and the Pew Lady
by Dan Coulter, Coulter Video, May 2004
For more articles like this
I'm writing on
behalf of the mother of a five-year old girl with autism - and
for me and my son. If you're not familiar with autism and you've
ever wondered what you might do to help, here's a heads up.
I ran into the mother I mentioned at the Autism Society of North
Carolina annual conference in Raleigh. She described how her
autistic daughter had become upset in church and caused a small
Let me note here that autism actually includes a range of
conditions that fall under something called Autism Spectrum
Disorder or ASD. People with ASD have a wide variety of
challenges and abilities. Many forms of ASD are invisible, and
you often can't tell by looking at a person that he or she has
Back to church. Some people with ASD can be upset by changes in
routine. The little girl was upset because her Sunday school was
cancelled for a special program in the sanctuary. She cried to
the point her mother had to take her outside, leaving her two
sisters behind. In the pew to the rear of the sisters, a woman's
voice loudly proclaimed, "She's too old to be acting like a
baby." This really upset the oldest sister and she had to be
calmed down after the service by her mother, who told her that
the woman didn't understand and not to let such people upset
Seeing the fire in the mother's eyes as she told the story, I
think the other woman was lucky she held her comment as long as
What's one big thing can you do to help people with autism?
Don't be the pew lady.
People with ASD often have problems with speech, or have trouble
understanding explanations or difficulty expressing themselves.
They may be hypersensitive to light or noise or touch or heat or
cold. They may have obsessive interests and want to talk about
them constantly. They may have unusual mannerisms such as
hand-flapping or become upset at some slight change in their
routine. They may lack tact and say things that are true, but
So, when you see a parent with a child who's acting volatile or
eccentric, don't be too quick to chalk it up to poor parenting.
You may be watching someone struggling to make the best of a
very difficult situation. You'd never knowingly criticize a
person in a wheelchair struggling to get up a ramp. Having a
disability that isn't obvious doesn't make it any less real.
You don't want to be the pew lady. You want to be the person who
understands the symptoms of ASD - and that ASD is a neurological
disorder that causes the brain to function differently - and
that people with ASD are not trying to be difficult - they're
often trying to overcome a difficulty.
And many succeed to amazing degrees. My son has Asperger
Syndrome, an ASD condition that blew his mom and I away when he
was first diagnosed because he was such an obviously smart
little kid. Among other things, Asperger Syndrome gave him an
obsessive interest in Star Wars and robbed him of the ability to
instinctively understand what he needed to do to fit in with
other kids. It also made it hard for teachers to shut him off in
class. He'd learn the lesson, and more, and want to tell the
class everything he knew on the subject. (Kids with AS are
sometimes called, "little professors.") Wherever we went -- the
mall, our friend's houses, a museum - our son was fascinated by
objects and would obsessively pick up anything that drew his
interest to examine it. He also had an intuitive understanding
of mechanical systems - but that's another story.
We had questions: Would he ever "get better?" Could he control
his obsessive interests? Would he ever be able to go to a mall
alone, drive a car, have a girlfriend, live by himself, go to
college, hold a job?
I'm happy to report, "yes" to all of the above. My son is now in
college, living 3 hours away from his parents, a veteran of two
part-time jobs and working toward a career in forensic science.
But whether people with ASD can go to college -- or it's a
triumph to recognize their families' faces or dress themselves
-- you want to be the person who helped make the triumphs
possible. Even if that's by avoiding making assumptions or
remarks when you see a child not "act his age" in public.
You want to teach your children not to tease or bully others,
because teasing is torture to a child with ASD who doesn't have
the ability to verbally fight back. You want to be willing to
hire people with disabilities, because many make excellent,
loyal employees at all skill levels. People with ASD often have
strong skills in areas such as math, drawing, music or
memorizing data - and some have truly exceptional abilities.
You want to be the person who understands that one in 300
children born today has ASD and it's likely to affect the family
of someone you know.
You're not the pew lady.
You're the person who's going to help make sure everyone with
ASD is treated as you want to be treated: as a person who's not
judged solely by a glance at his book's cover.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter and his wife, Julie, produce
videos for people with Asperger Syndrome and other Autism
Spectrum Disorders. You can find additional articles and
information on their website at:
Copyright 2004 Dan Coulter
Used by permission.
All rights reserved.
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