What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, that affects how people communicate, process information and interact with the world. Approximately 1 in 100 people are autistic, although there are debates about this accuracy of this figure, for example the accessibility of accurate assessments. Being autistic affects people differently, but there are some key features that are experienced by most autistic people:
- Communication: Autistic people are often more direct, literal and specific with their language and communication. They tend to find using and understanding non-verbal communication more difficult, e.g. tone of voice, body language and facial expression. Some autistic people also struggle with verbal communication, for example not being able to speak, but others have great language skills. Other differences linked to language can be, taking longer to process what is being said, preferring written and visual communication, repeating words or phrases (echolalia).
- Social interaction: The stereotype that autistic people don’t want relationships is a myth. Most autistic people value relationships and social interaction, however they tend to find it difficult to pick up on the unspoken social rules that the majority non-autistic population use without thinking. Autistic people can find it hard to recognise other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions, what is expected on them within a situation or relationship, unless this is clearly explained. Relating to other people can therefore become stressful and overwhelming, meaning that autistic people seek time alone to recover.
- Repetitive behaviour: The mainly non-autistic world is pretty chaotic. Loads of unspoken rules, constant changes, multiple sensory stimulation. Many autistic people find routine, repetitive behaviour, movements or speech calming or exciting, and this can be a really helpful way of coping. For example, eating a particular foods, or getting dress in a very specific way. Repetitive behaviour can also include hand flapping, rocking and other movements which are generally called “stimming”. There is a great video below to explain this. Change to routines can be very stressful, although what time of change and how stressful it is varies a lot from person to person.
- Sensory differences: Many autistic people also have difference in how they experience sensations. For example, they may be more or less sensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, and light than non-autistic people. Autistic people may also have differences in sensing their body, movements, pain, hunger. This effects people in a whole variety of ways, including finding workplaces, public transport overwhelming, or co-ordinating movement.
- Interests and Hobbies. Many autistic people are able to become highly focused on certain interest, activities, topics. This can mean they become expert in this specialist area, or just a huge fan. Interests vary widely, novels, animals, music, anything! However, not all autistic people have specific interests.
- Meltdown and Shutdowns: Managing in an unpredictable, sensorily intense world can be very overwhelming for autistic people. When some autistic individuals great very stressed they experience “meltdowns”; this might include shouting, hurting themselves, intense physical sensations. Other people might experience “shutdowns”, which might include needing to be alone, struggling to speak or move. Some autistic people have meltdowns and shutdowns, some don’t experience either. It is really important that autistic people are treated with care and understanding during these periods, as they are experiencing great distress.
For more information about what being autistic is link see the videos of autistic bloggers below:
Tom on autism https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsVZ6vSDXpU
Sam on autistic girls and women https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixRSb00BplM
Dan on stimming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRJ3ZIwtNLs&feature=emb_title
Dan on dyslexia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBYunojAsW8&feature=emb_title
Taryam on ADHD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONuKw5QoJHk
What is neurodiversity?
The term neurodiversity refers to the range of variation in individual brain function (i.e. sociability, learning, attention, mood and other mental functions) as a part of normal difference in the human population. Neurodiversity is most often linked to autism spectrum disorders, and commonly co-occuring neurodevelopment disorders such as ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia, but has also been used to refer to other conditions such as bi-polar and schizophrenia.
Neurotypical, denotes the most “typical/common” style of cognitive functioning within the population. In the same way that humans vary in size and eye colour, Neurodiversity refers to variation in brain functioning.
The neurodiversity movement also argues for the rights, recognition, and acceptance for neurodiverse individuals. The term neurodiversity is now associated with the struggle for civil rights of all those with neurological or neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, developmental dyspraxia, dyslexia, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome.
What’s the right thing to say?!
Getting the right language and terminology can be tricky. There have been lots of changes to the terms used concerning autism. Initially doctors diagnosed people with infant schizophrenia, now the current diagnostic terminology is Autism Spectrum Disorder. More recently there have been various studies and surveys asking autistic people what they prefer. Generally, it is viewed that “identity-first” language is preferred; i.e. “autistic person”, in the same way that you would say someone is gay, Christian, non-binary. This highlights autism is part of the individuals identity, rather than an illness or disorder; for example “person with cancer”. This distinction is a way of highlighting that autism is not pathological, but rather a way of being in the world in the same way as other aspects of our identity. However, what is most important is respecting whatever terminology the individual themselves prefers; some people like to be called Aspie, others autistic, other neurodiverse. Respecting these individual choices is essential.
How can I specialise in autism?
In recent years there has been growing awareness about the number of autistic and neurodiverse people there are. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of resources, services, diagnostic pathways, meaning many children and adults end up struggling. If you work in the health care, social care or educational sector developing your knowledge of neurodiversity can be a really beneficial. Having a postgraduate qualification in autism or neurodiverse conditions equips you to specialise your professional skills and enhance your practice. The courses at NSPC provide a range of postgraduate qualifications, that vary in length, intensity and focus and all are online and part time, so you can study whilst you work. Many teachers, university lectures, psychotherapists, social care workers, nurses, and other professionals have found post graduate training has significantly developed their practice and confidence. This may help you towards applying for specialist roles (such as working in an autistic service) or as a private professional capacity (such as a counsellor or tutor specialising in neurodiversity). Professionals in recruitment, HR, computing and IT have also found our courses benefical, in particular how autistic and neurodiverse individuals can enhance their business