Monday, January 14, 2013


One of the most common traits of people with autism is social awkwardness. My son is not particularly shy when meeting a stranger, but the conversation he tends to engage in usually has all or most of the following characteristics:

* pertains only to topics HE is passionate about (#1 topic these days = "Plants vs. Zombies" video game)

* contains detailed and lengthy descriptions, despite social cues that others are disinterested  (i.e. the "Plants vs. Zombies" video game and all of the characters and all of the levels and all of the achievements you can earn and all of the secrets of the tree of wisdom and all of the updates and all of the plush toys he's collected and all of the ones he's saving up for and.....well, you get the picture)

* involves some type of physical "stimming" (self-stimulation - in Tanner's case, a flipping of the arms/hands between the legs, body bending/rocking forward, feet/legs vibrating on the floor or chair...and if making up a story, pacing or circling the room while stimming)
* does not leave room for reciprocation (in other words, no one gets a word in edgewise!)

* lacks voice modulation (tends to be loud, and gets louder with excitement)
However, because Tanner's vocabulary is mature, his speech articulate, and his imagination vivid, some people don't view him as having a "disability". He is super smart and freakishly artistic for a six-year old, but because he doesn't yet require an IEP, attend special classes, or have major meltdowns during school hours, he must be pretty "normal".

Because Tanner falls on a much higher-functioning end of the spectrum than my students or friends' kids with autism, my own husband used to feel "guilty" saying that his son was autistic. He felt like it was a "slap in the face of those really struggling with autism," he'd say.

Tanner himself views autism as "kids who can't talk well" or "make noises" despite my best efforts to explain the large gamut of children on the spectrum (he is obviously not yet aware of his "label" and spends a great deal of time in my classroom, where I teach children with moderate-to-severe autism)...

Research shows that almost half of children with autism are bullied, most likely the higher-functioning students.

From what I've read on the subject, even children are selective on who is "disabled enough" or "autistic enough". Studies show that if a student has an "obvious" disability, children find it taboo to pick on them. However, autistic students who are verbal and find themselves in regular education classes with little or no support are three times as likely as their "typical" peers to be bullied. They are simply seen as "weird" or "nerdy" and become easy targets as social outcasts...

I am proud of the strides Tanner has made and the insight he already has into his own feelings. I do worry that he often speaks as a 6-year-old with depression. I worry about bullies and intolerant teachers. I worry that if he is "too smart" he won't receive the support he needs. I worry that some family members will never fully recognize the fact that Tanner is special and not just some quirky kid who needs more discipline.

Autism comes in all shapes and sizes. Every family has their struggles. Ours may come in the form of social awkwardness, narrowed interests, and meltdowns due to severe OCD. Others come in the form of still potty training their now 12-year-old, meltdowns that include self-injury or physical abuse, or lying awake at night because their child wanders out into the night. 

I am thankful every single day to have an awesome son who is verbal, affectionate, and healthy. But I will never apologize because he is not "autistic enough".


  1. Jen,
    Great article. I am thankful every day for Tanner, also, that he is as "verbal, affectionate and healthy" as you stated!

  2. Great read and nice to find someone who is in a similar situation. My daughter was diagnosed originally with PDD-NOS, but now with the new DSM changes, it is just autism. She is very high functioning and she also does not require an IEP, though we are fighting that. We often feel like we are between worlds - not quite typical and does have a diagnosis, but her autism is mild and some days are worse than others. I too worry about my daughter not receiving the services that she needs, or that her problems can be perceived as 'not enough discipline' rather than a sensory meltdown, or that she will be teased for being socially awkward. One day at a time for us. Thanks for writing about this.