Last week was National Autism Week. Monday 2nd April was World Autism Day. April is World Autism Month. Every year. This alone pretty much guarantees you are aware of autism to some degree. I’m not sure how you could have missed it, though I understand that following the news at present is more like reading a film script rejected for being too unrealistic; perhaps it has passed you by in the recent maelstrom of unlikely events.
But I doubt it. Chances are high that you have heard of autism; you may even know a little about it. Perhaps you have heard vaguely that everyone’s a ‘bit on the spectrum’, or that the child who got excluded for biting a teacher at your local primary was autistic. Perhaps you’ve heard it as a slur used by some teenager - the modern equivalent of the 1990s ‘spastic’, I suppose: a charmless and grotesque transformation of a medical term into something shaming and insulting. Yes, you’re aware of autism. But do you accept it?
I don’t mean ‘do you accept that it exists?’ (though even this can’t be agreed on by some), or ‘do you accept autistic people living on your street’. No - I mean can you accept an autistic person being autistic? To you. Around you. With you. In your proximity or in your living room, in your office or on your train. Can you cope with autistic people simply being themselves? This, I think, is the next stage for the integration process.
A phenomenon that occurs quite frequently for autistic people is known as ‘camouflaging’. This is where our overtly autistic traits, behaviours, coping mechanisms and actions are held back, hidden from view as we attempt to pass as neuro-typical. Not all autistic people can do this, and none can sustain it without suffering damage from the experience (stress, anxiety, exhaustion); it is possible (though unproven) that this contributes to the high suicide rates for autistic people in the UK - burnout from having to pretend too much, for too long, that they aren’t autistic. Acceptance would be a vital step to reducing the necessity of this camouflaging. If neuro-typical people not only knew in good detail what autism is and how it affects us, but also could handle us displaying some associated behaviours without getting upset or freaking out, then we could let that mask slip a little more often: be ourselves in public without fear of being ostracised or shunned for our ‘unusual’ behaviours.
Acceptance in this instance would mean being okay with the kind of coping mechanisms that autistic people use to get through the stresses of a hyper-sensory, confusing and chaotic world. It would mean being okay about the fact the guy opposite you on a crowded train is counting quietly under his breath, just loud enough for you to hear him. It would mean being okay with a child having to leave the room at your kid’s party because she was panicking about the amount of colour and needed to go and run cold water over her hands. It would mean being okay with a colleague who needs her routine maintained at all times, to the extent that it would be helpful if you didn’t get in the lift with her in the morning. I know these things all sound small and unobtrusive, and you may well be thinking ‘sure thing! This is fine!’ But it is the experience of all autistic people that the rest of the world is not okay with this kind of behaviour, as it marks us as strange, different, scary: people get uncomfortable, confused, concerned when they see us stimming or maintaining strict patterns of behaviour, rather than knowing that it’s all just a perfectly legitimate way for us to get through the stresses and strains of the day.
It’s like your cup of coffee on the way to work, or the chatting you do with a pal at lunch time. It’s actually pretty normal, if you think about it.