World Autism Awareness Day
On April 2nd, we will celebrate the 8th annual World Autism Awareness Day. I remember years ago joining The Friendship Circle, an organization that seeks to bring companionship into the lives of children living with special needs. Daunted and intimidated, I hadn’t the slightest clue what to expect from befriending a ten year-old child who suffered from a severe case of autism.
What Was Autism Exactly?
Of course, I had heard of it before, but never had I been confronted with it. Never had I been placed in a situation that forced me to devise entertaining activities for a child living with the syndrome. Puzzles, finger-paint, Miss. Mary Mack—I was naïve enough to believe I was prepared for my first visit to Nicole’s house.
Sure enough, I would realize that Nicole would be entertained by neither simple puzzle nor childish hand games. Though autism stymied her ability to verbally communicate, nothing would impede her boundless energy or imagination and juvenile games would not do.
The more time I spent with Nicole, a child whose creativity is contagious, the more I grew accustomed to treating her as I would another child. My trepidation and feelings of inadequacy diminished when I recognized that my relationship with Nicole depended on simple acts: my presence, my hand guiding hers while she would draw images of childlike innocence, statements of encouragement, and unrefined, spontaneous laughter. Initially, I was unable to understand, incapable of seeing beyond an abstruse lens from which I attempted to make sense of the world.
“Signs and Symbols”
In this essay, Suzanne K. Langer contests that human beings are preoccupied with symbols, “with images and names that mean things.” Langer makes a vivid distinction between signs and symbols—the former being an indication of something that necessitates a response, and the latter serving as a vehicle by which we derive a “kaleidoscope of ideas,” manipulate, “combine and abstract,” mix and extend those ideas.
The process of symbolic transformation, Langer ascertains, is “nothing more nor less than the process of conception,” which ultimately underlies the human capacities for “abstraction and imagination.” This abstraction provides the rich opportunity to reinvent the narrow frame from which we insufficiently try to envision the world we inhabit.
We are given the ability to think beyond images presented to us, but we must construe these depictions in a way that will develop beyond their simplistic and one-dimensional interpretation permitting us to distinguish an individual from an amalgamated group of individuals. Had I been unable to more closely examine Nicole’s inherent needs, to separate autism from our Sunday afternoons, perhaps I would have been unable to realize her desire for me to be a presence in her life, rather than a stranger with a bag of meaningless games.