Autism seems to be something of a buzzword lately; the go-to phrase for a person who seems a little 'out there' or 'quirky'. How often have you heard someone say 'Oh yeah, she's just a little autistic' or 'He'd rather be on his own: he's on the spectrum'? If you're a human being who moves through any kind of social circle, you're probably exposed to these sorts of comments regularly, you may even use them yourself.
Here's the thing though: autism is not an adjective to describe someone cute or quirky. Autism is a neurological condition that effects approximately 1 in 70 Australians, and one which is incredibly misunderstood and stigmatised in the community.
In my work as an early childhood educator, I have had the privilege of working with many autistic children at all ranges of the spectrum. Like every other child (and person) in the world they had their own likes and dislikes, unique traits and individual personalities, being on the autism spectrum didn't define who they were. However, because their neurological make up was outside what is considered 'neurotypical', their reactions to many situations could seem exuberant.
For instance, one child I worked with would jump up and down and scream whenever the food trolley was brought into the room. This was a reaction to knowing their hunger was about to be sated, the same way another person might have gone 'Yum, lunch is here'. The emotion was the same, the knowledge of what the food trolley represented was the same, but one child's reaction would be considered appropriate and the other child's not, however the autistic child was not being (as they were something accused of) deliberately loud or disruptive. Their brain had received information from their stomach that they were hungry, then came information from their eyes and nose that the food trolley had arrived, so their brain processed that information and reacted to it, exactly the same as your brain does. A good description I heard once from an Occupational Therapist was that an autistic brain was more sensitive to stimuli and (just like when you are feeling sensitive) it was prone to 'over-reacting'.
Of course, this is merely one example. Autism is a complex and many-faceted thing and the spectrum is broad; if you've met one person on the spectrum, then you've met one person on the spectrum. In a very board and general sense, however, a person with autism will experience the world at an increased level to those without autism. This can be both blessing and curse for the individual; for instance, many of those on the spectrum have all encompassing interests and passions (sometimes disparagingly called 'obsessions' by those around them) and this increased focus and depth of experience allows them to explore and self-motivate at a level most of us can only dream of. However if there is an unpleasant smell or uncomfortable sensation that may be only mildly annoying to some, it can be utterly unbearable to someone on the spectrum as they experience the discomfort at a much greater level and those behaviours that are often labelled 'acting out' are usually attempts to ease the discomfort they are experiencing.
Society (as usual) seems to think differently. When someone not on the spectrum has a quirk, expresses a deep interest in a particular subject, or is a little shy in social situations then those around them might throw 'autism' out as a sweet adjective to describe them. When someone who is on the spectrum experiences an event such as a sensory meltdown or reacts to a situation in a way deemed 'socially inappropriate', people around they say 'autism' as an insult or with deeply negative connotations.
What the actual fuck?!
A neurotypical, non-spectrum individual's unique personality gets described as a neurological condition that everyone thinks is 'cute', but the lived experiences of a person with that very condition are dismissed and criticised? Please tell me I'm not the only one seeing red flags here!
You don't have to like me. I'm not a Facebook post.
Me With No Apologies.