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Autism Awareness: 7 Things We All Should All Know

By Peter Wyn Mosey
Peter Wyn Mosey is a participant of People Speak Up Projects, including Story Care and Share and Spoken Word Saturday.

There are many misconceptions surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that lead to people being stigmatised and marginalised. Unhelpful assumptions can be dispelled by raising awareness of ASD and the associated difficulties and personality traits. 

Autism was first described by Leo Kanner in 1943, however, over the years our understanding has deepened, and the diagnostic criteria have evolved. But what exactly is autism, and what challenges does someone with ASD face?

As April 2022 is autism awareness month, let’s take a look at seven things we can all learn about ASD.

1. Autism Is a Lifelong Condition

Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how you interact and communicate. According to the British Medical Association, ASD affects one in 100 children, and over 700,000 people in the United Kingdom have an autism diagnosis.

For some people, the challenges associated with autism require ongoing support, whereas many are completely independent and develop effective coping skills. There is no ‘cure’ for ASD. 

2. Autism Diagnosis Has Risen Dramatically In Recent Years

Studies published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry reveal that between 1998 and 2018, there was a staggering 787% increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism. The cause of the sharp incline is likely due to better awareness of the condition.

Often diagnosed during childhood, the process of formally recognising autism is lengthy and many people still go undiagnosed throughout their lives.

3. Autism Is Often Easier to Spot in Boys

The ratio of men diagnosed in comparison with women is.3:1. Many people put this down to a lack of understanding surrounding the way that autism presents in women and girls. 

Theories about the gender disparity talk about a potential female autism phenotype - this is the notion that autistic women have characteristics that don’t match the typical profile. It is also believed that girls learn to mask their autistic traits leading to a decreased chance of the symptoms being picked up by parents, teachers, and doctors.

4. Autism Affects People In Different Ways

Autism can affect the way you interact with the world around you or communicate with others. ASD may make a person either over or under-sensitive to sound, light, touch, and taste. It can also affect a person’s sense of balance. This may mean you’d become overwhelmed or experience ‘sensory overload’ when overstimulated, or conversely, need to increase your exposure to stimuli.

Some people may find it difficult to ‘read’ or understand the emotions of others. For others, subtle figurative phrases can easily be misunderstood. Many people with autism may take things quite literally.

Neurological processing and decision making can be a challenge. When presented with too many options, someone with ASD may become overwhelmed and unable to decide.

Dealing with change can be difficult. Many people with ASD form consistent routines, and any diversions from these can cause anxiety and uncertainty. 

In some cases, but not all, someone with ASD may have an intense interest in certain hobbies and may even hyper-focus on the things they’re most passionate about. This can lead to exceptional academic or workplace performance.

5. Autism Is a Spectrum

Autism symptoms vary dramatically and presentations of the condition differ from person-to-person. Some people have more noticeable traits than others. This is because autism is a spectrum.

But due to the range of diversity in symptoms, autism isn’t a linear spectrum. It’s much more complex and nuanced.

One common misconception is that ‘everyone is on the spectrum’. While many people may relate to certain traits, autism is a complicated diagnosis that is evidenced in a broad range of symptoms.

6. The Term ‘Asperger’s’ Is No Longer Used

Asperger’s syndrome used to be a common diagnosis for people on the higher-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. The syndrome was first proposed in the early 1980s and was officially recognised in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) in 1994.

Following later re-evaluation, Asperger’s was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders when the fifth edition was published in 2013.

The syndrome’s namesake, Hans Asperger, was an Austrian physicist who carried out early research into autism. Working during the time of the Nazi regime, he referred to ASD as ‘autistic psychopathy’ and is believed to have had strong links to Nazi euthanasia programs that murdered disabled children.

Today, people that would have once received a diagnosis of Asperger’s would now be diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder.

7. The Employment Rates for People With Autism Remain Low

A 2016 study by the National Autistic Society found that of 2,000 people with ASD, only 16% were employed full-time. This was despite the fact that 77% of those surveyed that were unemployed, wanted to work.

Although there is a disproportionate representation, this article in the Harvard Business Review actually points out that a neurodiverse workforce is a largely untapped talent pool. With the ability to hyper-focus on subject matter and tasks of particular interest, the potential for innovation could give companies that are willing to invest in the right accommodations a competitive edge.

Measures employers could take to welcome a neurodiverse workforce include:

  • Taking autism awareness courses
  • Providing quiet spaces to work 
  • Ensure the workplace is well-structured
  • Give direct but sensitive feedback often
  • Prepare team members for changes

The Benefits of Autism Awareness Training

Recently, several members of the People Speak Up team undertook an autism awareness course with Ringway Training. Here, we gained valuable insights into ASD and how we can adapt sessions and support neurodiverse participants.

PSU’s Kris Grogan said, “I found having a better understanding of autism and signs of being on the spectrum really helpful and the knowledge will help in furthering my education in this section of our work.” Also of interest to Kris was learning about the crossover with conditions such as ADHD.

Mark Mallender of Ringway Training says: “Although awareness of autism has improved recently, there are still many misunderstandings and so the more which can be done to help people understand autism and recognise the positives, then the more that people who are part of the autism spectrum will be able to get involved in social, educational and workplace opportunities.

For many people who are part of the autism spectrum, knowing that others have awareness of the condition and can appreciate the challenges which can be experienced, can be very reassuring and help to reduce anxiety and stress.

By learning more about the diversity of autism, social, educational and workplace settings can create much more autism aware environments making it easier for people affected to engage in a range of opportunities, achieve their goals and thrive in life.”

Awareness Leads to Acceptance

A better understanding of autism leads to increased acceptance in all areas of society. Let us know in the comments below what you think needs to happen to improve awareness and acceptance.

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