Understanding People Who Have Autism

Thomas Iland speaks about his life and how autism has shaped it.

Thomas Iland Speaks about Autism

When Thomas Iland spoke about autism to members of the Optimist Club on Tuesday, it was from a unique perspective. He was diagnosed with autism when he was 13.

“You have to know yourself, love yourself and be yourself,” said Iland, a former CPA who has spent the past three years speaking to the public about autism.

To help his audience better understand autism, he explained, “People don’t understand that we only hear the things coming out of your mouth; we don’t understand the body language or underlying social cues.”

For example, if someone says “It’s a beautiful day” with a lot of sarcasm, a person with autism will not understand the sarcasm and just assume the person really does think it is beautiful day.

A person who does not understand social cues is most likely to be ostracized. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about two-thirds of the children with autism between the ages of 6 and 15 have been bullied.

Iland, who has a younger brother and sister, observed that his siblings were getting lots of calls from friends and asked his mom why he wasn’t getting calls.

He gives his mom credit for explaining, instead of being negative, “You’re still learning how to make friends.”

He remembers that when he was finally told his diagnosis, he responded “This explains a lot.” But more importantly with that information, his parents assured him “that they would love me no matter what.”

In 2018, the CDC reported that about 1 in 60 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and that boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.

Iland explained that as a teenager he wanted a girlfriend, so he called one girl repeatedly. He had called her so many times that she told Iland’s sister that she was going to report him to the police. His sister told Iland’s mother, who then helped her son understand that there are social mores for pursuing the opposite sex.

“She said, ‘It’s like tennis. You get two serves (calls) and then it’s her turn to serve. If she does not, then call another girl.’”

Iland noted that some people on the autism spectrum have problems with the police because they don’t understand social cues.

Some “don’t like to be touched,” he said, noting that a police encounter can spiral out of control. The person may not respond to verbal commands, such as “stop,” or avoids eye contact. Or the person may reach out for objects/equipment, such as a badge or handcuffs.

Iland told his audience to remember SBC Global in thinking about autism. “The S stands for [lack of] social skills. The B is behavior and the C is communication, not being able to pick up social cues.”

He used an example to explain global, which one can think of as environmental. On a hot day, Iland had on two jackets and nearly passed out.

“You may feel the heat, but not feel the need to take off the jackets,” he said.

The “global” might also explain why drowning is the leading cause for children with autism, and accounts for about 90 percent of the deaths associated with wandering by those 14 years old or younger.

Iland said that currently, “employment or lack of is the biggest problem facing the [autism spectrum disorder] community.”

According to the CDC, “The cost of caring for Americans with autism reached $268 billion in 2015 and could rise to $461 billion by 2025 in the absence of more-effective interventions and support across the life span.”

Iland graduated with a degree in accounting at Cal State Northridge and worked as CPA. “I dreaded getting up every morning,” he said. “Three years ago, I left a job with benefits to go around the country and speak to other groups.”

He urges the community to employ and be open to those people [on the autism spectrum] because “They will be loyal to you to a tee.”

Why is there such a rise in autism? Iland answered that perhaps there was under-reporting in past years, but no one knows what causes it.

“Most likely it is genetic, heredity,” he said and pointed out that people on the spectrum could have included Mozart, Steven Spielberg, Thomas Jefferson and even Bill Gates.

“Vaccines don’t trigger it,” Iland emphasized, citing a Danish study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, that showed the risk of autism was similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated children. (Visit: nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa021134.)

When asked what he would tell people who still believe vaccines cause autism, he recommended telling them to look at the study, but “people believe what they want to.”

One Optimist asked, “How do you get a parent to accept an autism diagnosis?”

“Fathers say ‘I have to have the perfect son,’” Iland said, acknowledging it’s difficult for some people to admit they have an autistic child.

“People still want autism to be cured,” he said.

But, he asked, “Do you want the child to be the best person they can? The denial could be keeping the kid from the best self they could be.”

Iland has 10 tips for telling your child they have been diagnosed with autism, including: 1) tell them you love them unconditionally; 2) build them up, focus on strengths; 3) talk about what is hard and what is easy; 4) tell them the hard and easy things fit a pattern; 5) tell them the pattern has a name and ask if they want to know what it is; 6) tell them its called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); 7) let them know they’re not the only one, and it’s not their fault;” 8) point out that some famous people have ASD; 9) let them know that many things and people can help, and already helping; and 10) assure them everything will turn out fine.

Iland, who with his mom Emily, an author, researcher, film-maker, advocate and leader in the autism field (visit: emilyiland.com), has co-authored a book “Come to Life! Your Guide to Self-Discovery.”

Emily helps adults who are helping a young person with ASD and Iland’s voice is about the process of self-discovery. Visit:thomasiland.com

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2 Responses to Understanding People Who Have Autism

  1. Thomas Iland is inspiring. He’s also lucky he has a mom who is right there beside him and lucky that he seems to be high-functioning. I also want to praise management at the Vons market on Sunset at PCH for hiring some employees who are autistic. It truly warms my heart to see this.

  2. Arnie Wishnick says:

    Tom Iland is an inspiring young man with a terrific life story to tell.
    The audience listened!

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