Emily Thought She was the Only Person with Autism

Somehow, Emily didn’t know there was anyone else on earth with autism spectrum disorder. Being made to feel special had made her feel isolated.

A colleague recently told me the story of a girl we’ll call Emily. Emily is a third grader with autism spectrum disorder in a mainstream classroom at a private school with a mission for gifted education. And Emily is profoundly gifted. My colleague showed me pictures of Emily’s work during an invention unit – partly because her teacher had been working with Emily to imagine the world from others’ perspectives (which can sometimes be challenging for kids with ASD!), Emily had built a magic box with mirrors that looked empty but could hide an object inside. When you looked in one window, there was the object; when you looked in the other window, the box was magically empty!

Through inventing or doing math or practicing spelling or making up card games (usually in the style of “Exploding Kittens”), Emily received tons of positive reinforcement about the unique way her brain works. Surrounded by caring people, most of the time, she feels special. For Emily, “special” is the upside of “unique”.

But there’s a downside, too.

For another school project, kids learned about heroes and then wrote letters to people they admire. Perhaps predictably, Emily’s teacher helped her choose Temple Grandin. In her letter, Emily wrote, “It’s so nice, I’m not the only person in America to have autism!” It turns out that all the time teachers and support staff had been helping Emily feel unique, they had also been reinforcing her idea that she was alone in the world with her condition.

Somehow, Emily didn’t know there was anyone else on earth with autism spectrum disorder. Being made to feel special had made her feel isolated.

Teachers and support staff didn’t know she felt this way. Even her parents didn’t know that Emily felt like she was the only person with her condition.

Of course, Emily’s teacher and my colleague immediately tried help Emily understand that she is not alone. Emily appreciates numbers and so they looked together online to find a recent study showing that in the United States 1 in 41 kids are diagnosed with ASD. Then they multiplied this by 50.7 million enrolled in U.S. public schools to show that there are over a million kids in the U.S. with spectrum disorder.

Emily remains unique – there is no one just like her, just as there is no one just like any child. But my colleague told me that alongside emphasizing how special Emily is, they continue to emphasize the fact that she is part of a million-strong community of kids that are like her.

Being unique is an opportunity and a challenge – it is an opportunity to feel special but at the risk of feeling isolated. And though Emily’s case is an extreme example of feeling isolated, chances are that most people with mental, physical or medical challenges have felt this way at some point.

Today, try to remember that you are unique, you are special, and you are not alone.