'You don't look autistic'

Autism and Neurodiversity

By Beth Westbrook

I am autistic. Autism is a developmental disability which can impact social skills, and how you process the world. I was diagnosed when I was 3 years old, so I have been aware that I am autistic for most of my life. For the first 2 years of education, I was in a Special Educational Needs Unit, and then moved to mainstream education. Being autistic means I am more prone to mental illnesses, and I struggle with anxiety and depression. I struggle if there are a lot of smells around me, and I can’t always process sounds.

When you say, “You don’t look autistic,” I know you mean it as a compliment, but it actually means you may not recognise or understand my struggles, and can’t actually support me. It also implies that being “normal” is more desirable and acceptable than being autistic. If I had a pound for every time someone told me, “You don’t look autistic,” I wouldn’t be a millionaire but I could probably have a lovely weekend in Wales.

Despite a popular misconception, vaccinations don’t cause autism. If you are considering not vaccinating your child because of the “risk,” I’m not here to force my opinions on you, but would you rather a potentially seriously ill child, or an autistic child?

I’m not saying I’d choose to be autistic, but I don’t want to cure myself. Some people call autism a superpower, and if that was the case, I guess my superpower would be being having surprise panic attacks, being terrible at maths, and having a blue badge for a car I can’t drive. I accept the fact that I am autistic and adapt my world to make life easier. Autism isn’t a worst-case scenario. It’s a part of my identity I wouldn’t change (and can’t, it’s a lifelong disability, so no injecting bleach into my veins, unfortunately).

Because I am autistic, I am part of the neurodiverse community. Neurodiversity is a long word, but its definition is actually simple. Neurodiversity refers to a community where brains have different behavioural traits and are wired to think and see the world differently. Those people who could be seen as neurodiverse include people with autism, those with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), Dyslexia (trouble with reading) and Tourettes (involuntary verbal sounds and movements), to name a few.

It’s said that men are more likely to have autism than women, which isn’t entirely true. Women are more able to cover their autistic traits, otherwise known as masking. I unintentionally mask, which means I instinctively mimic behaviour in an attempt to appear “normal.”  I also have an autism related sleeping disorder, meaning it is very hard for me to get a good nights sleep.

Due to systematic racism and sexism, it is also a lot harder for women, and people of colour to get a diagnosis. Because of this, they are often only diagnosed in adulthood, if they are diagnosed at all.

You may have heard people use the phrases “High Functioning” and “Low Functioning” when it comes to describing autism. These phrases are now being seen as harmful. What you could use instead is “high support needs” and “low support needs”, but remember just because someone’s support needs are low, they still need support nonetheless.

What do you think of when you think of an autistic person? Do you think of Sheldon Cooper? Or do you think of Leonardo Di Caprio as Arnie Grape? There are people on the autistic spectrum who are maths geniuses who are overly logical, and socially inept, and there are people on the autism spectrum who seem as if they have the mental age of a 5 year old. Though these representations have some basis in truth, autism is a broad spectrum, and if you’ve met one autistic person, you cannot meet another autistic person and expect them to have the same strengths and difficulties.

Being autistic doesn’t mean we don’t have personalities. We’re humans, not emotionless robots with expert abilities (cough Rain Man cough). You might have seen autism be represented by a missing jigsaw piece, and I can assure you nothing in my head is missing, waiting to be found.

Unfortunately, autism hasn’t been represented well at all in media, and the few films or shows which have characters with autism, often solely centre around this as the main figure of their personality. “Isn’t that a good thing though?” Yes. We need stories about autism and neurodiversity, but we also need stories where disability isn’t the forefront, and where characters aren’t defined purely by their medical conditions.

A few things to remember to help Autistic people include:

  • Not all disabilities are visible, especially a developmental disability.
  • Please don’t speak for us unless we ask you to, or are unable to.
  • Don’t talk over us, as if we are not in the room.
  • Please be patient.
  • Speaking isn’t the only form of communication. Just because someone might be non-verbal, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.
  • Sharing our content. As mentioned, we’re not very well represented in media. If you see something we’ve created, share it! Retweet it! Put it on your story! Lift our voices!
  • If you are in a position to, employ us! 77% of autistic people are unemployed in the UK. We want to work. We are able to work. Create an inclusive and accommodating work place.
  • Please don’t try to fix us and search for a cure. We don’t need to be fixed. What we do need is support, and patience. There are many therapies available to help us, without trying to cure us.
  • Remembering autism can be difficult to deal with, but it isn’t a burden. We can’t help that we process the world differently. Autistic people are being murdered by people who are supposed to care for them.

Learn More:

  • Float, Pixar –  Float is a short film about father who realises his son is different and has to decide whether to hide, or accept him. A good analogy for autism.
  • Loop, Pixar  Loop is another short featuring a nonverbal autistic character, who is cast adrift on a lake with another child as they learn to communicate with each other.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel – What?? Guardians of the Galaxy is an Autistic film? Not fully no, but Drax (Dave Bautista) has a lot of autistic traits and has been accepted by the autistic community as an autistic character.
  • The A Word, BBC iPlayer –  A warm drama series about a family adapting to their son’s autism diagnosis.
  • There She Goes, BBC iPlayer –  A comedy series about the day to day life of a family and their disabled daughter.
  • Are you autistic?, Channel 4 –  A documentary uncovering the diagnosis process, and seeing how autism effects people in modern day Britain.
  • Autie, Kafabee: Youtube – A documentary about Autistic rights and neurodiversity
  • Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person, BBC Three – Autistic people describe why common phrases might not be helpful.
  • Can you make it to the end?, National Autistic Society – A short, immersive video showing sensory overload.
  • Paige Layle – an American tiktoker who uses tik toks to educate people about autism.
  • Invisible I – a youtube channel ran by a girl called Katy, who has Aspergers Syndrome, where she shares her life, and her experiences being on the spectrum.
  • Princess Aspien – is an Austrailian youtuber and tiktoker who uses tiktoks to share her experiences as an autistic person.
  • National Autistic Society – is the UK’s leading charity which supports Autistic People and their families, where you can learn more about autism.