Applied learning. Service learning. These are phrases we often use at Globe University, but rarely are the concepts exercised with such consciousness and compassion as one Globe-Sioux Falls medical assistant student, Elizabeth Enderson. Enderson, along with several other medical assistant students and program chair, made a stop on her campaign to educate those around her about autism. April 2 marked Autism Awareness Day, but Enderson’s efforts reach far greater distances than one day. This particular time, I had the honor of witnessing an advocate at work at Doodlebugs and Dinosaurs Daycare in Brandon, South Dakota. There, Enderson spoke to a group of first and second graders about the realities of autism and the dangers of bullying.
What inspired you to educate the community about autism in the first place?
Over the past few years, I have been absolutely amazed how little people know about autism, including myself, considering how often it’s diagnosed in people, and how common it is becoming. 1 in 68 people are diagnosed with it, and no one really knows what it is.
Why is this cause so important to you?
My son, Lyle, is one of the 1 in 68. He was diagnosed at the young age of 18 months. I had absolutely no idea what it was, so it’s been a learning process for all of us. I have done more research on this one topic then I’ve ever done on anything, including school work. Not only did I have to educate myself, I also had to educate my family, my friends, and the entire staff at the daycare in which he attends.
What is it like raising a child with autism?
Autism, although it sounds as simple as sensory and learning problems, is not always fun. Lyle has quirks. Certain textures bother him, especially his clothing, certain noises make him upset (ask me how often I’m able to vacuum…), and foods have to be very cut and dry (no hot dishes, no casseroles), mac and cheese has to be Kraft, or he won’t eat it…yes, he can taste the difference! If it’s a bad day in Autismland (that’s what I like to call it), it’s a bad day for everyone.
Days, in general, are just different. He doesn’t like to cuddle, he doesn’t like hugs, he doesn’t like to be touched. The minute he wakes up, he has to have his shoes on, regardless if we’re going somewhere or not. He has to stay on schedule. If you switch up his schedule, he loses it. It’s a rather unpredictable life in a very predictable world. Aside from the negatives of autism, Lyle is a very sweet, charming little boy. He’s got a smile and laugh that’s almost too contagious, and eyelashes that go for days. He loves to learn, and loves to show off any new skill he’s picked up at school and daycare. He thrives on knowing he’s doing a good job. I always try to remind people that he has autism, not that he’s autistic. Autism is a diagnosis, it does not define him as a person.
Why is it important to spread awareness about autism?
It’s important for me to help people be aware of the mysteries of autism. It’s hard for people to accept something they don’t know; in fact, they’re scared of it. I know I was when Lyle was first diagnosed. I had no idea what it was, and I was frightened for my child. I knew about the social stigma of autism (they tend to be loners and misunderstood), and I didn’t want that for my child. But the more I became aware of it, the more it opened my eyes to an entirely different world around me. I look at life a little different now, and I want others to be able to step outside of their comfort zone like I did and look around.
How do you teach/reach such young children about such a complicated, adult concept?
I mainly try to educate the younger generation, hoping that maybe it’ll make an impact and stick with them throughout life. I didn’t get that kind of education when I was a kid, and now that I’m an adult, I’m still learning about it. To help facilitate the learning process in young children, I have kids do different sensory activities to show them how hard it is for a person with autism to go through daily life.
One activity I do is have four kids, one in the middle, three standing around him/her, and each of them have to sing a different song (ABC’s, Itsy Bitsy Spider, etc.). The one in the middle has to rub his/her belly, while the others surrounding them have to pat his/her arms/head, all while singing their assigned song at the same time. One big thing I found was that it was really hard for them to each focus on what they were doing. They either lost their place in their song, or they forgot the action they were supposed to do. I then explain to them that that is what life is like for a person with autism. It’s hard for them to focus on simple things because of the abundance of things going on around them. The one piece I like about most about educating children is the challenge of teaching them. It’s such a complex subject, that it’s hard to narrow it down in a way they would understand. That is why I come up with the different sensory activities.
What’s one thing everyone should know about autism?
The one thing I would love for people to know about autism is exactly what many Autism Awareness programs use: they’re different, not less. They’re still people, regardless of their inability to do normal, everyday activities. They still laugh, cry, breathe, just like you and me. Lyle has this ability to open up people’s minds, and their hearts because anyone who just meets him is able to see that autism does not hold him down. When he was first diagnosed, he was 18-months-old, and didn’t make a sound. They told me that it’s possible that he’ll never be able to talk. Now, at three-years-old, he’s forming almost complete sentences. He fights to prove people wrong (he gets that from his mom)!
How does this experience impact/relate to your future career as a medical assistant?
A lot of the reason why I wanted to get into the medical field was because of Lyle’s diagnosis. Not only has this experience impacted my reasoning to go back to school, it’s also helped me in school. I’ve also been able to educate my classmates on autism, and helped them become aware of the many different types of people that come into the clinic that they will be dealing with. I’ve even brought Lyle to class a couple times for them to “practice” on. As I’ve said before, Lyle having autism has opened my eyes to a whole new world out there. It’s helped me to be more understanding towards people, and it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.