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Autism: Where to Start

This is for the people who know nothing about Autism and need a place to start, whether you’re Autistic yourself or you know someone who is.

Neurotypes and Disabilities

Autism is categorized as a developmental disability. You can read a full breakdown of this here:

I like to think of Autism more as a neurotype. My brain is wired differently than is considered “typical,” but ultimately I am only disabled within the context of the society and culture I live in.

This does not negate my disability. I am still disabled. But it is not something I can change about myself.

If Autism is a neurotype, it means it affects everything about who I am. My brain is wired in a certain way. Autism as a disability makes it seem like it is only a piece of who I am and that it can be changed or altered. In truth, it can only be accommodated.

What People Get Wrong and How to Get it Right

The Usual Eye-Rolling Comments

  • “But you don’t look Autistic.”

  • “Well, we’re all just a little bit Autistic, right?”

  • “You’re nothing like my [insert other Autistic person here].”

Autism has no “look.” Anyone can be Autistic no matter their sex, gender, ethnicity, age, or otherwise.

No, we are not all just a little bit Autistic. Autism is a neurotype and disability. Either your brain is wired differently than “typical” and you are actively disabled in society, or you’re not.

We are not all alike. I am a biracial Autistic woman that wasn’t diagnosed until I was 22 years old. Of course I’m not going to be like your five year old nephew who’s also on the Spectrum. We are as unique as any other individual.

Instead of saying these things, try this.

“Thank you for telling me, what can I do to help accommodate you/what do you need me to know?”

Any version of this will go a long way in the long term. When someone trusts you enough to tell you they are Autistic, don’t downplay it. Recognize their vulnerability and show that you are on their side. Meet them halfway and ask how you can help them be more comfortable and accommodated around you.

Autistic Children Grow up to be Autistic Adults

Despite not being diagnosed until later in life, I know what it’s like to be underestimated and “talked down to,” as so many Autistic’s are when revealing they are on Autistic.

I’ve heard stories of adult Autistics suddenly being spoken to like children. It’s infantilizing, ignorant, and downright uncomfortable.

I experience this because I am very petite. I still get mistaken for a young teenager on a regular basis. It’s something I’ve had to deal with my whole life, no matter my age, and it can be frustrating.

I can do in-depth about this experience here:

Autistic children grow up to be Autistic adults. We do not disappear from existence or stop being Autistic when we turn eighteen. So please, speak to us as you would anyone else. Even those with communication difficulties/differences don’t need to be spoken to in a “baby” voice.

Sensory Needs

One of the more common Autistic traits, though it is seldom spoken of, are sensory sensitivities. Autistics are more sensitive to sensory input and stimuli. Here are some general rules to help you navigate and accommodate these sensory sensitivities.

No touching. Unless you are given explicit consent, many Autistics do not like being touched. I, for example, don’t like light touch, meaning a tap on the shoulder or a hand on my back. I don’t mind hugs, but I would rather be asked and allowed to say no if I want to when it comes to giving someone a hug.

No shouting or loud/sudden noises. Noise is another common sensitivity and Autistics can accommodate this with earplugs or headphones. However, sometimes, even that isn’t enough because it’s not only uncomfortable, but can physically hurt.

Avoid crowded spaces. For the most part, getting together with your Autistic friend in a crowded space is going to be difficult. Either it won’t happen at all or they can only tolerate that environment for a few hours.

Read more on sensory sensitivities here:

Talk to Us

In line with the above, communicating with Autistics is going to look different than it does with others. This is due to communication differences, sensory sensitivities, the fact that our brains are wired completely differently, etc.

Here are three things to keep in mind.

Don’t force eye contact. Eye contact is difficult for Autistics. It is a very intimate and vulnerable thing to us. I know it might feel like we’re not paying attention, but in fact it is helping us pay better attention. When I don’t have to worry about making eye contact I can hear and comprehend what the other person is saying better and in turn I can think more clearly and respond more thoroughly.

Let us stim. Similar to not making eye contact, stimming helps us focus by regulating our nervous system. I’ll often fidget with a scrunchie while talking to someone because I feel nervous or overwhelmed and I need to do something, externally, to regulate that.

I wrote a post recently on stimming that you can read here:

Be patient. Patience is a virtue. Due to our communication differences I find we, as Autistics, often have more questions when conversing, we might need more clarification than someone else, and we’ll speak rather directly. We are also prone to info-dumping when a special interest is brought up.

Please understand that we are never coming from a place of ill intent. We are merely trying to make sure we’re all on the same page, but for us that can look like “over-explaining,” and can come across as rude.

For those of us Autistics that are non-verbal: AAC boards, typed, written, or other forms of communication are still valid forms of communication.

Final Thoughts

I can’t remember where I read it now, but if we could all work from a place of, “everyone is doing the best they can,” the world might be a better place. If we could all respect each other’s differences and be patient with those differences because “they are doing the best they can, just like I am,” interacting with others would be a lot more pleasant.

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