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My view on individuals who are autistic savants

Updated: Dec 7, 2021 - art by Shaun Belanger and Jill Street

Autism fascinates me. I've worked as a support worker, behaviour interventionist and volunteer snowboarding instructor for kids with ASD, and each time it is a new experience. I also completed a research project on autism genetics when I was thinking I wanted to be a genetic councellor and took courses in genetics after my undergrad. The main conclusion I've come to after all these experiences is that: we still don't understand autism.

There are a lot of different theories about what causes autism: from vaccinations, to altered microflora, to food sensitivities, to genetics. And the list goes on. And no one is able to pinpoint what it is. There are over 1000 "autism associated" genes. Many of these require multiple gene interactions to have an observable effect. Autism is then said to be "multigenic and multifactoral", but then again, what isn't?

Different therapies have been effective for different people, so what is the unifying factor? I believe it's their consciousness. But it's the caregiver who is responsible for deciding on treatment, and I know from my own experience that it can be an incredibly hard thing to know what is the right thing to do. And if it is the care giver who decides on treatment, how is consciousness related?

Carly is an autistic girl who until the age of 11 had no way of communicating her wants and needs to the outside world. There is no doubt about how frustrating it would be to be as she says "stuck in a body you have can't control".

There are countless other stories of kids recovering from their autism as well. How is it possible that some are able to recover, while others are not? It is my firm belief that not only can all children diagnosed with autism recover, but that their minds are gifted in that they will view the world in a very unique way because of their struggle.

Temple Grandin is an example of how it is possible to overcome the limitations of autism and go on to make a valuable contribution to society, using her unique perspective.

So how should a person proceed when trying to decide what will help their child best? I believe that behaviour intervention is key. It teaches an autistic child from a young age to modify their behaviour to achieve a desired outcome. And with early intervention I've witnessed giftedness come out in the child. Basically the child is taught, through intervention, that beneficial behaviours are rewarded. The reward that was used in the intervention I was a part of was social reinforcement.

So my take on autistic savants, is that they are children who for various reasons may have been able to overcome the struggle within their consciousness about what is an appropriate behaviour, and when they performed a behaviour that resulted in positive reinforcement, they were encouraged enough to want to pursue this behaviour. I also believe that the individuals who are able to achieve extraordinary things are simply individuals who for reasons I still don't entirely understand lack the ability to doubt themselves. This is also why I believe that children are able to learn a lot more quickly than adults. Because somewhere along the way we all started doubting ourselves, thereby making decisions more difficult and slowing down the learning process. You can look at it like a road trip. You know exactly where you want to go, but not trusting yourself results in detours that can be frustrating. But it's all ok if you keep trusting that in the end you WILL get there. So I'd say the same can be said with autism treatment. Do whatever you feel is best and trust that there are improvements being made, even if they aren't immediately noticeable, and that persistence can result in overcoming the challenges of autism and bringing out exceptional talent as well. - art by Stephen Wiltshire - autistic artist

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