It’s Autism Awareness Week this week and I’ve been sharing as much as I can: there are posts on my Facebook page and Instagram; I’ve been posting on my personal profile on Facebook; I’ve been talking to friends, family and clients about autism. There are some great videos explaining what autism is, and the National Autistic Society have lots of information about it.
But, as a friend of mine (who has ASD and whose children also have ASD) wrote on her Facebook page ”whilst there's a bucket load of information out there … not much of it can be practically useful.”
Times have changed and my feeling is that most of us know about autism, it’s somewhere there on our radar. I would like to think that most people are aware that autism is something that affects the way people see and experience the world and how they communicate with others.
But acceptance of and understanding autism is a whole other topic. Many of us know, or are aware of, people with autism, or autistic people (again, there is some debate, even within the ASD community itself as to which phrase people prefer) We may be aware of autism, but how do we experience it on a day to day basis? How do we support those with autism, and those who support them?
The thing is, as the saying goes: “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you've met one person with autism”. Every person is unique and those with autism are no exception. There is no “scale” - it’s not about being “ a little bit” autistic or “severely” autistic. It is a spectrum, and you can fall anywhere on that spectrum. For some people, sensory issues can be manageable, for others, completely overwhelming. Some people manage certain tasks well, others don’t. Autism is not a disease to be cured: it is a way of functioning, processing and being. It is not the result of vaccines, or the way a person has been parented. It is part of a person’s genetic makeup, like having brown eyes or being tall. And it can be awesome! Just think about some of these people and what they have achieved or shared with the world: Anthony Hopkins, Temple Grandin, Daryl Hannah, Satoshi Tajiri, to name but a few.
For me, I think the key is that if you want to understand something, you need to talk to the people living it. If you want to understand how dyslexia impacts on someone and what their needs are, then talk to them. If someone has depression, talk to them to understand more about how they experience the world and what they need. If someone has suffered a bereavement, don’t assume that you know how they are feeling, or what they need - grief and loss affects us all differently, and we all have our ways of dealing with it.
And so, with autism. If you want to understand and support, then talk to people who have autism, to those who work with people with autism, whose family members have autism. Take the time to ask the questions and to listen to the answers. By the way, phrases such as “I guess we’re all a bit on the spectrum” or “well, he seems normal enough” are not usually well-received! Find out what their difficulties are but also their strengths, their interests. Take the time to get to know them, as unique individuals. Don’t exclude or assume - if in doubt, ask. Be aware, but also accept. Try to accept that someone may not be able to meet your eye: this does not mean they are not listening. Accept that sometimes, people need a little longer to process information: don’t rush them or try and finish their sentences. Be patient. Try and understand that someone may find crowds or noise overwhelming and may prefer to go for a walk in the country rather than to a busy cafe in town. Try to accept that someone may inadvertently say the wrong thing, something “socially unacceptable”, but embrace that they are being honest and open and telling you how they really see the world. Try and accept that, sometimes, the world is scary and overwhelming and we all need to deal with it in our own way. And if you don’t understand, then say so.
Awareness, understanding and acceptance. Not just for a week - always.
To find out more about autism, you can visit the National Autistic Society.