So as I said yesterday on facebook, I wanted to run a series of blogs about Autism to raise awareness and understanding. Today’s blog is all about the traits we commonly see in autistic people, and how we can help people who face these challenges living in a world which is dominated by neuro typical thinking.
Autism is a wide condition (I struggle with the label disorder, as I think, especially for those classed as ‘high functioning’, it is largely a different way of operating and experiencing in the world, and on top of that, the word disorder implies it can be cured, which it can’t) and as such, the first thing to note is that everyone who exhibits autistic traits will be unique within their presentation. Not all people who have diabetes have the same problems, and the same can be said for autistic people.
So what are the autistic traits? Well, it might be easier to break the traits down into three sections. Behaviour, Social Interaction and Communication.
Let’s start with Behaviour.
Autistic people may have behaviour that neuro typical people find unusual or confusing. A lot of these behaviours are being used to self soothe, and calm the autistic person, and if you seem someone using them, it would be best to allow that person to continue what they are doing, as they are likely trying to cope with overwhelm, and avoid a meltdown.
As a quick aside, a meltdown is VERY different to a tantrum. Meltdown’s do not end because attention is withdrawn, whereas tantrums tend to. It is VERY dismissive and disrespectful to call a meltdown a tantrum, because the meltdown is there to release huge emotion and overwhelm. If you see someone in meltdown, or a parent/carer coping with someone in meltdown, ask what you can do, if anything at all. Parent’s especially face huge judgement around meltdowns in public places, such as supermarkets, because the assumption is the child is being denied something rather than the noise and lights are too much to bear on top of the other things that have happened that day.
Right. Rant over, on with the blogs!
The behaviours you might see are:
1. Repetitive body movements such as hand flapping, spinning, rocking, or what look like tics. These movements are often referred to as ‘stimming’, which is short for self-stimulatory behaviour. They are used to help calm the individual down. If you’ve ever found yourself jiggling your leg, tapping a pen or other repetitive behaviour, that would be considered stimming too. Sometimes autistic people need to stim in public, and whilst children may be able to do it with out consciousness of others, adults might find themselves doing it subtly so as not to draw attention to it.
If you notice someone stimming, please don’t ask them to stop, perhaps ask them if they need anything, or if something is making them uncomfortable, although that sort of question should be asked discreetly.
2. Typically, autistic people like things to be predictable and stable, and as such will prefer routines to be solid, doing things in a particular and exact order in order to meet that need. If you work with someone autistic, or if you are a friend, parent or carer to an autistic person, you could help them by giving enough warning if the routine is going to change. For example, if you have a meeting at 9.30 every morning, and one morning it will be moved to 10.30, you could give them a few days notice to get used to the idea. It would be best to ask them themselves how much notice they need to get used to change.
3. Another indicator of autism is intense interest in specialist subjects. When an autist finds their subject they will become very very focused (known as hyper focused) on it, and find it very difficult to move away from the subject when they are engaged. If you remember my post yesterday, I shared an image explaining tendril theory. Tendril theory explains what it’s like for an autistic person when you ask them to stop what they are doing without any warning. As I explained above, change is difficult for autistic people, and therefore as much preparation as possible should be given. As a fair warning however, sometimes too much notice can actually have the opposite of the intended affect, and cause an increase in anxiety. It’s a difficult line, but with adult autistic people, please just ask them what their specific need is.
4. Autistic people can experience sensory stimuli very differently. For example, eye contact, noise, pain, smell, textures and touch can be very overwhelming. I know of a child who walked around on a broken leg for 2 weeks before mentioning his leg hurt. That’s because he experienced big pain differently to neuro typical people. That same child also screamed bloody murder when they got a paper cut, for the same reason.
Autistic people find eye contact very challenging, because they are not able to process and filter the verbal communication at the same time as the visual communication. Temple Grandin wrote a brilliant book about the autistic brain, and in it she has a brain scan. The findings (which you can Google or buy the book!) showed that the nerves that process vision were much more enhanced or developed than the control brains. This explains both her brilliant vision, and her difficulty holding eye contact.
Many clothing stores are now bringing out autism friendly clothing, because they recognise that seams, labels, buttons and materials can trigger huge sensory overload, and making sure that autistic people have access to this type of clothing makes living in a neuro typical world a lot easier.
Helping someone with sensory overload means allowing them to retreat if they need to. In schools there is often a safe space created so the child can calm themselves down and I feel like this should be available in all communal spaces. Avoiding hand driers, cleaners, obligatory touching (such as handshakes) are all helpful to avoid sensory overload. In adults, the boundaries are somewhat different, because as in children this is all unique to the individual, but in adults, somehow they are often expected to put their autism aside and meet the needs of neuro typical people.
Given how much distress that causes, it’s not very fair is it?!
I started this blog intending to cover all three aspects, but I’ve written so much about behaviour, and because I don’t want to cut any out, I’m going to separate this into three blogs. So tomorrow, I will explain about social interaction in autism. Whilst I’ve touched on it here, it’s a big subject on it’s own, and as such deserves more space.
As ever, please don’t hesitate to ask questions, and please remember to respect the experience of others ❤