Being Aware of Differences
To describe my extended family briefly, we could easily be the poster family for Wigler's hypothesis that autism genes are dominant in males but not in females. Every male in both my mother's family and my father's family has been autistic for at least three generations. (Although it probably goes back much farther than that, I don't know enough about the previous generations to describe them.) I am the only autistic woman.
Some of the female members of my family seem to have their own genetically determined syndrome, to use the term in a neutral sense to denote a collection of related traits. They are chatty, dislike spending time alone, get bored very easily, and have a tendency to become obsessed with popular social activities such as shopping and women's sports.
Although it can be a challenge to raise children who have such significant behavioral differences, my family always has recognized the importance of setting reasonable expectations and not allowing anyone to use their neurological condition as an excuse for irresponsibility. Homework always meant hanging up the phone and doing all the assignments, no matter how much a girl might whine that she couldn't possibly focus on her schoolbooks for that long and would surely die of boredom if she had to wait until tomorrow to talk with her friends.
A realistic understanding of neurological variation has to include an acknowledgment that not everything can always be positive and that, on occasion, people do suffer unpleasant feelings of social isolation and anxiety as a result of their neurology. For instance, while the autistic family members are all enjoying a multiplayer empire-building game using every computer in the house, a young female of a different temperament may become extremely distraught because she cannot check her classmates' Facebook and MySpace pages for updates on next weekend's party. She is likely to become convinced, in her own mind, that she is totally doomed to a life of permanent social exclusion if she can't get her brother off the computer this instant. Other family members need to be aware of her cognitive differences and to realize that such fears, however irrational they may appear to others, seem very real to her at the time.
Families also need to recognize that troubling feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt can result from a young person's inability to do the same things that others can do, and that occasional tantrums and other expressions of frustration may occur. When a teenager sees her autistic brother getting high marks in honors classes and winning prizes in science competitions, while she struggles with the basic high school curriculum, she may need reassurance that she is just as smart and capable in her own way. Parents should keep in mind that her difficulties with time management, organization, and executive functioning are not necessarily permanent and that, as she matures, she may no longer feel a strong compulsion to spend most of her time hanging out with her friends at the mall when she ought to be studying.
Indeed, although it can sometimes be difficult to understand and appreciate the extent of others' cognitive differences, we should not lose sight of the fact that we all have significant potential for worthwhile accomplishments of one sort or another. There can be a productive niche for everyone in our complex and diverse world. Let us all reflect on what we can do to bring about this vision of a more enlightened and accepting future as we celebrate (what ought to be) World Neurodiversity Day.