By DALIA COLON
Growing up, Paul McAuliffe says he "felt like a Martian." He was always saying the wrong thing or overreacting, but he didn't know why. Then several years ago for his job as a case manager, the Panama City resident started reading online about the symptoms of autism.
"And I said, my God, that's me," recalls McAuliffe, now 57.
The doctor's official diagnosis was no surprise: Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that impairs social skills. "I joke that one would've liked to have had this diagnosis, say, a half century ago," McAuliffe says. "That would've been helpful."
Still, he focused on the present, devouring in equal measure books about "Aspies" and neurotypicals — people not on the autism spectrum.
"They are the folks we have to interact with in order to live our lives," says McAuliffe, who is on an advisory board for the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at Florida State University.
For McAuliffe, a lifelong musician, American Indian flutes help grease the wheels of his interaction with neurotypicals. He travels the Southeast giving a presentation called "Flutes, Autism and a Different Way of Seeing.''
HealthyState.org is a public media project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at WUSF in Tampa.
Parents can help children cope, an 'Aspie' says
McAuliffe describes what he has learned about his brain as "empowering." In hopes of empowering others even earlier, here are some tips he offers for parents of children on the autism spectrum.
1. Always presume intellect. Researchers are finding that even kids who are nonverbal often have high IQs. Be on the lookout for new-tech ways to communicate with your child.
2. Routine is important. Those on the autism spectrum need to know they have safe, comfortable and dependable routines at home even when learning new things and experiencing new situations.
3. Encourage friendships with other children on the spectrum. There's an intuitive resonance — a bond — between those with autism, and it's a relief to spend time together and compare stories. Of course, friendships with neurotypical kids are crucial, too.
4. Encourage the child to be neurologically "bilingual." As kids gets older, reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People can be a real eye-opener.
5. Speaking of eyes, children need to learn to fake eye contact. Encourage them to look at the mouth, the forehead, the bridge of the nose — whatever works.
6. Spectrumites tend to really get into certain subjects; that's why they're inventors and innovators. Encourage children to get into subjects that will help them in the world as they get older.
7. Always make sure children have an escape route for any social/crowd situations, which can be excruciating. Make sure children have a quiet place to go if they get overwhelmed due to sensory overload. McAuliffe emphasizes how empowering it is for a spectrumite to know he has a measure of control.
8. Don't be a know-it-all. To deal with the neurotypical world, children need to learn that even when they know they are right and someone else is wrong, it isn't always good to say so.
9. Most important of all: Help the child cultivate a sense of humor. Be able to see the humor in social gaffes and in human behavior in general.