If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism – Stephen Shore

They say style is expression; it is how we communicate ‘our inner being outwardly. This includes all of our thoughts, emotions, interests, and values. Everything on the outside is merely a reflection of what’s on the inside.’ With that being said, when I refer to autism in terms of this family, what I am really addressing is Ethan’s style of autism, in other words his way of expressing his autistic tendencies, characteristics, traits and personality.

There are technically five official diagnoses for autism: autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Rett Syndrome.  Autism is classified as ‘a spectrum disorder, meaning you can be a little autistic or very autistic.’ The term spectrum—think rainbows or prisms—is used because it illustrate an array of ‘developmental delays and disorders that affects social and communication skills and, to a greater or lesser degree, motor and language skills. It is such a broad diagnosis that it can include people with high IQ's and mental retardation - and people with autism can be chatty or silent, affectionate or cold, methodical or disorganized.’ A diagnosis of autism simply places one firmly on the variegated scale that is autism. 

Playing off the idea of the colors in a spectrum of light, giving no specific characteristics to one color or another, some on the spectrum of autism seem to reflect different colors in the array.  Some on the spectrum have an assortment of all of the colors, others tend to be shaded more to the blues, indigos and violets (colors which incidentally have higher light wave frequencies), while others reflect more red, orange and yellow (which have lower light wave frequencies) in their demeanor. One might reflect blue and violet, but be completely absent of any hint of indigo, or say blue and orange, skipping all other hues completely. To make matters even more elusive two persons may reflect the same colors yet one may be diagnosed with severe or low functioning autism while the other is deemed high functioning. These terms (severe, mild, low functioning or high functioning) when used in conjunction with Autism aren’t really diagnosis or official terms. They are more generalities that make it easier for one to understand the limits or abilities of that individual on the spectrum. ‘When people use the term mild autism they are referring to individuals whose symptoms fit an autism spectrum diagnosis, but who has strong verbal skills and few behavioral issues. Those individuals may, however, have significant problems with social communication. They may also have problems coping with too much sensory input (loud noise, bright lights, etc.).’

I understand the inherent dangers and risks of self-importance or despondency that can come from comparisons, and make this comparison only to establish a point of reference for the matter as a whole. During April, PBS Newshour ran a six part series entitled Autism Now, by Robert MacNeil, coincidentally a grandparent of a six-year-old grandson with autism.  In segment five, Robert MacNeil interviewed the Hamrick family of New Jersey, whose twenty-year-old son, Zach, has autism. As I watched Zach interacting with his family I said, ‘This is the closest thing to Ethan's 'style' of Autism I have ever seen.’ Consider the following as I make a side-by-side comparison of the two boys. The following details about Zach come from the show’s transcript (emphasis added). 

1) No Sense Of Danger / Can’t Be Left Alone
‘In 2009, Zach completed New York's Nautica Triathlon…Yet he was never more than a few feet from his father or his cousin, because Zach has no sense of dangers in traffic and so can't go out on his own. ‘If we come to an intersection, he doesn't know what those cars are going do, when he needs to stop, so he's dependent on my telling him: Turn right, Zach, turn left, turn left again. Go fast, go, pass the car, go, right side, go, go, go, pass it. Yes.’’
Ethan has no sense of danger. As for bicycles, he and I ride everywhere together on a tandem bike, with me at the brakes and the handlebars. Unlike Zach, who will listen to verbal commands from his father or cousin, Ethan takes several commands and requests before he complies, if he does at all. If he sets his mind on something it can be very tasking to deter him, or redirect him. Even in the elementary activity of bike riding, such delays and the lack of regard for his surroundings is equal to alcohol impairment in the threat they pose. Thus, we have not taught him to ride a bike on his own. 

‘Zach still has lots of issues with understanding language, with communicating. He can't be left for long periods of time by himself. So, although he's made tremendous gains, Zach continues to require services… [He] unfortunately doesn't really understand danger. You know, we had an incident not too long ago where accidently something was left on the stove. When I came down the house was filling with smoke. And Zach was sitting by the computer on his chair, spinning in a circle, slowly, not paying any attention at all to the smoke, the smoke alarm. He was just in his own little world.’
Ethan doesn’t cook, or heat up his own food, so we don’t have that to deal with. However, certain compulsions, occasionally, seem to have an overwhelming influence over Ethan. These cannot be measured, or anticipated. The compulsions come unexpected, and leave us jittery. They are the fixations or temptations to light matches—whether in his room, under the blankets on his bed, or in the kitchen—or play with sharp objects, such as knives. The dangers in these urges are obvious. In his little world knives are simply small swords. Matches are what light candles, and candles represent birthdays, which are fun!

2) Focused And Meticulous Attention To Certain Activities
Zach loves drawing. At the age of seven he drew and colored a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine. -- tapes papers together and draws until he gets the desired length. Colors it and cuts it out.’ The drawing ended up being approximately six feet long.
Ethan loves to draw, cut and pastes images from the internet, cut out images from DVD inserts or magazines, affix them to paper, print them out, or laminate them with layers of tape. Once laminated, he cuts them out in their various shapes, and if he feels the need then affixes them again to another piece of paper which is then laminated once more with more tape. He presently has a stack of paper nearly eight inches thick of images he has either drawn, cut and taped, or printed off the internet. He has one piece of cardboard which has at least four layers of images, and eight layers of tape, which is nearly six years old.

3) Obsessive Memorization And Repetition Of Movie Dialogue
Zach possesses a need, ‘even obsession,’ to ‘memorized dialogue’ from movies. ‘He picks [the video] out and he watches it over and over and over and over again. And whether we like it or not we end up having all of the lines memorized. It's…the closest that we'll ever get to sitting as a family and having a round-table discussion. It's the most interactive thing to do with Zach that I've found.’
We constantly have to replace VHS tapes, DVDs, and DVD players which become unusable, scratched, or fail from the incessant rewinding which occurs while he watches a movie over, and over, and over, memorizing it as he goes. The scripts are filed away in his mind, to be used as needed to carry on conversation. Movies not seen for years are still available for replay on his mind’s stage when ever the need arises. This stash of video images becomes his basis for carrying on conversation with family members.

4) Age-Inappropriate Actions
‘Something I worry about is people misunderstanding him because he looks normal. And he acts pretty normal most of the time. So I always worry, like, when he goes into the bathroom to use the urinal, he drops his pants down all the way. I'm afraid that one day someone's going take that the wrong way. It's all of these little what ifs, what if, what if, what if.’
Up to the age of thirteen, Ethan would use the urinal, and drop his pants to his ankles. Before he was not tall enough to reach the higher urinals, he would do this while standing on my feet. Sensing the pending issue we were able to reinforce the use of stalls for all toilet activities in the bathroom. At age 15, if he stands in the stall to use the toilet, he still drops his pants to his ankles.

5) Language Delays – Abstract Questions
MacNeil: Almost Finished?
Zach: Yes.
MacNeil: Do You Like The Job?
Zach: Yes.
MacNeil: Do You Find It Easy, Or Is It Hard?
Zach: Yes.
We struggle with the “Wh” questions. Who, What, Where, Why and How are difficult. Ethan, if the question is simple (Yes/No), can respond appropriately. When the question becomes more complex, more open ended, you never know what you will get. Most of the time you get, ‘I don’t know dad.’ 

Other characteristics, when viewing the video, strike all too familiar chords with us. Zach’s tone of voice, inflection, and robot-like responses, unless he is quoting from a movie then his recital mimics the movie almost flawlessly. His gait, his physical mannerisms closely resemble Ethan’s. Again, this is the closest thing to Ethan's 'style' of Autism I have ever seen. 

However, and hear is where the discussion was headed in the first place, though the differences in the autistic characteristics are subtle, they are striking enough to create key differences in social, communication, motor, and language skills. 

Here two young men reflect what appear to be the same colors of autism yet an intimate examination reveals that of the blue characteristics one is more Cornflower then Blizzard Blue, the violet tendencies appear more Glossy Grape then Lilac Luster, red distinctions are more Red then Razzmatazz and green traits more Aquamarine then Cerulean.  For instance, Ethan, based on my viewing of Zach in the video, is more advanced with his communication, whereas Zach is clearly more advance when it comes to taking care of his personal needs (i.e., fixing, including cutting up, his own dinner). Zach is more advanced in that he can be given commands and will follow quickly, where Ethan is more fixed in his own world and requires repeated promptings to adjust his actions. What at first appeared only as faint differences in tints and shades in the characteristics on the spectrum are actually drastic differences in the style of autism exhibited.

So the next time you hear somebody speak of the Autism Spectrum, or see the multicolored puzzle piece logo, picture a rainbow. From afar they may appear to be identical, but closer examination will reveal the subtle differences. The subtle quirks, eccentricities, or characteristics of autism express on the outside a reflection of the individual on the inside; not mimeographed clones, but an individual who is absolutely one-of-a-kind!

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