Written by: Carissa Aresta, AAC
The fact that Autism Spectrum Disorder exists as a spectrum means all people can place themselves somewhere on this spectrum. Indeed, the characteristics that make up autism are part of how neurotypical people (people who are not on the autism spectrum) experience the world as well. I find this to be something that allows us to more deeply empathize and understand the challenges that our friends, family members, and clients with autism face. Autism is characterized by significant impairment in 3 areas: communication, social interaction, and interests/behaviors. Let’s take a look at how neurotypical people can expand our understanding to better support those living with autism. Throughout this post, I will refer to people with autism in a variety of ways. Some individuals with autism prefer to be called “autistic” while others may prefer to be referred to as “a person on the autism spectrum”. When you’re not sure how someone would like to be referred as, just ask! If they are nonverbal you can ask their family or caretakers.
Communication – Individuals with autism experience issues with verbal and nonverbal communication. Some people with autism can speak verbally yet have trouble expressing needs and feelings, while some are nonverbal. Some may use technology, pictures, or sign language to help them communicate. Where do you place yourself on this spectrum? Do you have trouble expressing your needs and feelings at times? Do you have a hard time figuring out the words to say? I know I do! Sometimes it takes me a while to choose which words to use to express my feelings. Sometimes it feels like hard work to express my needs and wants in a way that others can understand. While my problems with communication are not clinically significant, meaning they do not impair my ability to function in daily life, I can utilize the knowledge of how it feels when I have trouble expressing myself to empathize with children/youth on the spectrum.
Social interaction – People on the spectrum have trouble with social interaction. Some may avoid eye contact and not pick up on social cues. There is a common misconception that people with autism prefer to be alone; actually, many people with autism want to be social but lack the skills to do so. Do you ever have trouble making eye contact or feel inept in social situations? I do! Sometimes it feels strangely intimate to make eye contact with strangers, such as when I’m walking down the street or checking out at the grocery store. Have you ever missed a social cue such as sarcasm? Hopefully, one can see how all individuals deal with these issues. People with autism simply deal with them more so and are impacted on a daily basis by them.
Interests and behavior – The interests and behavior of people with autism are incredibly diverse. However, they are characterized as repetitive, ritualistic, and/or restricted. I have met some children/youth with autism who were obsessively interested in memorizing freeway signs, and could tell me all of the signs on the freeway they pass on their way to get to school. One child I worked with was obsessed with taking pictures on his phone and received little pleasure from other activities. Some individuals with autism have stereotyped behaviors, or behaviors that are repetitive and non-goal directed such as hand flapping or body rocking. Some people with autism have a very hard time with change and have daily rituals that they must follow in order to feel safe and OK. What are your repetitive behaviors? I bite my lip constantly for no reason. Have you ever been obsessed with something? I’ve lost myself down a hole of a specific interest many times, such as binging on my favorite podcast for hours and hours. Change can be challenging for everyone as well, and daily rituals may help us feel comfortable and normal. If someone took my daily ritual of drinking coffee every morning away from me, it would be very upsetting.
It is not my intention to make light of this disorder. For some, autism is debilitating and will prevent them from having a job or being able to provide basic care for themselves. Others are less impacted and will lead lives that closely resemble neurotypical people. People with autism are as unique as their neurotypcial peers; they have a variety of strengths, a myriad of challenges, and come from all different backgrounds. All of them deserve our respect and empathy and to feel included. I hope that I have shown that the issues people with autism struggle with are not so different after all.