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Inside Autism
A look at a frustrating yet rewarding experience

Theresa Wrangham has an unusual vanity plate on her car.

AUTISM is the somewhat surprising message bolted onto the back of her Honda Pilot.

"It's great on I-25 if you want to do a sudden move," says the Louisville, Colo., mom and president of the Autism Society of Boulder County. "They scatter," she says of other drivers. "It's (also) great when they walk up to see who's autistic."

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that affects an person's ability to form relationships, communicate and reason. It is considered a spectrum disorder, meaning it can have effects ranging from mild to severe; it includes Asperger's Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder.

Although the condition is increasingly being diagnosed - a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in February estimates the incidence of autism at 1 in 150 - it's not well understood by the general public, advocates say.

The reaction to Wrangham's license plate is indicative of the confusion and nervousness many people feel about the disorder, a reaction autistic people say can compound the difficulty they already have communicating with other people.

"Sometimes I'm a bit speechless," says Rachel Wrangham, Theresa's 16-year-old autistic daughter, who is a sophomore at Monarch High School. Talking to someone for the first time is the hardest, she says, especially after the initial "Hi" and exchange of names and basic information.

"I don't know what else to say. Sometimes I pause," she says. "I'm nervous perhaps."

Learning to make casual conversation and pick up on the nuances in social situations is a painstaking process for many autistic people, one that some describe as learning a different language. Such seemingly simple things as making eye contact often must be taught.

Early diagnosis and intensive therapy are helping to change the lives of many people on the autism spectrum, allowing them to become a part of mainstream society. Such therapy also has helped them to explain to the outside world what it's like to be autistic, as well as to appreciate their own unique perspective on the world.

Temple Grandin, a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, says her autistic brain has made it possible to do the work she does, designing livestock handling facilities for companies all over the world.

Her precise skills in visualization allow her to understand how a beam of sunlight or the feeling of hoof on a metal surface could spook a cow. More than half of the cattle in North America are handled in a restrainer system she designed.

Grandin, 59, likens her mind to Google Images. She says her brain holds vast numbers of highly detailed pictures that she sorts and puts into categories.

"I don't think abstractly," she says.

She recalls as a child trying to figure out the difference between cats and dogs. Whereas typical children develop a generic image of a cat that encompasses everything from Hello Kitty to a mountain lion, to Grandin, "cat" meant only the cats she had seen, detailed images of which were stored in her memory.

Initially, she differentiated dogs and cats by size. But when her neighbors got a dog that was smaller than the cats she was familiar with, she searched for a different way to tell them apart.

She "searched" the images she had filed away, hitting upon the way the animals' noses looked. From then on, she labeled a dog or a cat by the shape of its nose.

Such detailed recall makes it possible for her to design and test-run the equipment in her head.

"I can predict outcomes. I can go down different paths," she says.

It took Grandin many years to realize how differently she perceived the world from others. She interviewed typical people and other autistic people to figure out the differences. She says not all autistic people think visually. Some think in patterns and others in words, but they differ from other people because their thinking tends to be associative rather than linear, and concrete rather than abstract.

Raymond Cole, a ninth-grader, is interested in math and music. He has synesthesia, a phenomenon in which information typically interpreted by one sense is also perceived in another.

For example, he both hears musical notes - he has perfect pitch - and sees them as colors.

"When I hear a sound (I) get some colorful sensations," he says. "When I hear a C, it's red. ... Other sounds, I might see a structure. It's so interesting."

As the notes go higher, they get brighter, lower they get darker. He thinks of the yearly calendar as bending at July and bending back in January. Numbers rise and fall in a line.

"I tend to solve math problems graphically instead of algebraically. Maybe half and half. That's one thing I got to admit," he says.

Kathy Grant, 42, of Denver says it has taken her a while to accept being autistic. Some stereotypes about autism bother her: "That we're not a feeling people, that we're in our own world. What it is is that a lot of us are hypersensitive," she says. "It's that we're too aware of the world. We feel things and can sense things so much."

Studies have shown that many autistic people have a difficult time decoding facial expressions. Young autistic children often look at a person's mouth, rather than their eyes as typical children do. Grant says it's sometimes difficult to recognize someone if she sees them out of a familiar context.

As children, autistic people often face bullying.

Grandin remembers fighting in high school with girls who called her names like "tape recorder." She was kicked out of a large girls' school where she lived in Massachusetts.

Grant says kids ridiculed her for much of her school career.

"I was made fun of for my difference," she says. "I wasn't thinking about what the other kids were thinking about."

Grant says autistic people often suffer in social situations, because they don't make a good first impression, partially because it's hard for them to listen to others and draw out their interests.

"A lot of people on the spectrum, you go into their world, they come to you," she says.

She says that social awkwardness can be a good thing in one sense: There's not social artifice.

Grandin says many people once called nerds or geeks have a mild form of autism.

"If you work out in Silicon Valley, they're running the show out there," she says.

While many autistic people struggle to function in much less rarefied environments such as school or extracurricular activities, Grant says autistic people's differences are still important in nourishing a dynamic culture.

"I think a lot of people think that different means less than, when it really means different," she says. "Differences are not a bad thing. They're part of life. History has proven if there aren't noticeable differences, society goes down the drain. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia have proven that."