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TEACCH and the Culture of Autism

Autism has been at the headlines of newspapers and media sites as the topic of discussion, but many people still fail to understand the disorder and how to “treat it.”

I use the words “treat it” with much hesitation. After working with individuals with ASD it’s less about treating a disorder and more about learning how to treat people in general. For every individual, for every setting, for every strength or weakness, they should be allowed to be themselves no matter how different they may be from the norm. Perhaps the treatment should focus less on trying to change an individual, and more on changing their environment, both people and objects, to suit their needs.

Re-norming, in a nutshell, is what the TEACCH Carolina Living and Learning Center (CLLC) is all about. Here, 15 adults with ASD and intellectual disability (ID) live in relative harmony. Every staff member understands that these individuals can achieve amazing things when simply given the right opportunities and resources. The norm is a culture that understands that 15 individuals with ASD are not to be treated (in the medical sense) the same, but rather treated like people who are unique individuals. Outside of the structured environment of the CLLC, these individuals often struggle to find continuity because many people in the community do not understand them, and thus treat them as alien beings.

My work at the CLLC has been simply getting to know clients. What they like, what they don’t like, what their strengths are, what not to do, how to calm them down, essentially how they tick. I feel as if I now know individuals who I care about greatly, not as clients but as people. Some may never be able to reciprocate my caring for them, but I can understand their gratitude when we get through a morning without major issues and we sit down for lunch together. I also work one-on-one with a man who is as musical as the day is long. We’re working to develop emotion recognition and communication through his musical proclivities.
ASD will maintain its status as a disorder for the foreseeable future, and I completely understand that viewpoint. The social communication deficits can make it extremely difficult for an individual to be independent, as we live in a highly social world. However, this deficit alone does not merit the stigma associated with ASD. My vision is a world where we both equip the public and the individual with the skills they need to navigate each other with understanding.

That isn’t just the case for autism.

Sean McWeeny
UNC-CH Class of 2015
Music (B.A.) and Psychology (B.S.)

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