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January 2011



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Sara Peterson

Article By: Reader’s Digest and Helen Signy

Most of us know the stereotype: the child with the flapping hands who avoids eye contact and throws a tantrum at the least provocation. In South Africa, one in every 110 people are estimated to have autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), ranging from mild to severe, with 23 affected babies born every day. ASDs are typified by difficulties with social interaction and communication, hypersensitive senses and repetitive behaviours. Social programmes tend to focus on children; adults with ASDs can be overlooked. Helen Signy speaks to three people about what life’s really like.

Sara Peterson, 28

Sara has overcome the physical symptoms of autism with a range of alternative therapies. She now works as a public servant in statistical analysis.

I went to a selective high school so clearly I’m not a dumb person. But people confused my social inability with an intellectual disability and I got teased.

Although it was very hurtful, I went along with it because there wasn’t much point in fighting it. I did very well in primary school, where I didn’t have to focus so much on the social side. At high school, because I was so far behind socially, my focus was on watching other kids and picking up social skills. It wasn’t until university that I was able to show my full capabilities.

Often in lessons I wouldn’t learn anything, I’d do my own thing. You get very good at masking the fact that you haven’t heard anything at all. It’s as if your brain has a lot of junk in it. To get anything from the outside world, to pick up what people are saying, to hear properly, is hard for me. I can hear, but I don’t necessarily understand. Trying to get a communication out is like trying to get a brick through a sieve. It’s a complex process to hear everything that someone is saying, understand and think about it, then turn that thought into a reply. Our brains don’t work as quickly in that whole process.

I have had weird ways of walking. Sometimes I’d skip around my house. Or I’d annoy the hell out of my partner by poking him and being stupid. It’s almost as if doing things like that relaxes the nervous system; it makes you feel less anxious. In other words, you selfmedicate. The urge to act like that is strong. I also hate being hugged. It’s too light a touch. It’s ticklish.

All my senses are affected [by autism]. When I read, I don’t see a white page, I see bits of colour. I’d read and drift off because I was too busy looking at the pretty colours behind the words. I don’t like the colours on my computer screen, particularly at work. Some days I log in and feel like going home. Noises hurt my ears. The most painful experience I’ve ever had in my life was four years ago when my brother came up behind me and made a very highpitched noise next to my ear. I’m distracted by sounds, plates crashing, the general noise of people talking.

I’m also very sensitive to the texture of food. It’s hard to cope with something that’s slimy. I’ve tried for many years to desensitise myself – for example, to teach myself to eat a grape. It’s the texture, the way it pops in your mouth, the way when you chew it disintegrates, it’s swallowing, it’s every part of eating it. I love the taste of strawberries, but eating one feels as if you are getting a mouthful of seeds. I used to gag all the time when I was eating. People think you are being precious.

Stomach problems are an under- recognised part of autism. For whatever reasons, the gastrointestinal tract develops problems that contribute to the symptoms. You think the pain is normal. Until recently, I didn’t know what bloating meant, I thought everyone had it. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome after I’d had a couple of viruses. I started biomedical treatments – supplements, diet, homeopathic remedies. I am now better. The treatment has changed my life.

I love my job. I do statistical analysis – it’s a repetitive task, very technical and specific. I met my partner, James, on the first day. He’s been amazing. James and I were married earlier this year. For me the greatest challenge was feeling overwhelmed by all the frantic activity and not having time to stop and be quiet – something I’m sure I have in common with most brides!

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Wendy Lawson

Wendy Lawson, 58

Wendy was diagnosed as having an intellectual disability as an infant, and sent away to college as a teenager. She attempted suicide and was treated as a schizophrenic for 25 years before she was finally found to have highfunctioning autism. A mother of four children, now adults, including two sons with ASD, she is a freelance writer, poet and lecturer, and recently obtained a PhD.

When I’m around other people, it’s like watching a video – it’s all going on in front of me, I can look – but not touch. I can’t connect to it. It’s similar to being in a large crowd, a sea of faces, but for me it happens in my family home.

Our brains are configured to work with single attention. One thing captures all that attention. Then, something else comes along and either distracts or overwhelms you. When you’re talking to someone, you may notice his or her body language, or clothes, the shine on their shoes, a speck on the wall – any one of these captures your attention so there may be no available attention for speech. We are single-channel people.

Listening and talking is really hard to do. People try to get you to look at them when you’re talking and that’s a nightmare. I hear better when I put my ear to you rather than my eye.

We’re very literal. People talk in metaphors all the time. Someone will say, “I will just be a minute”, and the minute’s gone and they haven’t come back and I’m getting quite angry, it feels as if I’ve been lied to. If you’re autistic, you take things literally. Sometimes, I have to sit and think about what these things mean. For children with autism this is a nightmare. I’ve written a book and made a concise dictionary of metaphors, but if you introduce an unknown metaphor I find it hard.

Source:  http://lifestyle.iafrica.com/parenting/features/661151.html?p=2

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