Hi, my name is Robyn Steward. I am an ambassador for the National Autistic Society, an autism consultant, and I am autistic.
A survey by CRAE (Centre for Research and Autism Education) and the National Autistic Society found people preferred this term. But of course not everyone does. It is impossible to find language that everyone is happy with, so I went with autistic in the hope it would offend the least amount of people.
1. “You don’t look autistic”
Autism means your brain works differently, and because you can’t see a person’s brain on the outside of their body, it might not be immediately obvious that someone is autistic. This is why autism is known as a ‘hidden’ disability.
It is really important to know that every autistic person is different. You need to ask the individual what they would like you to understand about their experience as an autistic person, and their needs. Some autistic people do not speak but communicate via text/writing, apps or sign. Others need people to help them communicate so be sure to communicate in the best way for that person.
Some good communication apps are TippyTalk and Grace App .
2. “You don’t act autistic”
There is no particular way that autistic people behave, as everyone is different. Many autistic people, like me put, a lot of effort into fitting into a neurotypical (non-autistic) world, which at times can be really overwhelming. Many autistic people get too much information from senses and may struggle to filter out the sounds and lights around them. Autistic people can also find it hard to make sense of facial expressions and body language, and at times it can all flood in. Like the National Autistic Society’s campaign title, autistic people can get ‘Too Much Information’!
Sometimes this might mean a person has a ‘meltdown’. This might be mistaken as a tantrum but is not done for attention, or for a person to get their own way – it is simply when a person is overwhelmed. Shutdowns can have the same cause but are when a person becomes unresponsive or withdraws (it’s important to check that this is not an epileptic absence).
It can help to ask the autistic person what helps them in stressful or overwhelming situations and what those situations are, as each person will be different. The National Autistic Society produced an excellent film as part of their TMI campaign, which shows what having a meltdown can be like:
3. “What’s your special ability?”
Sometimes when people think of autism they think of the film Rain Man. But this is misleading – the lead character, Raymond (Rain Man), was actually based on three real people, only one of whom was autistic and had savant syndrome.
Savant syndrome is what gave Rain Man his amazing memory, but it’s thought to only affect around 10% of autistic people, with the most common forms involving maths, artistic or even musical abilities.
Remember, the autism spectrum is very wide and includes people with learning disabilities (intellectual disabilities), as well as people who find it difficult to articulate themselves. These people often have a harder time having their experiences represented in media and literature, so whilst books of life stories can be helpful for some they don’t reflect everybody.
For the full story about Rain Man, have a look at Neurotribes by Steve Silberman.
4. “But you’re a girl…?”
For a long time autism was seen as largely a male condition. But over the last few years we’ve seen more and more women getting diagnosed as adults, and research is now starting to investigate female experiences of autism.
While autism is still more common in men and boys, the split is not yet officially known as studies have found ratios ranging anything from 2:1 to 16:1.
Some females (everyone is different though) appear more able to camouflage, copy and mimic non-autistic people and mask their difficulties when compared to many males on the spectrum.
The needs of those who are using masking techniques must be considered because this could make them more vulnerable to other health problems due to the stress and exhaustion of pretending to be like others. For example, women and girls may sometimes go on to develop conditions like anxiety, eating disorders and depression.
It’s also worth noting many autistic people identify as Transgender and non-binary.
If you are a female on the autism spectrum, you may find Ultraviolet Voicespublished by Autism West Midlands interesting.
5. “You can’t work, right?”
This is a huge and damaging misconception.
Not all autistic people are able to work, but many are and have a huge contribution to make to employers. Everyone is unique but autistic people tend to think a bit differently which can bring a useful perspective to the workplace, and they can have other skills like determination and attention to detail. This is certainly true for me – I’m self-employed as an autism consultant and author. The work is quite varied but often involves travelling to different organisations, schools and conferences to give talks about autism.
Not all autistic people are able to work, but many are and have a huge contribution to make to employers
Some autistic people struggle with work but this is often because of a lack of support and awareness of autism in the workplace, or trouble finding the right role. Most employers can understand the concepts of ramps and lifts for people with physical disabilities but have a harder time understanding the hidden needs of autistic people and the adjustments they may need in work. Often small things like writing instructions down, rather than giving them verbally, or giving them the option to take a short break somewhere quiet if they’re feeling overwhelmed can make a massive impact.
The National Autistic Society is launching a new employment campaign on Thursday 27 October to try to raise awareness of the skills and potential of autistic people, as well as encouraging employers (and the Government) to help close the autism employment gap. Look out for their new report, film, and advice on their website.