For years I had heard this word thrown around, but I never really understood what it meant. I knew it was a “syndrome”, so that means that there are genuine struggles that those people faced, but other than that I couldn’t honestly have said what those struggles were.
I also knew that Asperger’s was a “type” of Autism, which is now considered a whole spectrum of presentations rather than a single list of symptoms to be ticked. My only association with Autism came from watching a current affairs type segment on TV many years ago about a boy who never smiled and couldn’t demonstrate emotions like love. I had also heard that Sheldon on Big Bang Theory had Asperger’s even though the show never claimed that to be true (I could relate to almost everything about Sheldon, I should have picked up on that).
At university, while studying for my Graduate Diploma of Education to be a high school physics teacher, we were taught to be inclusive of special needs and we were taught different types of learning and how people with autism are often visual learners so use pictures in your teaching, and children with Autism need routine, so always make sure students know what to expect each day etc.
But still I didn’t really know what Autism and Asperger’s were.
So, I researched. Of course, not knowing anything I started by typing “what is Asperger’s” and “what is Autism” into google, and I was instantly inundated with “symptoms” and “early signs of”. The two lists are completely different, Autism lists consist of things like “non-verbal”, “learning disability”, “low functioning”, “no eye contact”, while the Asperger’s lists say “high functioning”, “high intelligence”, “resists change”, “obsessive interest” etc. At first glance the lists seem completely different but there is actually a lot of overlap and features that can apply to anyone Autistic or otherwise. What it really shows is that Autism occurs in people of both high and low intelligence (and everywhere in between). Autism occurs in people who have delayed speech or are non-verbal as well as people who were precocious speakers as children. Autism occurs in people who need assistance for day to day living all the way through to people who are independent, in relationships, and/or have careers.
Autism is about a difference in how your brain works. It’s about differences in perception of senses. It’s about being really good at some things and terrible at other things, but not the ones that society thinks are “normal”, for example I’m really good at things that involve spacial awareness (maps and jigsaws) but I’m absolutely terrible at knowing what emotion I am feeling.
Diagnostically, clinicians focus on all the things that Autistic people are NOT good at, “social deficiencies”, “poor executive functioning” (ability to organise and cope with day to day living), “repetitive and restrictive behaviours”, “obsessive interests” and co-morbid conditions like depression and anxiety. But I truly believe it ought to be reframed in terms of the things we ARE good at. The ability to hyperfocus on an area of interest, the ability to notice patterns or details that others can’t, the tendency to be honest, loyal and not play mind games.
Yes, we struggle with certain things, yes, many Autistics do need significant assistance, but we also have a lot to offer the world. Autistics think out of the box, we see the world from a different perspective and come up with new ideas. And who else is going to teach the neighbours at parties how to find south by looking at the Southern Cross at night?