There are so many myths about autism -- how people on the spectrum "can't feel," or don't want friends, or are incapable of understanding others' emotions. None of these, of course, are true.
And no one understands that as much as people who have devoted their lives to helping someone who is on the autism spectrum, be it a loved one at home or a child in a classroom.
Read on for four important lessons about love that we can all learn from kids with autism.
"Relationships are more important than things."
"Having a son with severe autism has taught me more about unconditional love than any other experience I have had or could imagine," says Thomas Frazier, PhD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Children's Center for Autism.
"I used to think that unconditional love toward your child is all about accepting them for who they are," Frazier explains. "That is clearly part of it, but the part that is so striking to me is how, in spite of his substantial difficulties, my son gives unconditional love to me much more faithfully than I could possibly give to him."
And the love that Frazier and his son share "has driven me," he says, "to lead a life that seeks the greater good and values relationships over accomplishments or things."
"Actions are more important than words."
The day her guinea pig died, Toni Boucher's daughter, Diana, who is on the spectrum, set the cremated remains on the dining room table, announced, "Here's Bill," and then proceeded to eat dinner as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
A few weeks later, the 11-year-old was eager to get a new guinea pig. "She said she had made a vow to Bill that she would get another and take extra special care of her new pet in his honor," Boucher remembers. Still, "I wondered if Diana had any feelings for Bill at all," she admits. "She hadn't shed a tear or expressed any sadness."
But over the next year, Boucher watched her daughter diligently care for the new guinea pig. Never once did Diana need to be reminded to refill the water or clean the cage.
That's when Boucher realized how much her daughter had loved Bill. "She just didn't have the words to express her feelings," she says. "...She had shown her love, not through the fleeting use of language or tears but through her daily commitment to care for a creature that was completely dependent on her."
"It isn't easy to show love through consistent actions day in and day out," Boucher points out. But Diana certainly had.
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"There's always time to show someone you love them."
When her son, Damian, was diagnosed with autism, Christina Mendez, a plus-size model and autism advocate, knew he'd be learning differently than other kids. "But it never dawned on me that I would be learning differently as well," she says.
And at the top of that list: "As a mother, I've learned there are different ways of showing love," Mendez says.
Seeing the world through Damian's eyes and sharing his experiences, "I've found that love and compassion come in many forms," says Mendez, "whether it's saying 'I love you,' giving a hug, or just letting my son know I'm there when he's working on things independently."
All too often, "we're pressed for time or always on the go," she points out. "Being Damian's mother has afforded me to look at the world from a different perspective and never in black or white."
"The reward is worth the adventure."
Dena Aucoin, M.Ed, assistant academic chair in the Educational Studies program at Kaplan University, has worked with kids on the spectrum for over 17 years. She still vividly remembers Charlie*, a fifth grader who was struggling to learn social skills that would help him interact with kids at lunch.
"We tried all sorts of ways to help him learn how to ask to join a table at lunch and how to maintain a conversation," remembers Aucoin. "One day, he asked me about jokes, which can be challenging for students with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], so we got a joke book."
Charlie couldn't find the humor in any of the jokes, but he wanted to try them out on his classmates anyway. Over the next few days, Aucoin watched as Charlie recited his jokes -- and happily watched the reaction of his peers.
"Even though he didn't necessarily get the jokes, he understood the importance of the interaction it provided for others -- amazing!" says Aucoin.
"If we take the adventure with [kids on the spectrum]," she adds, "it can ... bring a special love into our hearts. My adventures lead to a great sense of trust and happiness, and the reward is worth the adventure -- it is worth everything to me."
*Name has been changed
Image via istock.com/Aldo Murillo