What I’ve come to realise this year is even those of us on the spectrum can have preconceptions or narrow views about autism. It is precisely those preconceptions that prevent many of us from becoming diagnosed and prevent those not on the spectrum from being more aware and more considerate.
If you’re looking for the trainspotter with no empathy and a funny walk, who doesn’t understand sarcasm or fashion or popular music, and can’t ever make any changes in his life, then you’re missing most of us. If you’re looking for someone with no friends and who kicks, bites and screams, and who can never fit into society then you’re still missing most of us. These traits exist but they are not part of everyday life for everyone with autism and Asperger’s.
I thought my sense of humour, my understanding of others, my love of sarcasm and of new things; my interest in what’s happening in the world, the way I can change my routines, the way I have no fixed narrow interest, the way I can have a proper to-and-fro conversation, and an empathy for others so big it is literally physical, all meant I couldn’t have an autistic spectrum condition. (Let’s not call it a “disorder”, please: many of us feel very much in order.) And I didn’t know that women with Asperger’s can be so very different from men with Asperger’s they can seem to have a completely different condition on the surface. And I’d read about autism on a psychology course and even written a short children’s story for an autism charity, completely unaware of my own condition!
By the way, recent studies have shown the no empathy stuff is mostly bullshit. Ask us.
In order to know autism you don’t just have to have it yourself. In fact, many people without autism can understand it very well by studying and working with autism. To understand autism, you have to know people with autism: preferably male and female, adults and children, those suffering severely from their traits and those with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s. There is no one defining trait, no specific behaviour. You have to read about autism, let the people with autism tell you how they feel, and be ready to be proved wrong and have your preconceptions turned on their head. And, above all that, always remember you cannot presume to know and understand the mind of another person.
Anxiety and social anxiety are very common problems in autism but you’ll still find many autistic people going to work every day. Tiredness and the need for quiet are common traits in autism but you’ll still find many autistic people living in a noisy household and getting up early every day. I struggle terribly in the morning and take a very long time to surface but you can find many autistic people rising at dawn so they can enjoy the undistracted peace of early mornings.
Inside each and every autistic person is an individual set of likes, dislikes and opinions, the same as everyone else. Some of us present with the more recognised stereotypical physical signs you’re looking for, but many of us won’t. But what I do believe we do have in common (correct me if I’m wrong) is a regular sense of being overwhelmed and frustrated in a world dominated by neuro-typical people – and if you want to know why and what can make us feel better, don’t assume. Ask us.
My own knowledge of autism is still far from vast. I have mainly read about my own condition and others with Asperger’s/high-functioning autism – those who have good communication skills, but just knowing my knowledge is limited is part of staying open-minded and being ready for more and further understanding.
N.B. There’s nothing wrong with liking trains. I think because many of us are so disappointed by human error and distressed by the unreliability of living things, there can be something comforting about the predictability of machines.