How I Met My Cousin, by Emily Rowden Fournier

We all know the phrase “actions speak louder than words.” In many cases this is true. How would your reaction differ if someone said they would give you a hundred dollars or if someone actually handed you a hundred dollars? However, in some cases this sentiment does not hold true. For 1 out of 110 children, neither actions nor words express their true selves. Although communication is a large struggle with Autism, there is a ray of hope found in technology.

“Hi Cinderella, you wearing your ball gown?” This salutation greets me nearly every time I am on Facebook. It may sound funny to those who don’t know us, but to my cousin, Steve*, and I it is a joke that always makes us giggle. Steve is a dirty blond sophomore in high school with a goofy smile. He is a fan of computer games, a cartoon fanatic, and autistic. The latter is not a characteristic I would normally use in introducing him, not because of shame, but because of the reaction of pity it normally receives. Steve has always been autistic; my family has learned to adjust accordingly. Because of his underdeveloped social skills, associated with his autism, we know that long face-to-face conversations about his life are not going to happen. “How is school going?” Shrugs shoulders. “What are you watching?” Just stares at the television. It isn’t that he is trying to be rude, rather, that he cannot accurately respond.

It is believed that autism affects the way people perceive their surroundings. Unlike most people, autistic people cannot filter their external and internal influences. So, everything that happens around them gets processed on the same level of priority. Because of this they are not able to see the big picture; they do not understand parts of their setting as varying in importance. Although this may improve over time, the things that society consider vital may forever seem insignificant to an autistic person.

Because of their overburdened processors, it is often challenging to communicate with autistic people. They sometimes may not respond, and some of them actually cannot respond. Imagine having a baby crying, a pot of spaghetti boiling over, the dog barking, a cut finger, and the phone ringing all at the same time. Most likely you would ignore the phone, let it go to voicemail, in order to attend to the other situations. Similarly, an overload of external stimulation prevents an autistic person from being able to express him/herself. Some are able to speak, although their speech may be slow or blunt; however, some are unable to communicate verbally altogether. Yet, recent studies have found that this is not a refusal to communicate, but an inability to communicate verbally.

Computers have allowed the silence of autism a loud voice. Carly Fleischmann, an autistic teenager who has found her voice through typing, has been one of the most influential autistic teenagers in the study of the effects of computers and typing and autistic communication. Her website, carlysvoice.com, features her writing, interviews, and even a questions-and-answers section that Carly responds personally to questions about autism. Carly’s answers are some of the first personal experiences of what it is like to be autistic, she is giving scientists and interest groups insight into the silent disorder. Typing one finger at a time, she plugs through pages of text, expressing herself and giving a voice to those, like her, who have been considered unable to communicate. Parents and teachers are now pushing for funding and programs that would allow autistic children to use computers and other electronic devices to communicate. Carly, a very smart girl, says that “things don’t always look like they appear. Just because in your eyes I might not look smart does not mean that’s the case.” Carly could not be more correct.

“You wearing your ball gown?” This was the first time I had ever had a conversation with my cousin, Steve. Why was he calling me Cinderella? I thought that was a strange nickname for me. Perhaps he was confused about who I was or thought it was my favorite movie? The reason was quite clear, I had just overlooked it. He had just looked at my wedding photos on Facebook; he thought I looked like Cinderella and that I should wear a ball gown often as I looked beautiful. Tears swelled to my eyes as I talked with my fifteen year old cousin, who I have known since he was born, because I was meeting him for the first time. Since that fateful day on Facebook chat I have had hundreds of conversations with Steve. I know his favorite shows, his favorite subject in school, what he thinks about from day-in to day-out. He says the things that he cannot when we see each other face to face. Steve even told me things that I never dreamed he thought about.

“I like that you don’t treat me differently. You always talk to me when I see you.” Steve told me over the computer. I felt vindicated; all those years of family get-togethers that I had painstakingly spent asking Steve questions about his life with no answer had paid off. My efforts weren’t in vain; I just wasn’t listening the right way. So often people overlook those with any sort of disability; it is easy to act as though they are invisible. However, when we reach out to them, even if they do not respond immediately, we can affect them.

Because of technology autism and those with it is finally able to speak. For so long the autistic community was looked at with so many questions and no answers. Finally, those who are most familiar with the disorder are able to express its effects. Perhaps in the near future we will see technological advances that will further our depth of communication with people with autism.

*Name changed to protect anonymity.

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