A New Perspective on Autism

Kay Holman wants you to change your perspective.

When she started studying Autism, the world was a different place. Seinfeld was the biggest thing on television, iPhones were something out of a sci-fi movie, Harry Potter was a small children’s book and most people’s idea of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was limited to a single character.

“When I first started, the popular image of an autistic person was Rain Man. People thought if you had autism you must be some kind of mathematical savant or musical genius.”

Professor Holman knows we’ve come a long way from Dustin Hoffman’s card counting character and as the ASD awareness movement grows, people are beginning to see how individual autism is. The battle to challenge and change people’s perspective on what it means to be a person with autism is a thread that runs throughout Holman’s work.

In many ways, Holman believes, the shifts are simple.  “Words matter,” she explains.  People are quick to point out a behavior and give it a label without really understanding the behavior from the perspective of someone with ASD. Perseverating is a great example of this. To the world at large, an autistic child who is perseverating has a problem.  Holman sees it another way.  “Instead of seeing it as a problem think of it as a passion.”

Changing our perspective has great power. Through her research and work with Towson University, Holman has been helping to develop a new generation of Autism Leaders that will shape the way teachers, parents and the media educate, connect and speak about children with ASD.

The program is called Teacher as Leader in Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is a thirty-seven credit Master’s Degree program through Towson University focused on educating professionals who work in the school system to support individuals with ASD. The course is very hands on.  As Holman explains “the heart of each class revolves around applications that can be used in the classroom.” This pragmatic design makes the content very useful.

The program embodies the shift in thinking that Holman and other leaders in the field want to bring to the general public. “Today we talk about the gift of autism.”

Seventeen years ago scientists and researchers were focused only exclusively on understanding autism and finding a cure and while many people are still working towards that goal, there is a large movement, driven by families and advocates towards accepting and celebrating the way people with ASD view the world.

To that end Holman and her colleagues in the Towson University’s Department of Special Education teamed up with the Autism Society of Baltimore-Chesapeake, and Baltimore County Public School’s Office of Special Education to create Honestly Autism Day.  This yearly event brings together a cross section of members of the Autism Community to not only share information on autism-related topics but also to listen to first hand experiences by a panel of individuals on the autism spectrum.  According to the organizers, “the whole day is about honesty, gratitude and collaboration.”

One of the highlights of the day is the culmination of an essay contest.  The essays are personal narratives about life on the autism spectrum read by their authors.  These very real experiences are key to giving people a glimpse into the daily trials and triumphs of their authors.

Holman’s advice for parents struggling with the sudden news of an ASD diagnosis arises directly from the practical and connected perspective of her program. She advises parents to “take a deep breath and remember your child is still the same child he was yesterday before you received the diagnosis.”  She advises parents to look for early intervention programs and connect with other families that have lived this journey.  Most of all parents should trust their gut.  “99% of the time, moms and dads know best.”

image of four kids locking arms while walking home from school

Dr. Holman organizes PAW Pals playgroups for children with autism and their typically developing peers.

More details are also available from the Baltimore Sun.

image of five students with handmade paper bag puppets and their teacher

PAW Pals kids pose after performing a skit for BCPS Anti-Bullying Day 2013.