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Enthusiasm versus Obsession: Reframing the Autism Conversation

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What do you think of when you see the word “Obsession”? How about “Enthusiasm”? If you are like me, obsession sounds negative and unhealthy while enthusiasm sounds positive and energetic. By choosing the word “enthusiasm” instead of “obsession” to describe someone’s interests, we open up a world of possibilities.

In the world of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which include autism and Asperger’s syndrome, the decision to use one word instead of another can be life-altering. The effects these words have can help us open up an individual, revealing their abilities, and potentially help them discover a career or vocation.

On Tuesday, April 2, 2013, I went to the United Nation’s celebration of World Autism Awareness Day. The panels and discussions ranged from personal to organizational and the overall message was to embrace each others differences instead of focusing on a person’s deficits.

The panelists emphasized the abilities approach, which means to focus on the interests and skills of a person, not on what they are lacking. Elaine Hall, founder and president of the The Miracle Project  and one of the coordinators of this celebration, spoke about how attitudes are the real disability facing people with ASD. We should stop using the terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” and instead focus on the person’s abilities. We should also stop referring to the interests of people with ASD as obsessions, but instead as enthusiasm for a particular topic or activity.

Our word choices are just one aspect of the more complicated goal of integrating people with different abilities into broader society. Changing how we speak with our families, our neighbors and colleagues about people with special needs, we will alter the conversation to allow for people’s potential.

To see an example of how siblings and friends of people with autism help to reframe the conversation, take a look at the website for the video What are you doing? Autism Awareness Australia’s CEO, Nicole Rogerson, shared with us the video that her organization distributed to schools in Australia to increase awareness about people with different abilities.

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