Panel discussion on Asperger's reveals valuable insight

Last Wednesday night, the film “Adam” was shown as part of the Guelcher Film Series. It follows the story of a young man who is trying to succeed, or at least fit into a largely unsympathetic world, while dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Following the evening showing, audience members were invited to stay for a panel discussion where several professionals who deal with Asperger’s Syndrome on a regular basis shared their perspectives on the film.

The panelists consisted of Dr. Eileen McNamara, medical director of the Adult Autism Connection of the Barber National Institute; Dr. Joseph McAllister, director of psychological services at Pittsburgh’s Watson Institute; clinical psychologist Janet Pawlowski, founder of KaleidAScope, Inc, which serves those 15 years and older with Autism Spectrum Disorders; and a man only identified as Charles, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s.

The discussion proved to be instrumental in giving an already exceedingly well-done film a degree of clarity and reality that could never have been achieved otherwise. Many audience members were able to ask questions of the panelists, most of them either on behalf of a family member with autism, or who had autism themselves.

Across the board, however, there seemed to be one common understanding: the importance of little steps.

“It doesn’t have to be anything big,” Charles explained. “You just have to build your self-esteem up. It’s gonna be long, but it will be worth it.”

A concern that was particularly highlighted upon was the difficulty a person with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome has fitting into a culture’s molds, especially with regards to the concept of success.

“I knew there was something different about me, and it’s been that way all my life,” one audience member commented. “I thought I’d just grow out of it. There were times I thought I was insane – I didn’t understand why I wasn’t succeeding.”

And there’s the rub, the realization that panel members and audience participants alike wanted people to come away with: autism, in all its forms, needs to be understood, not simply judged and pitied.

“It’s a syndrome, not an illness,” McAllister said. “A part of me cringes when it’s called that.”

“If you think about it in terms of evolution,” McNamara said, “there must be some evolutionary benefit if it’s this common in a population. It’s common because the human race is better with it. Some people would like to see autism cured, which means getting rid of people like we have.”

The most moving part of the evening? How grateful people were for the film being shown and awareness being raised.

“Watching that movie was almost like seeing a mirror,” one audience member explained.

“I’m learning, I’m working with it,” another said, “and I guess it makes me unique.”