April 15, 2013

Autism Spectrum Disorders

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On February 25th, Cornell’s Disabilities Service Troop held a presentation titled Autism Spectrum Disorders: Cognitive Strengths, Weaknesses and Primary Interventions. featuring Dr. Lauren Kenworthy, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders of the Children’s National Medical Center.

A disease that causes general deficiencies in social interaction and communication, repetitive behaviors, and restriction of interests, autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed in about one in 88 children, according to the Center for Disease Control. As such a prevalent disease, autism spectrum disorder can affect how students learn. Kenworthy advocated the need for better systems to be put in place for students in the spectrum.

Kenworthy started by explaining signs of an autism spectrum disorder. However, before going into specifics, she was quick to explain to the audience that her speech was going to be an overview. Although there are certain common characteristics of an autism spectrum disorder, not all people on the spectrum shows the same traits in the same way. This is why it is called a spectrum disorder, Kenworthy said.

“The IQ of an autistic person can range from 20, and involve people with no language skills, all the way to IQs that are much higher than mine,” Kenworthy said.

According to Kenworthy, one sign of an autism spectrum disorder is loss of executive cognitive function. Executive cognitive functions control the organization of the the human thought process, and include functions such as planning, attention, verbal reasoning and task switching.

“Have you ever shopped when you were really tired or really hungry? You’re smart enough to grocery shop, right? But if you go in there when you don’t have your executive functions on full drive, things will not work for you. If you’re hungry, it is the impulse control that won’t work. You may also have problems with organization, planning, and flexibility,” Kenworthy said.

It is important for neurotypicals, those who do not have an autism spectrum disorder, to understand that what can be seen as won’t may be a can’t for those with an autism spectrum disorder. A neurotypical child can show symptoms of stubbornness when he won’t do something. On the other hand, what is disguised as stubbornness could actually be an autistic child’s way of protecting themselves from becoming overwhelmed.

Kenworthy made this difference clear by comparing these brain malfunctions to someone who is dyslexic: it is not that they won’t read, it is just that they can’t understand how to. It is important for others to look at these executive and social disorders in the same way as a disease such as dyslexia. Once one figures out what is getting in the way from a person being educated, one has the ability to turn the can’t into a can.

However, not all characteristics of autism spectrum disorders are completely negative for students. Kenworthy showed the audience how her patients usually take in new information in a part-oriented fashion. Although Kenworthy explained that sometimes this way of thinking can be less effective than the neurotypical form of big-picture processing, people who use detail-oriented processing tend to have more patience for details and can be better at breaking down systems. They are usually the ones who enter the programming and technology fields that are growing fields of today’s economy.

We need neurodiversity in society. Thomas Jefferson, Gregor Mendel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon, are all speculated to have had an autism spectrum disorder, according to Kenworthy.

Kenworthy ended the talk by explaining that college can be a scary situation for people living with an autism spectrum disorder, but that there are ways to make it a less difficult experience. Having the community’s support is only one step.

Original Author: Samantha Klasfeld