Destigmatising Autism Spectrum Disorder

As humans, it’s in our nature to fear the unknown, the unfamiliar, the different. If you go back to primitive times, that’s how we survived – by approaching anything we didn’t understand with caution. We no longer live in primitive times now, but that tendency has carried through and often, it can lead to some less-than-exemplary social behaviour when encountering other people who look, act or think differently.

That social behaviour shows up in the form of stigmas. The dictionary definition of a stigma is ‘a mark of shame or discredit’ and in a social context, it’s attaching a negative label to a person due to something about them or their life that makes them different from others.

What is ‘normal’?

 Previously, neurotypical has been considered the norm. People with autism, who experience the world through a different lens and interact differently from neurotypical people, often suffer discrimination and judgement as a result of the stigma attached to being neurodivergent.

And because of this, in many cultures parents often avoid diagnosis so that their children and their family won’t be labelled. What this means for the child with autism is that they can’t receive the support they need to help them develop to their full potential.

With 1 in every 150 Australians affected by autism, it’s time to change the way we think about the condition. And if our natural tendency is to shy away from or stigmatise that which we don’t understand, we reckon the best way to kick the stigma surrounding autism is to increase awareness, understanding and acceptance of it.

Since it’s World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd, that’s exactly what we’re going to do here in the hope that with time, ‘normal’ can come to mean not neurotypical vs neurodivergent, but neurodiverse.

In this article, you will learn:

What is autism?
What causes autism?
What are the symptoms of autism?
What treatment is available for people with autism?
5 myths about autism
The upside of autism

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a life-long developmental condition that affects how people experience the world and interact with others. People with autism often have trouble with communication and social interactions and can be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory stimuli like sound, smell and touch. They can get easily overwhelmed in busy, noisy settings because they perceive things differently.

The keyword in autism spectrum disorder is ‘spectrum’. Every person with autism is unique and will lie somewhere on the spectrum from Level 1 high-functioning (previously referred to as Asperger’s) to Level 3, where the person needs significant support in their daily life.

What causes autism?

There is no one cause of autism or at least, the ultimate cause of autism has not yet been discovered. It appears to be hereditary in some cases, a possible result of complications in pregnancy in other cases, and research is also being done into the effects of environmental factors like pollution and toxins. The truth is we don’t actually have a conclusive answer yet.

What are the symptoms of autism?

  • Avoiding eye contact when speaking to someone (although listening to what’s being said)
  • Loss of language skills at any age or delayed speech or understanding of speech
  • Repetitive speech, movements or actions
  • Difficulty making and maintaining friendships and a preference to play alone
  • Comfort with patterns and routines and distress when these are changed or interrupted
  • Strong reactions to sensory stimuli like sounds, touch or flashing lights
  • Fixations on certain topics to the point of obsession
  • The ability to focus for long periods of time
  • A lack of understanding of gestures like pointing, nodding, head shaking, etc.
  • Difficulty understanding sarcasm or figurative language like metaphors and a tendency to be very literal
  • Discomfort with touch sensations like scratchy clothes or tags

What treatment is available for people with autism?

Usually, a combination of behavioural therapy, education, speech pathology and occupational therapy are involved in the treatment of ASD.

5 myths about autism

Myth 1: Autism is caused by bad parenting/vaccinations/eating certain foods.

This is simply not true. A rather dubious 1998 study attempted to draw a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and was completely debunked by subsequent studies. The doctor responsible for the paper lost his medical license and the journal that published it retracted the article. Bad parenting and food are also not responsible for a child developing autism.

Myth 2: More and more people are getting autism these days.

This is not necessarily true, but the increase in numbers is rather a result of us knowing about more cases because we have a better understanding of ASD and methods to diagnose it. It’s very possible there were just as many people with ASD 100 years ago, but they were never diagnosed.

Myth 3: People with ASD don’t have emotions and don’t like to socialise.

This is completely inaccurate. People with ASD have the same or in some cases, stronger, emotions as others, and they want to have social interactions just like anyone else. They just express themselves and interact in a different way.

Myth 4: All people with autism are savants.

Some people with ASD (about 10%) have a much higher than average intelligence and skills and can be called savants or ‘exceptional’.

Myth 5: People with ASD have a mental and/or intellectual disability.

It is true that people with autism have higher rates of mental illness and some (not all) do have an intellectual disability, but autism itself is not an intellectual disability. It is a developmental condition.

The up-side of autism

Now that we’ve dispelled some confusion and stereotypes, let’s take a look at the positives and strengths of people with autism. These characteristics are a direct result of their unique perspectives caused by their condition.

A person with autism will give you an honest opinion.
They are usually very literal in their speech and thought, so if you want the truth, you can rely on them to tell you straight.

A person with autism will notice small details that others won’t.

They are quick to notice changes in patterns and behaviour that neurotypical people often miss, and they have a keen eye for detail.

A person with autism is less likely to be prejudiced or judgmental.

They tend not to judge people based on status or material possessions, but rather accept people for who they are.

A person with autism often has an unshakeable sense of right and wrong.

If they’re taught good morals and values, they will hold these as law and will not let others sway their integrity.

A person with autism is reliable and dependable.

This goes back to their sense of integrity and love of routine. If they say they are going to do something at a certain time, they will almost always show up on time and do it.

Takeaway

As Dr Temple Grandin, the famous scientist and animal behaviourist who also has autism notes, people with ‘differently-abled’ brains are just that: ‘different, not less’. So, let’s work to encourage awareness of ASD and make neurodiversity the new normal.

If you or a family member has ASD, we have fantastic Day Programs to learn new skills, meet new people or get out and about in the community.

And for a wonderful resource and site for showcasing art by people on the spectrum, we’ve found this website that we think is fantastic.

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