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By Brendan Mirijello-Giglio May 30, 2019

Learning Differences

Illustrated by Paul Gabriel Rahaian

Ignacio Estrada once said that “if a student can’t learn the way we teach, we should teach the way they learn.” I have autism and ADHD, and although some people might think persons like myself can’t learn, I am living proof that learning and accelerating in school is possible.


People have many different perspectives about persons with autism. Back in the day, people with autism were assumed by many to be “retarded individuals” who couldn’t be part of society. One of the oldest portrayals of people with autism was in the 1988 film, ‘Rain Man’, with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Hoffman’s character, Raymond, is an autistic savant with great memory but poor social skills. This was back when autism awareness wasn’t high, and looking back, this movie shows more of the silly side of people on the spectrum. A particular scene that demonstrates this silliness is the traffic scene, seen in the trailer. In it, Raymond is walking across the street, but when the light switches to ‘don’t walk,’ he takes it seriously––as in, he stops in the middle of the road with cars honking at him for being in their way.

Today, we are educated and are taught differently about autism. We can thank those who study the different levels of autism as well as who offer more complete portrayals in movies and television of people on the spectrum.

Two recent shows on television show the more serious and intelligent side of their autistic characters. The first show is the medical drama, “The Good Doctor”. Freddie Highmore plays Dr. Shawn Murphy, a surgeon on the spectrum who is also a savant like Hoffman’s character in Rain Man. This character shows the advantages that can be found in people with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), including advanced memory and heightened senses (in taste, smell, and vision). In the first episode, glass shards fall on a kid and the doctor saves him through his knowledge of how select organs work differently in a child’s body compared to an adult’s body. He stops what would normally save older people from killing a younger one. This intervention is achieved thanks to his years of interest in biology. Despite his abilities, however, the doctor still has problems communicating with a room full of people.

This more serious portrayal shows that people on the spectrum can do great things, and that we shouldn’t jump to conclusion about them based on knowing that they are “disabled.”

The other recent show on TV that portrays autism is Netflix’s “Atypical”. The show focuses on an eighteen-year-old who has an obsession with Antarctica and wants to start dating. I relate to this character in many ways, including to his social awkwardness, his hatred of loud/annoying noises, his protectiveness of his belongings, his prioritizing of his desires, among others.

With these shows and others and all of the scientific research into autism, we have become better able to understand autism than ever before in the past. Programs such as Spectrum Productions have given opportunities to youth on the spectrum such as myself to develop their talents in video and media production, and I have this program and many others to thank for making me want to cover this topic.


Sources: Rain Man, The Good Doctor, Atypical, “Human Neurodiversity Should Be Celebrated for Its Strengths, Not Treated as a Disorder” from NowThis Opinions.

About the author

Brendan Mirijello-Giglio is a 2nd year student in Cinema-Communications.

About the illustrator

Paul Gabriel Rahaian is a first year Illustration student.


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    Michelle Ernest-Cohen

    January 27, 2020

    I appreciate how informative your piece is. You gave great examples that many people can refer to. My cousin has autism which makes your piece hit close to home. Individuals who have autism can be equally as intelligent and capable as neurotypical individuals, and I’ve seen this firsthand. From spending time with my cousin, to working as a shadow, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to meet a great deal of phenomenal people who simply experience the world differently. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of this as they assume that having this disability necessarily means you lack certain abilities. As the amount of diagnoses continues to increase, it’s extremely important to educate our peers, our parents, our siblings, etc. Thank you for speaking about this and educating others on this topic.

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    Omar Bacchus

    January 27, 2020

    This reflection is one that is so strong and gives a great perspective on how your life has been with a learning disability. At times people may have the wrong outlook on a person who has autism or even ADHD. Your example using the movie “Rain Man” is a great example of how autism can be perceived in a certain way, even though it can be seen that there are different disabilities on the spectrum. The point of view you have shown on the disabilities you have to face show that while there learning differences you have to face, you can make it a strength. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece and giving insight to people about your topic.

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