Just a note in this article I will be using Identity First Language (Autistic Person) rather than Person First Language (Person with Autism). As it tends to be preferred within the autistic community.
What Exactly Is Autism?
The most basic definition of Autism is that it’s a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person interacts with the world around them and their peers.
Autism is a spectrum that goes from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’, although these terms can be misleading and problematic. This is because a person can shift along the spectrum week to week, day to day, or even hour to hour. Usually, these terms are also used by non-autistic people (neurotypicals) to define how the person’s autistic traits affect them rather than the person themselves.
A better way to think of Autism is as though it were a colour wheel, where every shade represents a different aspect of Autism. Autistic people may mix different colours depending on how they are doing that day, creating their own colour. Or they might be one colour.
Life as an Autistic Person
Living as an Autistic person means that we have a unique view on day-to-day life. Our experience is different from most people, and it comes with its own sets of challenges and ‘quirks’. One of the main struggles comes from sensory processing difficulties, which means that usually, we experience the world more intensely than our neurotypical counterparts. It could be too bright, too loud, tastes could be too strong, or we might dislike being touched! (I walk around with headphones on all the time so take a guess what I struggle with.) To deal with this, we might wear sunglasses when its cloudy, wear headphones or ear defenders all the time, and we might have very restricted diets.
Think of Autism as though it were a colour wheel, where every shade represents a different aspect.
Also, when we get overwhelmed, you might see us stimming. Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behaviour, and it helps us calm our sensory system down, so we don’t have meltdowns. The most typical stims include flapping, rocking, spinning or vocal noises – a little common fact is that neurotypical people stim too. You know when you tap your foot or click your pen when you’re nervous – you’re stimming!
When it comes to looking at the world, however, we tend to see it in a more systematic way than our neurotypical counterparts. Approaching situations from a solution-based direction rather than a social or emotional way. We tend to be very creative, with our favourite subjects at school, usually being arts-focused rather than academic. Some of the most acclaimed creatives are Autistic: Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, and Anthony Hopkins!
Although we might struggle socially (if you look at it from everyone else’s point of view), we actually socialise differently. We don’t like small talk or large groups, we may not have many friends, but that’s because we usually have very intense friendships, so a lot of them would tire us out. Rather than trying to make small talk with an Autistic person, you should try and talk to us about our special interest. This is a subject or subjects that we are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about. We can talk for hours about them – common ones tend to be dinosaurs, music, books, or space.
Autistic Myths Busted
There are a lot of myths surrounding Autism and Autistic people, I’m going to discuss and bust the most common ones for you now:
MYTH: AUTISM IS CAUSED BY VACCINES
BUSTED: Nope. No. Nein. Not True. That’s all I have to say on the matter.
MYTH: AUTISTIC PEOPLE DON’T HAVE EMPATHY
BUSTED: I’m afraid that’s not right; Autistic people are very compassionate and care a lot about other people. The problem is that we struggle to pick up people’s expressions, body language, or tone of voice. Therefore, we can’t act on it in the same way neurotypical people can. We tend to need explicit information to help us channel our compassion in a more ‘accepted’ way.
MYTH: AUTISTIC PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO BE IN RELATIONSHIPS
BUSTED: While we might find dating hard, due to all the unspoken social rules and customs, that doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t want to date. Plenty of people have boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives. While some of us might like being alone, it doesn’t mean that we all don’t want romantic relationships, it’s just we might find it harder to navigate them!
MYTH: AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE STUPID
BUSTED: NO! Not True! Autism is a developmental disability, not an intellectual one. In essence, we might struggle with communication, interaction, and we might struggle with change in routine. Still, none of that reflects on our intelligence. Quite often, Autism means that we have an uneven educational profile. Which means that we are a lot better at certain things than others (usually what we are interested in).
We might also struggle at school due to the focus on being social and being forced to make friends. But that again doesn’t mean that we are stupid or can’t succeed in life or our educational careers. It just means that we have to work twice as hard as our neurotypical counterparts!
MYTH: AUTISM IS CURABLE
BUSTED: Ok so, why should we try to cure Autism? Like, really, it gives people a unique view of the world and a unique set of skills that neurotypical people don’t have. Granted we might struggle with things that other people find ‘normal’, but I mean neurotypical people struggle with stuff too. Most Autistic people are proud and happy being Autistic; we feel like it’s a gift rather than a curse, and we tend to use it to our advantage. It makes us hard-working, methodical, and loyal when it comes to our work and social lives. We don’t want a cure and neither should the general public.
This is just a concise overview of one Autistic experience. But I hope that it has given you insight into the Autistic world and has helped you become a little bit more knowledgeable about Autistic people.
If you want to know more about Autism, next time you meet an Autistic person, ask them about their experiences. As long as you do it respectfully, we are more than happy to answer all your questions!