What do you think of when you find out someone is autistic?
Pause for a moment and catch yourself in those immediate thoughts.
Do you know any autistic friends, family members, colleagues, or even characters in a movie or TV show?
A few years ago the response would often be referencing Big Bang Theory or Rain Man.
Progress forward and we have newer shows like Atypical, The Good Doctor and even characters in shows like Everything’s Going To Be Ok. Along with reality shows like Love on the Spectrum. Stories are shifting, with characters changing. But I think many opinions are based still on outdated stereotypes.
We see these stereotypes reinforced on the big screen, or from past experiences. I find though, that experiences are few and far between. Or, a brief experience tends to feed our opinions in a way that it is feeding the deeply ingrained negative stereotypes. Eg. A person with autism says something blunt or direct, and that feeds the “all autistic people are rude, blunt and cold”.
To be aware of something is mostly knowing that it exists. To consciously have knowledge about it.
Unfortunately in the world of autism awareness, it stops short of knowing much at all.
I think to be aware of autism for many people is just that it is a thing that exists, a condition, or disorder. Whatever the appropriate word you deem for it, the detail is not extensive and far from really knowing about the experiences or life of someone with autism. For this reason we are still very far from acceptance.
The ongoing journey towards acceptance.
Acceptance means not only understanding autism, but respecting autistic people and not expecting them to change who they are.
To drive acceptance we need greater education and inclusion. We need to learn more about not just what it is to be autistic, but also the way autistic people experience the world, or the workplace.
There is such a giant leap between awareness and acceptance.
You could simply know I am autistic. But as a parent, friend, colleague, what does it really mean for my day to day life?
How do you impact me?
What do I struggle with?
And more importantly, what are my strengths and what can I offer the world?
What support do I need?
What would amaze you about me?
One challenge is being stuck behind the stereotypes of negative traits. People hear autism and make assumptions, like, she won’t be good at client relationships because she’ll be too direct or lack connection. Or, he will be really analytical so let’s put him in the finance area. Trust me, it happens.
While it’s a positive that workplaces are keen to get behind more inclusive hiring, it has to be for the right reasons.
Let’s break the assumption that in an area with spreadsheets and reports an ‘Aspie’ will thrive. Maybe some, but I can tell you not me!!!
Just like the human race in general, there is diversity across the autistic population. Just as many autistics are painters, doctors, writers or mathematicians. We need to get to know each whole person, and not put them in the ASD box assuming traits and strengths.
Signs of Autism in Adults
An autistic adult can show some of the following characteristics:
- Challenges taking turns in a conversation, or monopolizing conversation with one’s own interests or thoughts
- Hyperfocus – deep focus on a specific topic or interest, to the extent of forgetting to eat and other life tasks
- Challenges with eye contact and having abnormal body language
- Not “picking up” on body language and facial cues of others
- Inability to “see” the perspective of others, or ‘Theory of Mind’
- Challenges with adjusting behaviours to match different social contexts
- Frustration and anxiety with sudden changes in routines and plans
- Generally being socially awkward, not “fitting in”
- Some people may have difficulties with completing everyday life activities independently
There are more challenges and the range or impact on any one person varies greatly. A term I hear in last year and love is “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. Each person is their own, and unique. Become familiar with these traits. Try to understand things like, the person isn’t rude, they lack intuitive social skills. Or, they are not disinterested by not making eye contact, it may overwhelm them and looking away helps them focus.
To have a formal diagnosis of autism, a person must have:
- Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts
- Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities,
- Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period
- Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.
If you want to read further examples, this article in an Australian ‘Raising Children’ page has some useful detail DSM-5-TR and autism diagnosis | Raising Children Network
There are many sites online with great content. Ensure you also read detail specifically about Adults and also the different experience and traits in Autistic women.
As we head into Autism Acceptance Month in April, and World Autism Awareness Day (April 2nd), take a moment to challenge your own thinking. Question the traits do you assume in others, and what is this information based on. Consider what you have done to educate yourself, and increase your own understanding, or even help drive inclusion. Pushing back on your own assumptions and changing yourself, or driving change in your family, community or workplace will help us slowly edge towards accepting each unique individual, seeing them as a whole person and sharing space with them.