What I learned about autism in a single encounter

Much is written about people on the autistic spectrum, but sometimes direct experience with an individual challenges our pre conceptions. Cristina Gangemi, Livability’s Community Network Coordinator, shares an extraordinary encounter.

I was recently involved in a large event: “A day of celebration: sharing skills”, organised with a group of people with a whole range of abilities. Together we shared creative ideas and developed a programme of activities for the day.

One young woman, Sarah, who is on the autistic spectrum, chose not to join in but to watch from a distance. Structure and a calm environment were important to Sarah, so we ensured that all our meetings were organised along the same lines and that the noise level was comfortable and met her abilities.

We noticed that Sarah loved looking into a mirror and so we always made sure that we communicated with her through it. As a result, Sarah would respond to questions either by selecting a picture we or occasionally, by using words.

I have read many studies that claim that people on the autistic spectrum find it difficult to empathise but my experience agrees with books written by people on the autistic spectrum , like Naoki Higashaida’s The Reason I Jump, who share the very opposite: that people on the autistic spectrum often have an experience other people with great intensity. This was brought home to me by an unexpected encounter with Sarah herself.

A short while before the big event, I was told that my father was gravely ill. I knew that I had to keep up appearances on the day so that the event could go on. I managed to participate in, and even enjoy, the day’s activities, but deep inside I felt sad and confused.

At the start of the event, as I was welcoming everyone with a smile, Sarah, who had always stayed so distant in our meetings, ran up to me from the audience. Looking into my eyes, she leant her head on my shoulder, took my face in her hands and hugged me.

You may think that there is nothing unusual about this, but knowing that it can sometime be difficult for people on the autistic spectrum, to make physical contact or eye contact, this was an extraordinary encounter. Sarah had only ever communicated with me through her mirror. Yet, at this meeting, she had seen through my smile and into my heart, responding with a genuine understanding of my feelings which I had expressed in a quiet and tactile way.

[x_blockquote] I wondered if the mirror offered Sarah a natural boundary between herself and others as a way of maintaining her identity. [/x_blockquote]

Rather than being distant, here was a person who was supremely sensitive, who could truly communicate in a creative way and who was ready to comfort me.

In that one encounter I feel I meet Sarah in a way that I had not expected to, beyond the mirror. As our understanding of people with autism is in its infancy, we must keep an open mind and allow people who live with an experience of autism to lead us to an appreciation of their gifts and qualities.

Cristina Gangemi is the coordinator of the Livability Community Network, which works to build community through celebrating and releasing the experience and expression of all. She holds a Master’s degree in Pastoral Theology with a special focus on disability. Cristina specialises in differentiated communication in the area of spirituality and whole-person approaches. She is passionate about enabling the people enjoy a more livable community.

Further reading

Naoki Higashaida’s groundbreaking book The Reason I Jump was written by the author when he was only 13 years old. Providing a rare insight into the often baffling behaviour of those on the autistic spectrum, Higashaida proves beyond any doubt that people with autism possess imagination, humour and empathy. He also spells out how badly they need our compassion, patience and understanding.