What My Cousin Taught Me About The Beauty And Complexity Of Autism


My family is pretty f*cked up.

Okay. Well, I guess everyone's family is a bit screwed up, huh? Let me start over.

My family has quite a few issues.

Like many other families (maybe), my family members suffer from depression, alcoholism (which could be considered mental), dyslexia and other afflictions.

There is something I've recently recognized, though: A good portion of my family has some form of autism, all of varying degrees.

We all know what autism is: "a 'serious' developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact."

Now, while this definition holds true, I don't believe it "impairs the ability to 'communicate' and 'interact'."

Yes, it makes things a little more complicated, requiring far more patience than the "average" child. But children with autism are some of the most beautiful, brilliant and creative people in the world.

In the spirit of Special Education Day, I want to take this time to talk about my amazing nephew.

My nephew, Tray, has autism -- severe autism, actually. It's so severe he cannot make comprehensible sentences.

Because of this, there is a stark barrier of communication. It's impossible to understand and be understood.

He hears and can understand you (provided you aren’t too verbose), but cannot effectively communicate back in a decipherable language.

This creates frustration and tension between both parties.

There is frustration for the speaker, and frustration on Tray because he's only doing his best.

The speaker can't understand why Tray can't understand, and Tray can't understand why Tray can't understand.

That's a hell of a lot of understanding not being understood.

When Tray is happy, he typically throws his arms up in the air, letting out a bellowing laugh that fills the room vibrantly and looks to high-five anyone and everyone he sees.

When Tray is upset, he typically slumps to the floor as if gravity has violently punched him down. He lets out a screeching cry, as he frequently "hmphs" and throws himself around.

This sounds normal because it is. Tray is a normal kid, like everyone else.

(I guess I shouldn't say "kid," considering he is almost 17 years old.)

Of course, since Tray is autistic, he is placed in a special needs program.

While many people have the perception that students in special needs programs get "decent" grades, my nephew scored way "above average" all of his years in school.

Most recently, while in high school, my nephew has finished every grade level with a 4.0.

Not only is he scoring higher than his peers, he is also scoring higher than more than half of his school's population.

This puts him in the top 10 percent, roughly.

Hell, I didn't do that well in school.

Did you? Probably not.

"But it's different. He's in special needs classes. They're not the same as regular classes."

So what? Does it make a difference?

Let's put it in perspective for a second.

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is estimated about one in 68 children are diagnosed with autism.

As of 2013, there are about 7.125 billion people on this planet.

The US Census Bureau reports approximately 361,481 children are born a day.

If we do some basic math (I'm a writer, not a mathematician, so forgive me if I'm a bit off.), that means about 5,000 children a day are possibly diagnosed with autism.

"Yeah, and? What does that have to do with anything?"

Think about it: Around 355,000 children grow up unaffected.

This means 355,000 children will go to normal classes in school. They will be able to effectively communicate, talk intelligibly, make innuendos, the whole shebang.

These students won't have to worry about anything (besides really having to worry about everything, as many adolescents do).

These students will be able to tell lies to cover their asses. These students will be able to cheat on homework and tests if they don't understand them.

These students will be able to ask for the specific help they need. These students will be able to live normally.

For my nephew, every day is a struggle.

It's a struggle to communicate with others, a struggle to communicate with himself, a struggle to understand his surroundings and a struggle to "live normally."

Children unaffected by autism have it easy in school. They can take notes, apply themselves and ask clarifying questions.

They stay after school to talk to the teacher (if necessary).

Students affected by autism have more of a challenge.

Sure, more help is present, but the individual has to process the information. Someone affected by autism processes information differently (if at all).

Though severely autistic, Tray is killing it in school. I have no doubt he will kill it in the real world, too.

My nephew inspires me every single day.

I can only imagine how difficult and exasperating it is. I often wonder what it's like to not be able to communicate.

Through it all, my nephew almost always has a smile on his face. He sure as hell always looks like he's having fun.

We can learn something from autistic people.