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Autism

It’s time to tackle myths about autism—nos. 1-5

It’s often said:

“When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person”

This means, every autistic person is different. Yet, there are many misconceptions about what it means to be autistic. People make assumptions about what an autistic person should look like and how they behave. Unfortunately, this leads to those of us who do not fit that narrow view face stigma and discrimination.

I dispelled a major myth about autism in the blog Aren’t We All On The Autism Spectrum?—spoiler, the answer is “no”!

Myth no. 1—Autistic people can’t make eye contact

Close up of eye

In many countries around the world, eye contact is an important part of social interactions. It shows you’re listening and paying attention.

Just as neurotypical people vary, so do autistic people.

Some autistic people are comfortable with eye contact. Others may be uncomfortable with eye contact but will have been told/taught that eye contact is polite/expected. Some autistic people will mask their discomfort and give eye contact while others will compromise (which may include looking at someone’s nose, eye brows or mouth or keep eye contact to the minimum viable for “politeness”).

An autistic person may find it easier to concentrate on listening to someone if they’re not giving eye contact. The stereotypical image of an autistic person looking at someone out of the corner of their eye may be accurate for some people but others may be able to give “socially acceptable” eye contact.

I can give eye contact while listening but find it hard (almost painful) to give eye contact while talking). We’re all different.

Food for thought—in some countries (for example Japan), eye contact is considered aggressive and disrespectful.

Myth no. 2—You can just tell if someone has autism

The way someone stands, holds themselves, walks or how they behave may be indicative of autism however this isn’t the case for all autistic people. The stigma related to visual autistic behaviour leads many people to mask, that is, it feels so essential not to “look” autistic the decision to hide who they are can be unconscious.

Food for thought—if you see someone having a melt down, what’s your reaction? A while ago I was out with my husband for a walk, a young lad appeared to be having a meltdown on the path. My husband and I stepped out onto the road to ensure we didn’t cause more upset—his mum looked terribly embarrassed and apologised. I wanted to let her know she didn’t need to apologise, it was the least we could do. I wondered if we could have helped in any other way but autistic people don’t usually respond well to strangers. I wanted to communicated to the mother that I felt for her and her son. What would you have done? Would you have assumed the lad was being naughty? Would you have assumed it was a tantrum? (Meltdowns and tantrums are different) Would you have thought badly of the mother not being able to control her child and making you walk in the road? Or would you have felt empathy for them?

Myth no. 3—Savant capabilities go hand-in-hand with autism

Up to 28% autistic people also have savant skills, that is, they express skills or abilities well above average within a specialist area, for example, mathematics, memory or language. 72% have strengths and weaknesses along with the rest of the population!

Also, about 1% of the general population express savant skills. This shows you do not need to be autistic to be a savant, nor are all autistic people savants.

Myth no. 4—Autism is a childhood condition you can grow out of

You cannot develop or grow out of autism. It is a life long neurological condition, you’re born with it, you die with it.

Myth no. 5—Autistic people are anti-social

3 friends walking together

Being autistic includes difficulties with social functioning. This doesn’t mean autistic people don’t or can’t socialise, it means there can be barriers to it coming naturally or easily. Some autistic people, just like some neurotypical people love socialising, while others don’t like it, find it difficult or find it draining. A typical characteristic may involve an autistic person talking very intently about a particular interest they have. This may mean a social interaction with someone who’s not interested may be one sided—an autistic person may not realise the other person isn’t interested. But take this same interaction but it’s between 2 people who’re interested in the same thing and it can be a very passionate, cordial interaction.

Autistic people can also struggle with social norms, the unwritten cultural niceties, and may be considered rude. For example, they may be unaware of someone behind them when walking through a door and don’t realise it’s considered polite to wait, holding the door, for the person behind you. But don’t we all find this one a bit awkward—you look behind and see there’s someone coming but they’re quite a way away—how far away do they need to be when it’s not considered rude let the door go?! 10 seconds? 20 seconds? 30 seconds?

An autistic person might not realise it’s rude to say “I’m bored” when someone’s detailing their latest business trip. But I say “honesty is always a good policy”—deliberately embarrassing someone isn’t ok but surely, expressing an emotion is just sharing a piece of information?! It’s up to the other person what they do with it?

Food for thought—cultural norms vary from country to country. In some countries it’s rude to leave food on your plate if someone’s cooked for you, in other cultures, if you eat all your food, you’re given more until you leave food on your plate. In some cultures it’s considered normal to hide your emotions while others expect overt expressions of emotion. If we considered autistic people are a culture of their own, the norm would be to just be who you are unapologetically. Expecting autistic people to mask and confirm to the norms of the culture they’re in causes mental health problems.

Watch this space for the next set of myths about autism!

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