By Chet Yarbrough
By: Barry M. Prizant PhD
Narrated by P.J. Ochlan
Barry M. Prizant, Phd. (Author, adjunt professor at Brown University, authority on autism disorders.)
Many are familiar with the existence of a neurodevelopment disorder called autism. In a 2015 “Global Burden of Disease Study”, it is estimated that 1-2 people per 1,000 may be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Prizant notes it affects more males than females and has a wide range of exhibited symptoms.
“Uniquely Human” is an excellent introduction to autism. Prizant explains how symptoms are manifested, and how parents, teachers, and the public can help those within and outside the autistic spectrum.
Autism is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Faulty synaptic connections in an autistic person’s brain affects their way of thinking and acting.
Prizant notes the importance of listening to a person on the autistic spectrum and asking questions to understand their thought and action.
Prizant becomes an investigator by asking parents, teachers, and acquaintances of their experience with a particular autistic person. By questioning, Prizant can find why an autistic person acts or reacts in a particular way.
Prizant explains that a person on the spectrum is no different than any human being. An autistic person is thinking and acting based on facts they perceive and how they interpret those facts.
If something is thought of as a threat, all people act in similar ways. The principal difference is that one on the autistic spectrum may be interpreting information differently and reacting in accordance with their unique perception.
When one realizes how information is being interpreted by someone on the spectrum, it is possible to work on reactions that seem wrong for the circumstances. Prizant goes through several examples. Being fearful of a boat ride, a particular corner of a street, or meeting strangers may make one who is on the spectrum act out. With understanding of an autistic’s perception, one can desensitize and change behavior through explanation, environment change, or avoidance.
In the case of the boat ride for the autistic child, Prizant suggests explaining the safety measures to be taken, adding a comfort toy on the trip, and showing that many friends will be on the boat. In the case of a scary corner, Prizant discovers that a white building at the corner reminds the autistic person of a trip to the doctor when he was ill and in pain. Explaining to the frightened child that all white buildings are not the same abates fear of the corner. With more careful understanding of an autistic person’s perception, the object of fear can be addressed directly. Being afraid of strangers is true of many people whether on the spectrum or not. Knowing there is fear means one can address that fear by gradually introducing friends that do not have to be feared.
The difficult realization in Prizant’s book is that there are so many commonly understood social conventions assumed by people that are not comprehended by those on the autistic spectrum. Social conventions are often poorly defined or not taught.
Social conventions like not saying what you think when it embarrasses a person in front of other people comes from experience, not teaching. This is just one example of how difficult it is for an autistic person to cope with life because societal norms are not precisely defined. Those not on the spectrum, take societal norms for granted based on their experience. Prizant notes a person on the autistic spectrum experiences life differently. They may be completely unaware of social conventions.
Prizant offers tools for understanding and working with all human beings, not just those on the autistic spectrum. Whether one is autistic or not, it is important to listen, investigate, and understand why people think and act the way they do. It might be because that person is on the autism spectrum. That does not mean those who are not on the spectrum may also interpret facts in a way that is inconsistent with most people’s understanding.
Many experiences early in one’s life have consequences later in life. A child remembers a father’s or mother’s rebuke as an eternal judgement when the reality may have been to protect a child from harm. The shadow is created and remains with the child for the rest of his/her life.
Understanding human beings can only come from listening and questioning what a person thinks and why they act the way they do. Easy to say, but time consuming and unlikely to be done in this increasingly fast-paced world.