What is an autism spectrum condition?
An autism spectrum condition is a developmental disorder that can affect a person’s daily life. It mainly involves difficulties with social communication, social imagination, and fixed or ‘obsessive’ routines, though it can also include sensory differences. Those who are on the spectrum often exhibit “special interests”.
It can include positive things such as:
- High empathy for the suffering of others, be they animals or humans
- Treating others on an equal basis and believing the best of them
- High sensitivity to others’ emotions
- A high level of knowledge about a single subject or a few narrow fields
- The proficient use of logic to reach conclusions about how the world works
- Excellent problem-solving skills
- Honesty, to be ourselves in any environment
- Stubborn personality, to stick to our instincts
Please show understanding to people with autism when they display difficulties with:
- Reading non-verbal signals or body language
- Reading facial expressions
- Interpreting things literally
- Being resistant to change
- Not showing a grasp of basic and complex unwritten social rules
- Inflexibility of thought and with incorporating the needs of others
- A change of environment, or where the rules or context is different
- Working or socialising with others
What an autism spectrum condition isn’t
An autism spectrum condition is not:
- A mental health condition, though many with autism may suffer mental health conditions as a result of their difficulties.
- About ‘looking normal’, whatever that means. Being able to talk, walk, and smile, for example, does not change the fact that people with autism spectrum conditions have what is called a hidden disability and therefore struggle to fit in and accomplish many things that society and most non-autistic people may take for granted.
- All about the level of eye contact given. Some tend to avoid eye contact. Others have learnt to look at other places on faces to get by.
Autism, Asperger Syndrome, and functioning
On the spectrum of severity, having Asperger Syndrome used to mean you did not exhibit language difficulties as a child and it hinted that you could be higher functioning, showing less severe difficulties. Then the American Medical Association decided to remove “Asperger Syndrome” from the diagnostic manual, and it was all labelled autism.
Alex James was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and for a long time he subscribed to that particular label because he believed it better reflected his condition.
Nowadays most people with autism would object to the suggestion that some of us are higher functioning and that some are, or appear, less high functioning, as this implies that people who appear to have mild autism do not have any difficulties. This assumption ironically makes it harder for those who appear to be coping well to receive genuine support and understanding for their difficulties and therefore for society to take them seriously, which they feel is unfair.
On the other hand, those who appear to have severe autism may be having a bad day, they may really be struggling at that particular moment, or they may be out of a comfortable environment where they can shine and be happy.
Where functioning is concerned, it’s best not to judge or assume without knowing the individual, as you wouldn’t with non-autistic people … it’s hoped.
What not to say to those on the autism spectrum?
Please don’t say:
We ‘suffer’ with autism. Many people with autism believe that our neurological brain’s wiring is different, but not inferior, to non-autistic neurotypical (normal) wiring. We feel it would be more accurate to say we have suffered from a society that has struggled to adequately meet our needs – and we still do suffer, though there are many sources of help that weren’t available in the past.
We have ‘mild autism’. How we appear on the outside, in the case of an invisible or hidden disability, should not matter because how we appear does not always provide an indication of how we’re struggling or what we’re struggling with. Many people on the spectrum have learnt to mask their condition to fit in and hide their difficulties despite struggling. Saying we have mild autism can sound like you’re saying autism isn’t a serious condition, which can be offensive and rude. Always ask if you’re unsure if somebody on the spectrum really is coping well.
‘It’s just a label.’ That’s fine if you don’t believe in labels, however, it may be worth noting that the diagnosis comes as a relief to many people on the autism spectrum as it provides a much-needed explanation for their difficulties and means they can get the support they need to live independent lives. Some people with autism may worry you’re negating the validity of their diagnosis by saying this.
‘It’s just an excuse’/I wish I had an excuse.’ Assuming autism is an excuse – maybe for feeling sorry for ourselves, getting support, or getting attention – is an offensive assumption to make that shows a lack of understanding either about autism as a condition or perhaps the individual. Please make sure you know the individual well before you jump to conclusions about their reasons for diagnosis and whether these reasons are valid. ‘I wish I had an excuse’ almost sounds like you don’t feel autism is a serious enough condition to warrant the label or support it deserves and it says something about your feelings on getting support as perks, which isn’t flattering. ‘Excuse’ isn’t the best word to use around people with autism who already have a hard time vocalising their difficulties.