “It’s Santa Claus. It’s Santa Claus” over and over again while rocking back and forth in front of the mirror. You would never catch him doing that under usual circumstances. The effort required to look “normal” is swept away by the excitement of a present from Santa Claus himself. Do they know that Santa is actually Garry Stuart, the executive director of Woodview, and that he does this every year? If they do, this knowledge does not diminish their enthusiasm one bit. My children are also excited, not only because they too get presents from Santa but also because they can pretend to be his helpers. They put on their elves’ caps and assist Santa as he reaches into his bag and pulls out the presents. As each person’s name is called out, he or she sits on Santa’s knee and answers some inane question before he gives that person a present. Eventually I get called up, to the accompaniment of much hooting and hollering. “Have you been a good boy this year?” Santa asks me. I blush and stammer out an equally inane answer. Everybody laughs at the same jokes told year after year as we all participate knowingly in this ritual of gift giving. It is the familiarity that is comforting. Among the residents, though, the sense that this is a game seems to be absent. They are genuinely thrilled to be sitting on Santa’s knee and receiving a present from him. At some level, I’m sure, they know that this Santa is not real, that he’s an excuse for a party. But their actions tell more about their beliefs; they experience real enthusiasm and joy each Christmas. No jaded comments from them on the commercialization of Christmas. We, on the other hand, are self-conscious when we sit on

100 A MIND APART Santa’s knee. We’re aware of the difference between the fantasy and the reality; we know we are playing a game, can be uncomfortable with it, but go along all the same. The residents too know this is a game but are happy and thrilled just the same. Their social naiveté saves them from the cynicism that we so often feel. What is most astonishing about the whole experience is the opportunity to watch the residents exchange gifts among themselves. This usually occurs during the quiet moments after Santa has finished handing out his presents. There is genuine pleasure in this simple act of exchange. One resident gives another a set of Laurel and Hardy tapes because the recipient so loves these comedians and often replays entire episodes of the films in his mind, scene for scene. Another gives his friend a special edition of LIFE magazine filled with photographs from the last decade. The gift is inexpensive, but since the recipient loves magazines and old photos, the present could not be more appropriate. What is astonishing is the thought that goes into the choosing of such gifts. There is no sense of embarrassment that these gifts might be considered eccentric by others or might reflect peculiar tastes. The choice of gift shows a real awareness of the other’s interests. Often when I buy a gift I have to be careful not to buy something that I covet for myself. Buying a present for another can be a vicarious way of buying for oneself. For people without a fully developed theory of mind (see Chapter 5), the residents’ ability to buy presents that another person will truly appreciate and enjoy is impressive. Given the difficulties in empathy that people with ASD experience, the giving of gifts is a major accomplishment for these residents. These are enormous gains if seen from the perspective of the disorder, but perhaps tiny and insignificant if seen from the view of the uncomprehending public. Is it the same kind of empathy that we feel when we try to think of a present for another person, a loved one? Surely the test of that is the appropriateness of the gift, its success in making the receiver grateful and happy, and in making sure the gift has no hidden strings or is not intended to convey a hidden message. A gift from a person with ASD is simply a gift, nothing more, nothing less. And the simple giving of gifts is surely one of the hallmarks of being truly human. The contrast between their childlike behavior sitting on Santa’s knee and the maturity of adult friends exchanging presents in an atmosphere of genuine intimacy is remarkable. Questions like those raised by Sean and Melody bring up others, of course, about the nature of this seemingly adult behavior. Is this real and genuine intimacy? I decide

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