April is National Autism Awareness Month with World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 (you might even notice some local iconic buildings bathed in blue light as a global initiative to raise awareness?). In a timely article, psychologist and behavioural therapist Grace Sweeney shines a different kind of light on autism…


“Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It is how we have evolved from a single-cell organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few millennia evolution leaps forward.” – Professor Charles Xavier, X-Men


Stan Lee’s X-Men have been around since 1963. The Marvel Comics superheros are a subspecies of humans who are born with superhuman abilities. We all know their names – Wolverine, Storm, Jean Frey, Archangel, Beast, Cyclops, and Iceman. They fight for peace and equality. Many are united as one, empowered. Many are alone, isolated from those around them. They are universal. They are diverse. They are born great.


Perhaps our X-Men have been around a long time too, but have gone unnoticed. They too are universal. They too are diverse. They too are born great. And, no longer are they hidden. They are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).


What do we know about autism? Unlike Lee’s X-Men, autism is considered a neurodevelopmental disorder typically diagnosed in early childhood. Autism likely has a genetic origin and is also increasing in frequency at a rate that is greater than can simply be explained away by better detection and diagnosis. In the professional literature there are dozens of theories as to why this is happening – theories that spread into mainstream media quicker now than ever before. Think diet and vaccines, pesticides and GMOs, electromagnetic exposure and Wi-Fi signals, the list goes on. Before we get carried away, the theory I find most intriguing is that people with autism have always been around, but that in this age of science and technology, they are well suited to thrive. Evolution is simply taking its course.


The life of a person with autism last century probably involved an obsessive interest in knowing the serial numbers of steam engines, hardly a useful survival skill.  However, that same obsessive interest when applied to law, stock-broking, engineering, medicine or computer programming in today’s world certainly stand out.  What if autism is simply the first glimpse of what all humans will look like a century from now? What if they are our modern X-Men?


It sounds great, doesn’t it? But so rarely are those with autism seen this way. When a child is diagnosed with ASD, all discussions and decisions are unfortunately based on deficits alone. Does your child have difficulties in social communication and interactions? Does your child have restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour or interests? Is your child’s ability to function in society impaired?


Is this unexpected? Not at all. In so many other areas of evolution, when genetic variation gives, it usually also takes away. A turtle’s shell might be great at providing protection, but it certainly slows them down. In evolution, changes are measured by the balance of benefits versus costs. Similarly, those with autism often gain incredible depth of factual understanding and observation of detail, but may have poor social skills, explosive emotions and an adherence to rigidity. Nature may have this balance right – but if all we are talking about are the deficits, we clearly don’t.


No parent of a child with autism would deny that their child experiences real challenges in connecting with those around them, keeping them back from reaching their full potential. Of course we need to understand these challenges and teach children how to overcome them. However, it is equally important to understand each child’s strengths and teach them how to embrace them.


The X-Men learned to embrace their strengths at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. We can do better than that. As a community, we can embrace the strengths of those with autism, while recognising and supporting them through their challenges. It is up to us to find the balance.


So, what other questions should we be asking about the modern X-Men? Does your child know the name, make and engine capacity of every Thomas and Friends character? Can your child replace the satellite navigation on your phone and still direct you to where you’re going? Can your child work their way around a computer program better than you can? When we start to look at autism as modern X-men, we recognise that they have a unique and special set of abilities that sets them apart from others.


As toddlers, they are the ‘puzzle kings’ and ‘master builders’. They may not have developed their language and speech at the same time as their peers, but they have already grasped the knowledge of ‘patterns’ not taught to most children until they are at school.


In primary school, they are quickly learning the consistent rules of language and may be starting to read at a rapid pace. They may be the head of their class in mathematics or have developed highly specialised knowledge in a specific area.


Way before their peers, the modern x-men are creating code for their own software in secondary school. They are very strong visual thinkers and can process systematic information rapidly and accurately. They start working and quickly become the most loyal and honest employees.


So, where are all the x-men as adults? They are running Silicon Valley in the USA, they’re creating integrated technologies to make our lives easier, they’re exploring the stars and beyond, and they’re engineering a better world for us all. They are the defenders of truth and logic we all need!


While Lee’s X-Men faced a world not ready accept them – it was also a world that needed them. What about us? Our world is now made up of global industries in science and technology – we need visual and logical thinkers, we need focus to detail, and we need specialised knowledge. This is a world in which the modern X-Men have the strengths and talents built to succeed. Evolution is working.


The modern X-Men analogy goes beyond their superhuman skills and strengths. There is an X-Men character I have yet to mention (I’m sure to much outrage and arms flailing in the air after reading the first paragraph). “What about Charles Xavier, he is Professor X!” you all mutter quietly in disgrace at your magazine. Forgive me for not mentioning him in the first paragraph. He is so important I have kept him until  last. Professor X was their leader against bigotry and endless advocate for helping ‘humans’ gain a better understanding of the X-Men. Lee’s X-Men had only one Professor X. In our world, we are fortunate to have a Professor X for every little modern X-Men. It’s mum. It’s dad. It’s nana. It’s pop. These parents and caregivers wake everyday to be advocates for their child with autism. They are at the schools fighting for inclusion. They are at the park helping other families to learn about their child and to understand. They are applauding their child when they reach their strengths and are holding their hand when they face their challenges. They are strong and they will never give up.


It is the age of the modern X-Men. They will be embraced. They will be honoured. They will be celebrated. It’s up to us all to make it happen.


Psychologist and behavioural therapist Grace Sweeney is currently completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Griffith University. Grace works with young children on the spectrum in intensive early intervention programs (www.behaviour2learn.com.au) and with modern X-Men of all ages at Benchmark Psychology (www.benchmarkpsychology.com.au).


Words // Grace Sweeney


One family’s journey with autism, in words…

Ben Jewell has hit breaking point. His 10-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken a word. So when Ben and Jonah and forced to move in with Ben’s elderly father, three generations of men (one who can’t talk, two who won’t)  are thrown together.

As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths. Jonah, blissful in his innocence, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled. This is Shtum.

Shtum is a close examination of the effects of autism upon families. It’s a powerful, emotional but above all enjoyable read with streaks of brilliant humour and levity. Author Jem Lester was a journalist for nine years. He taught English and media studies at secondary schools for nine year. Jem has two children, one of whom is profoundly autistic. His personal experiences with autism are reflected in the authenticity of his writing. With international bestsellers The Rosie Project and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both involving a central theme of autism, it is clear that readers worldwide find these stories strongly moving and compelling.

In 2013, Shtum won the PFD/City University Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom and it will be published in Australia this month as part of World Autism Awareness Month.

Visit www.hachette.com.au





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