“If I could snap my fingers and be non-autistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am.”
Dr Temple Grandin
What does the term ‘autistic’ mean to you?
For some, they will immediately think back to the 1988 film Rain Man, the fictional story of autistic Raymond and his selfish brother, Charlie. While this release brought autism onto many people’s radar, it also cemented an idea that autism means several distinctive traits. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt became many people’s only ‘experience’ of autism and, for them, what they saw was the precise definition. Just as people see a heart attack scene on Casualty, if they haven’t seen one in person, this is how they expect it to be for everyone. Of course, on the plus side, Rain Man brought the subject of this condition onto many people’s radar.
I am lucky enough to know a wide range of autistic people, both young and (slightly) older. I know some socially and some through work. I would never claim to be an expert on all things autism, and here’s why.
Autism is not a one size fits all diagnosis
One autistic person may not make eye contact; another might.
One autistic person may talk obsessively about their favourite TV show; another might have no or limited speech.
One autistic person may only eat foods of a certain texture, colour or type, and they may only be one brand; another might not have any restrictions when it comes to food.
One autistic person may take everything that is said in a literal way; another may understand idioms, like It’s raining cats and dogs, for example.
One autistic person may be fantastic at telling and understanding jokes, finding them hilarious; another might not comprehend them at all.
One autistic person may rock backwards and forwards to self-stimulate (stim); another might stim in a more subtle manner (perhaps controlling it).
Autistic symbolism can be controversial
For many years, the jigsaw piece has been associated with autism. It was a symbol first used by the National Autistic Society in the 1960s. US Autism Speaks adopted and encouraged the use of the puzzle piece, too. Unfortunately, within the autistic community, the organisation has been heavily criticised for many things, including the negative campaigns it has led in a so-called bid to raise awareness. In fact, some of the adverts were so disgustingly negative that I can’t even bring myself to type some of the things included.
With the amalgamation of the jigsaw piece and a ribbon, many have likened this to the way in which charities raise awareness of cancer and the hopes of finding a cure. For many, raising awareness of autism is more about helping others to understand its nuances, creating inclusive environments and experiences, and moving past the Raymond Babbitt character and his behaviours. Nowadays, many people prefer the use of a rainbow-coloured infinity symbol.
Education is key
When I say that education is key, I mean for those of us who are neurotypical, not autistic. For so many years, autistic people had only their parents (if that) as their advocates and few others. In fact, many were institutionalised in the past. Even now, some autistic people find themselves sectioned because of difficulties they face. According to Spectrum News, in December 2019, over 2,000 were living in hospitals. As a society, we must be open-minded, we must be accepting, we must challenge people’s (and our own) misconceptions. Even now, I am certain that I have probably worded something badly in here, but I am learning, constantly aiming to be better, to do better.
When I first started working in special education, I was certain that I had so much to offer, that I could change lives. While I feel I do still have a lot to offer, it is actually me whose life has changed. How lucky I am!