The Gifts of People with Autism

According to recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) studies, it is estimated that 1 out of every 68 children in the U.S. have autism. As we learn more about this condition and how it affects people, we have also learned more about the particular strengths of people on the autism spectrum.

Dr. Dan Edmunds, founder of the International Autistic Empowerment Center, recently stopped by Morning Air®  to discuss how those on the autism spectrum must be supported with respect and dignity, and the gifts and strengths those on the autism spectrum offer the world.

“There has been this idea of trying to eradicate autism, or to try to alter the person,” Dr. Edmunds said. “But I think what needs to be understood is the strengths of people who are on the autism spectrum. The support that’s provided should simply be to help them be able to navigate through the mainstream.”

Dr. Edmunds acknowledged that upon first meeting someone on the autism spectrum, navigating interactions can be difficult. But Dr. Edmunds suggested that listeners look at autism as a difference rather than a problem, and to look at the situation from a different perspective themselves.

“The example that I often give is that if we were to locate to a foreign country, and we didn’t understand the language, it may be difficult for us to integrate into that society,” he said. “But if we know the language it will go better. The problem isn’t that we are an American, it’s that we don’t understand the language, necessarily. So, therefore, I don’t really see the problem as the person within the autism spectrum. The issue is that they need some guidance in being able to understand how the mainstream operates.”

Dr. Edmunds also encouraged listeners to really look at the person, not the popular misconceptions, when it comes to people with autism. It can seem easier to write off a relationship with someone that is different or difficult, but Dr. Edmunds warns that in doing so, we may be missing out on something wonderful.

“There is a misconception that those in the autism spectrum either lack empathy, or they have an inability to forge connections or relationships. And those things are not true,” said Dr. Edmunds. “What I find with many is that they are able to break through the superficiality of relationships, so that when they do have relationships they are often very strong and powerful relationships.”

Dr. Edmunds also explained that, in his experience, there are many in the autism spectrum who have particular spiritual gifts. The way they see the world can dispose them to a unique and powerful relationship with the Lord.

“Even though they have this sensitivity to the environment around them, they seem to be very tuned-in,” Dr. Edmunds said. “I have found many who are in the spectrum who seem to also possess some very interesting spiritual gifts – an insight, an awareness, a devotion.”

Although the first case of autism wasn’t diagnosed until the 1940s, there are some examples in Catholic tradition of saints who many believe would have been on the autism spectrum. Notable among these are St. Thorlak, the patron saint of Iceland, and St. Joseph of Cupertino. Dr. Edmunds offered some of the reasons people think St. Thorlak was on the autism spectrum, and how these allowed him to be a special blessing to the Church in his time.

“With the patron saint of Iceland, he manifested what is called hyperlexia – which is a very advanced reading level,” Dr. Edmunds explained. “He had challenges being able to speak before crowds, he tended to shunned games, but he had this advanced devotion to God and he was very known for his intellect. He was sometimes seen to be fairly rigid, but in that he was very faithful to fulfilling God’s commandments and being able to serve the people who were entrusted to him.”

Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Dan Edmunds below:

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