This week is World Autism Awareness Week.
The National Autism Society says “We’ve come a long way in the past 60 years, and today almost everyone has heard of autism. But far too few people understand what it’s actually like… both the strengths you can have and how hard life can be at times”. (Source: www.autism.org).
Autism Awareness Week sets out to make people more aware of Autism, to remove barriers, as well as avoiding harmful misconceptions and stereotypes. In this blog, our aim is to support this intention and to increase knowledge and understanding, helping us all to be more inclusive in our attitudes and behaviours. By being more aware, we can consider how we might make our schools, workplaces, social and sporting activities, more neurodivergent friendly. In so doing, there is opportunity for those who are neurodivergent to build on their strengths and be able to cope more with the challenges of a mainly neurotypical world.
The effect of parent-lobbying, charities, media coverage and the de-stigmatisation of the label of Autism, due to work by neurodiversity movement, has led to increased recognition and diagnosis. As a result “(T)he number of people diagnosed has jumped by 787 per cent in the past two decades.” (Study led by Ginny Russell, University of Exeter) University of Exeter Research
Autism, we now know, is understood to exist on a spectrum. This means that an Autistic person may share certain common traits but that there are also many differences. Where Aspergers was previously considered its own diagnosis, it is now recognised as part of the Autism spectrum and not a separate condition – both Autism (Classic Autism) and Aspergers (high functioning) are recognised. The media often highlights those who have genius traits, such as those who excel in Maths, Art or Music. But this is highlighting one end of the spectrum. Not all Autistic people will be a Maths genius just like not all Maths geniuses are Autistic.
A young Autistic person may describe themselves as being Neurodivergent – this term is used to describe people whose brain differences affect how their brain works. Those with neurodivergent brains have different strengths and challenges when compared to the brains of those who may be referred to as neurotypical. According to ADHD Aware, up to 15% of the population are thought to be neurodiverse.
Autism can be thought of as being a different operating system – if we consider the metaphor of the operating systems of Apple and Android – we find that there are things that both Apple and Android can do but the route to the desired outcome has different programming language and sometimes require some different to additional processing to allow them to communicate clearly.
Autistic people will have different interests, strengths and experiences and some of the ways they may experience life differently are:
Socialising and Communication Some may find it difficult to interpret and understand body language and facial expressions when communicating with others. Some may find it difficult or dislike direct eye contact. Some may not understand the nuances of jokes and humour, sarcasm or particular phrases. Some may be very direct in their communication which may be misunderstood by others.
Interpreting and Demonstrating Emotions Some may demonstrate emotions in a different way to neurotypical people – this can make it more challenging for them to recognise emotions in others or to clearly communicate their own emotions. Some may feel emotions intensely which can contribute to a feeling of overwhelm or a more extreme reaction than may be expected. Some may internalise their emotions. The interpretation can be difficult both ways for both the neurodivergent and the neurotypical (perhaps an example of the two different operating processes).
Behaviours and Routines Some may find it difficult to understand and interpret other’s feelings and actions and may find it difficult to predict what may happen next. This can make it more difficult to cope in new, changing or unfamiliar environments. For this reason, some autistic people may prefer a more predictable routine and dislike change and unexpected outcomes. Some may also have hyper fixation – this is a strong interest in a particular topic. Some may demonstrate stimming (self-stimulating) behaviours which can be calming and enjoyable (if they are don’t feel that these have to repressed or masked). Stimming behaviours may include repetitive sounds or movements. Some may feel overwhelmed by certain stimuli, such as loud or crowded events or can be comforted by particular textures.
Autistic children (and adults) are more likely to experience bullying and abuse. They may spend some (or all) of their days masking behaviours to feel like they can fit in, particularly if they have previously felt that this is required in a given situation. Masking can be extremely tiring and can also add additional stress and worry to their stress bucket, increasing anxiety. This can in turn lead to burnout where it then can feel extremely difficult to return to their everyday life without having to put additional measures in place and can lead to more chronic exhaustion and avoidance of the more difficult and over stimulating environments.
- Autism does not define how a person looks. Autism is a “hidden disability.”
- An autistic person may be male, female or non-binary, and of any culture.
- Autistic people are both introverts (preferring time alone to recharge) and extroverts (recharging their energy by time with others). However, they may need time alone, particularly if they have been in a more challenging environment, to rest and recharge.
- Autistic people may show emotions and empathy differently but this does not mean that they don’t experience these emotions.
For an autistic person the world can be an unpredictable and confusing place – the world is generally organised and constructed for the majority (neurotypical) and not for the 1 in 10 neurodivergent. By increasing our knowledge and awareness we can show greater understanding and support.
Here are some ways that we can reframe our actions and reactions which would help to create a more neurodivergent friendly environment:
- Accept and create space for when they are taking time-out – support opportunities for them to take control of their environment and to decrease risk of overwhelm.
- Whether we are neurodivergent or neurotypical we are all different and unique, with our own strengths and our own challenges – we learn from each other and recognise needs by being open, listening and responding appropriately and supportively.
- Support and encourage routines where they are needed. Be aware of any need for consistency to support a more stable environment.
- Remember that Autism is a spectrum – some may be able to advocate for themselves and ask for what they need but others may need more support and may be at greater risk of discrimination and bullying. If you see it, say it – advocate and offer support. You can speak out for them and, when appropriate, seek additional support.
Remember that the world can be a confusing and challenging place and although we are seeing improvements in knowledge, understanding and support for autistic people, they may still at times feel like they have no voice.
Autism, Neuroscience and the way we work
Many of the Youth Fairies work one to one with Neurodivergent children. We work in a way that supports the young person in advocating for themselves – we believe that they (as well as neurotypical children) are able to find the right solutions that work for them.
We adjust our approach to fit the need of each child, supporting an understanding of how the brain works, the way anxiety is created and ways that we can help to empty the stress bucket – in so doing children can reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
As we work in a Solution Focused way, we do not focus on understanding why a problem exists but on how things can be better. We look to support small (sometimes micro) steps of change towards their preferred future. For further information on ways to support your child and to help them to empty their stress bucket you can read our blog on Stress Awareness.
Please contact your local Fairy here https://www.theyouthfairy.com/fairies/ if you would like to discuss how we may support your child – we offer a free initial consultation.
The following websites provide support and further information.
National Autistic Society https://www.autism.org.uk/
Jigsaw Plus (inspired by Autism) https://jigsawplus.co.uk/world-autism-awareness/
Additional sources: https://kidshelpline.com.au/teens/issues/understanding-autism