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Perception, Symbolism, & Autism

My son received a doll as a Christmas gift this holiday. As he pulled the paper off the box, he began to turn it into an upright position, curiously looking at what was inside.

The opened box exposed a doll. He stared at the doll for a minute or so. An 18-inch image of a boy wearing a knit cap, red headphones, t-shirt, red vest, jeans and sneakers was staring back at him. Slowly, a smile began to emerge from his face.

He took the hat off the doll, then placed it back on again and stared some more. It held his attention for under ten minutes, but that’s saying a lot for someone who doesn’t focus on newly introduced items for more than sixty seconds. The smile was clear confirmation that he had connected on some level with this toy. He had seen a mirror image of himself.

Curious of how this was received by the autism community, I googled the reviews online. As suspected, there was a very strong emotional response from the autism community. Responses were either negative and offended or positive and supportive, no in between. Those responses led to another online debate over the symbolism of the puzzle piece for autism. I had to stop reading. I felt like I was in the middle of two divorced parents arguing over the kids. In a court of law, the parents don’t matter, the kids are priority. Everything is determined in the best interest of the children. So, it follows parents of children diagnosed with autism, those of us who live autism awareness day every day, should be concerned about what this means for our kids, not what it means for us, how we perceive it.

My child is certainly not offended by seeing a doll that looks like him. My son cannot speak. He doesn’t understand simple conversation. But this physical representation of himself, this nonverbal connection is a gift, literally and figuratively. The smile on his face said, “message received.” If only for a moment in time, he recognized and made the connection of the reflection of himself in this doll.

Buying a gift for a child with severe autism is not an easy task. This was a thoughtful gift given with love by a family member whose intention and hopes were my son would see himself in this doll. He did, mission accomplished. I for one will focus on this positive outcome. When he’s happy, I’m happy.

There are many things out there that could be scrutinized: movies, tv shows, books, etc. that don’t represent autism fully or even correctly. There are so many different levels of autism; that’s why they call it autism spectrum disorder, it’s a spectrum, a large spectrum. From what I’ve witnessed, this doll does more than raise autism awareness, it validates human existence.

In the past three years autism diagnosis rose at an alarming rate; from 1 in 59 (2019) to 1 in 54 (2020) and again this fall jumped to 1 in 44 (2021). In 2022, I will spend my time focusing on what’s important: helping my child feel happy and validated, while continuing to raise autism awareness the best I know how.

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