When a person hears the word autism, the first things they may think of are one of two stereotypes. One thing that may come to mind is the smart, quirky boy who is obsessed with trains but lacks empathy, emotions, and the ability to flirt. One may also think of a person who needs to live with a caregiver or requires more assistance and accommodations in life. Autism isn’t just one way, but rather a spectrum. However, there is more to this. Yes, many autistic people may need more support than a neurotypical and able-bodied person, and there are also many autistic people who don’t need very much support and are able to live in a society that caters to neurotypical people. Many autistic people dislike functioning labels (i.e., low functioning, high functioning) and see the autism spectrum as a color wheel rather than as a linear function.
WHAT IS AUTISM?
If you’re unfamiliar with what autism is, it is a developmental disorder that shapes the way one thinks, acts, learns, communicates, socializes, and perceives the world. Autistic people can have difficulty with socializing, processing sensory information, and communicating. Autistic people can speak early, late, or not at all, and things such as reading social cues, understanding sarcasm, showing emotions, and understanding intentions can also be challenging for them.
I was diagnosed with autism when I was two-and-a-half years old and spoke much later than other children around me. I was fortunate to get diagnosed at an early age because it allowed me to get the intervention and support I needed. Unfortunately, most autistic girls tend to be diagnosed later in life. I think that this is because of stereotypes created about autism and gender roles in society. In our society, boys are often conditioned to be vocal and rowdy, while girls are often conditioned to be quiet and polite. If a boy’s speech is delayed, it’s often considered a problem sooner. However, if a girl’s speech is delayed, it doesn’t necessarily raise concern because people expect girls to be more quiet and shy.
The autistic community is a diverse community. There are autistic people who identify as part of the LGBT+ community, autistic people of color, and people who come from many different backgrounds. Many forms of media such as what you see on television and what you read about don’t really take this into account. When I want to see a TV show about autism, I want to be able to see diversity in who is represented. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an autistic person of color in a show and I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve ever seen an autistic woman or an autistic person who is part of the LGBT+ community portrayed in the media.
TRAITS OF AUTISM
Autistic people can get really into specific topics. The autistic community refers to these topics as “special interests.” A special interest is an intense interest in a topic. Interests can be really narrow, anything from reptiles to a specific movie or TV show. It looks like obsessions to non-autistic people, but these special interests can help autistic people cope.
Something that is usually hard for autistic people is taking perspective and predicting social reactions. For example, understanding intentions can be very hard for autistic people and this can make socializing very difficult.
It’s also common for autistic people to have trouble with sensory processing. People with Sensory Processing Disorder may be very active, or may dislike certain textures, foods, tastes, smells, or may prefer their clothing to be made of a certain fabric.
Some autistic people engage in self-soothing behavior, also known as stimming. Examples of stimming include flapping one’s hands, rocking, humming, and many others. Autistic people are also known to repeat words and phrases and perseverate on specific topics, often in line with their special interests. Stimming and repetition can help autistic people regulate their emotions and stress, calm down, and manage sensory input.
SHARING MY STORY
When I was twelve, I wrote, illustrated, and self published a book. My book, Autism Over The Years: A Twelve Year Old’s Memoir, is about growing up as an autistic person. It is available on Amazon and on my website, micaelaellis.com. In my memoir, I wrote about how activities such as playing and communicating with other kids were hard for me. I also included memories of behavior that people probably thought was weird, but in my perspective, totally made sense! As I share with readers in the closing pages of my book:
“I wrote this memoir because I want to show people how I see the world, as a person with autism. I want to explain how my life has been different from many other people’s lives, and how certain thoughts and ideas came into my mind that other people did not understand. I want to share why I did things that seemed strange to others… I want to put an end to the idea that autism is a disease that needs a ‘cure.’ I want to put an end to autism being a taboo subject.”
After publishing my book, I started presenting about autism to parents, professionals, kids and teens, graduate students, and school administrators. I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to give presentations and to do magazine and radio interviews.
Since April is designated as Autism Awareness Month, many members of the autistic community and allies are working to change it to Autism Acceptance Month. A lot of autistic activists don’t like the idea of “awareness” as it has connotations with the idea of autism being a disease that needs to be cured, when in reality, it’s not. It’s a core part of who I am and if someone ever gave me the option of a cure for autism, I wouldn’t accept it.
Although there are some challenges with autism, and it’s considered a disability, I still think autism is a great part of who I am. I’m proud to be autistic and to be part of a community where we share the same struggles and have some of the same strengths.