In short, No!
So, this week, I decided I was going to write about something that is very personal to me, but I have very little personal experience with- confusing or what? But I guess that is what happens to people on the Autistic Spectrum- they don’t get things that Neural Typical (NT’s) say, do or infer, and this is where this weeks blog begins; in celebration of Autism Awareness Month.
Our journey into the Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is just beginning- I spent a long time last week on a training day, helping me to understand the complexities that ASD people and children experience. One of the main things I took from my training is that Autistic Spectrum Disorders really shouldn’t be called that- it’s a condition, not a disorder. It’s something you are living, not something that you dip in and out of, but for the sake of complexities and simplicity, I shall call it ASD, as this is what the condition is commonly known as.
Do you know someone with ASD? Would you even recognise someone with ASD? Do you even know what makes a person ASD? Approximately 700,000 people in the UK are living with ASD (that’s 1 in 100); so, the chances are you do know someone with ASD. The National Autistic Society describes Autism as;
“Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.” (NAS, 2015)
That might seem pretty broad to you, and perhaps you may think that ‘I know people like that; they’re just rude though’, well, this might not be the case. Perhaps they are living with a condition that is shrouded in myth and mystery. ASD is a Spectrum disorder, which means that everyone on the spectrum experiences their Autism in a different way; which can make it difficult to spot sometimes- there is no ‘template’ for what someone with ASD should be like, so it is really important that if ASD is suspected, it is assessed properly, by a professional. Note, this in itself can alienate people- setting you out from the crowd as ‘different’ because you have been given a ‘diagnosis’.
Some ASD people, as in every walk of life, can be comforted by a diagnosis, and some may feel trapped by their diagnosis. Supporting the ASD person can include helping the person come to terms with what is going on for them. Yes, you may be a little different, but that doesn’t make you any less special!
In fact, people with ASD often develop special interests of fascinations-, which can make them experts in their chosen area! This doesn’t mean that all people on the AS are geniuses at maths, science and art; but if that is their chosen area of interest, then this can really be a bonus. Our experience is that the person on ASD is fascinated by maths, science and literature. They don’t get a lot of the social meaning in the books they are reading, but that doesn’t stop their enjoyment of it! If anything, it has increased their hunger and thirst for books and knowledge- how can that possibly be a bad thing?
There is an organisation called Specialistern who specialise in finding ASD people work- in various different environments, but in particular I.T, as the qualities that ASD people have (enjoyment of repetition, attention to detail and structure) mean that ASD people excel in these types of jobs! A complete celebration of the nuances of difference; totally dispelling the myth that ASD people cannot work. Quite the contrary, thank you very much!
People on the ASD spectrum find it difficult to socialise and often do not get sarcasm, empathy and the individual gradations of language and communication; logic makes sense to ASD people, emotions not so much, so imagine an instance of a job interview, where an ASD person is asked to say ‘What would you do when x happens?’ How terrifying would that be- knowing that you do not have the emotional range to express or understand what you are expected to. Quite a few people on the ASD find it difficult to maintain eye contact, which can sometimes appear as being offhand, disinterested or rude. Now, go back to the job interview; a candidate finds it difficult to look you in the eye. Do you think it’s because they are rude and have no social skills, or does it cross your mind that they actually might have a reason for not doing that.
Now, in cases of working in Customer Service, then perhaps not being able to maintain eye contact would be an issue. But, if you are working in a lab or at your desk, programming away, then does it really matter that you can’t hold eye contact? Should it stop you from getting a job? What about equal opportunities? Aren’t they for everyone? And, at the end of the day, not everyone, NT or ASD, is cut out for Customer Service!
Growing up with ASD can be a challenge; as kids, us NT’s are used to hanging out with our mates, socialising and generally being young, free and single and enjoying every minute of it. But with ASD, it’s not as simple. It can be hard to make friends; how difficult is that for a child? To see other people playing and laughing around you, but not being able to do that yourself? Some ASD people learn social skills- it doesn’t mean they get them, it just means that they have worked out that if someone smiles at you, you smile back, and if someone is sad or upset, you don’t stare blankly, but you say I am sorry you are upset. For us NT’s, this is normal, we take it for granted. But people on the ASD do not find this ‘normal’- we are the exception to their rule, so why don’t they get us?
But then, what we have found is that a child with ASD can use their special interest as a fantastic communication skill- it’s a conversation opener and ice-breaker! This is turn can help to raise self-esteem and improve communication skills. So, that subject you’ve been focusing on for as long as you can remember? Well, it could very well be something that can calm you and relax you when talking about it, so please, don’t stop focusing on what makes you happy!
People with ASD, although have difficulty in social interaction; it is a myth that they cannot have successful, loving relationships. All relationships can be difficult, in some ways, but when you find the right person, well, love conquers all, doesn’t it? People with ASD do feel emotions, they feel them very intensely, and because of this, they can be very overwhelmed with their emotions and how to understand and deal with them. This doesn’t make them unable to maintain relationships, but I can imagine that relationships can be very hard work for ASD people.
I have worked with a few ASD clients, and have found working with them very rewarding- I hope they felt the same! Working in therapy with ASD clients is slightly different to working with NT clients- asking a ASD client to ‘describe how x makes them feel’ will not garner you with much information; asking them to explain ‘what that is like for you’ can fill the room with an abundance of experiences, all rich in the context of human caring, empathy and concern.
Something I learnt last week, was that ASD people very often find visual representations easier to use to express the words they want to communicate- for example, drawing a rainbow and each colour represents a different emotion. So, instead of having to try and explain sadness, the ASD client can show the colour blue- how much easier is that, than having to struggle with meanings that are difficult to express?
ASD is a hidden condition- you cannot see it, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Approximately 106,000 school age children in the UK have an ASD condition and support for those children and parents is paramount. A report by the National Autistic Society said that 63% of children with Autism had been bullied at school (Kathrine Bancroft, Amanda Batten, Sarah Lambert and Tom Madders, 2012). Isn’t that 63% too much? What is happening to tolerance of individual differences? What are we teaching our children about the diversities of life? Are they learning from our behaviour towards people who are different?
At the end of the day, we are all different, not matter what condition we do or do not have- this isn’t to trivialize the ASD experience- I am more asking that surely, in 2015, we can be accepting and tolerant of what we don’t understand? We can teach our children to be kind and patient and to understand that we are all different- be it size, shape, colour, gender, sexuality or even the way our minds work. After all, ASD people are tolerant of our differences, why can’t we be tolerant of theirs?
NAS (2012) The Way We Were, [Online], Available http://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/50th-birthday/survey-report.aspx [21 April 2015]
NAS (2015) Facts about Autism, 12 January, [Online], Available: http://www.autism.org.uk/About-autism/Autism-an-introduction/What-is-autism.aspx [22 April 2015].