Sunday, May 19Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Invisible disabilities: Autism

Helen Nicholls

What do I mean when I say a person is autistic? Well, according to the OED, autism is defined as “a      neurodevelopmental condition of variable severity with lifelong effects” and is characterized by “difficulties with social interaction and communication, and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour.” However, the way that autism is perceived in wider culture is often like that of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory (white, male, awkward and well… annoying).

Before I talk a little bit more about autism, it is important to explain what I mean by ‘neurotypical’. Being neurotypical means that the individual is not affected by a developmental disorder, such autism or dyslexia. Don’t worry if this is something you are unfamiliar with, because despite thinking I had a pretty good grasp on the word, even I didn’t realise that I couldn’t call myself neurotypical until a couple months ago.

Traditionally, autism is often seen as a spectrum; with those who find it easier to integrate into our neurotypical society as ‘high functioning’, meaning that they are relatively successful at communicating with others and interacting with their environment without assistance. Then on the other hand, there are those who would be deemed ‘low functioning’, such as non-verbal people or those who need increased levels of care. However, according to recent research, this is not the case. It suggests that autism includes a very large variety of symptoms and that each person with autism can be seen to demonstrate a different combination of these said symptoms. When visualising the autistic spectrum, instead of thinking of a linear line, try to think more of a spider’s web or 3D model, like a rubix cube for example. 

Another interesting point emerging from recent research is that those who have autism are not disabled but instead disabled by their environment. To put it simply, their brains are just wired differently. The research argues that problems arise, because the environment is not catering for individual characteristics. For instance, a shopping centre full of bright lights and busy crowds may be ideal for catching the attention of your average citizen, but when it comes to someone with autism this can be very overwhelming. Moreover, a recent study conducted in Scotland found evidence that the ‘communication deficits’ seen in autism, may not be the fault of autism alone, but rather that a neurotypical mind and autistic mind are not compatible. Therefore, creating miscommunication and a lack of understanding between the two groups.

Unfortunately, the stereotype of autism is more than just an image and it has a huge detrimental impact on those under-represented within the community. This stereotype of a white male makes it difficult for those in the BAME community to receive a diagnosis. Another problem is that many will face racial prejudice from within the autism community, as well as facing the prejudice against autism that comes from within their race. In addition, many of the studies on autism, until recent years, have been almost exclusively on men. Meaning that it will take much longer for women, especially WOC, to receive the same diagnosis as their male counterparts. 

Women with autism are also at a far greater risk of date rape and sexual assault than their neurotypical peers. This is in part to do with the poor standard of sexual education in the UK and abroad. The problem with sexual education is that the nuances of sex and dating are not highlighted, and the boundaries of consent are not clearly outlined. We need to produce so much more than ‘Tea and Consent’ videos if we want to lead an inclusive national and global conversation on sexual health. In fact, if we look at the statistics, 1 in 5 secondary school students in America experience dating violence every year according to a 2017 survey (Youth Risk Behaviour Survey). This is more than those who experienced bullying at school or considered suicide. In fact, the study even showed that students were more likely to be a victim of dating violence than to try vaping. Therefore, if not only the love language, but also the warning signs can only be found in subtext, those who are unable to read between the lines find themselves at a loss. With autistic women acting as the canary in the coal mine:

“Teaching the social aspects of sex would help everyone, but autistic people need it.” (Iris, What Women With Autism Want You to Know, 2019)

With a second lockdown in effect, it is also important that we recognise the difficulties those with autism will face in the coming month. People with autism rely heavily upon structure and repetition, so it is important to be aware of the impact lockdown will have if they no longer have their daily routine. 

Equally, physical stimulation (this can be from human touch, fabric or exercise) can be overwhelming for those with autism and can lead to sensory overload (where the person will just shut down and not be able to function because they are too overwhelmed). Therefore, wearing a mask may not be possible for all. So, look out for a sunflower lanyard to help identify if someone has a hidden disability. 

Lastly, the gap in understanding between the neurotypical world and those with autism, means that the ways in which people with autism will express emotion won’t necessarily make sense to those around them. It is important to reach out and try to bridge the gap in understanding, because the problem does not lie solely with them, but with all of us.