It can be difficult to understand the experience of an autistic person. The autism spectrum is just that: a spectrum. The differences in people at different places on that spectrum can be quite stark. This can muddy the already complicated waters when non-autistic people try to understand autistic friends and family. As April is Autism Awareness Month, I hope to draw from my own experiences and what modern science has to say to help at least paint in broad strokes what the autistic experience can be like.
Different Isn't Always "Bad"
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that many autistic people don't view their condition as a bad thing. They are different but differences are beautiful in their own way. As a rule, let an autistic person decide how they view their condition, don't decide for them, don't assume their autism symptoms are anything to be ashamed of.
Where things get complicated is in calling autism a disability. It's important to note that some, myself included, argue this is an oversimplification. At the same time, autism does present many obstacles most people don't have to face.
There are places on the autism spectrum that impede a person's ability to live a traditionally "full" life. Some people with more severe autism may never be able to completely live on their own. Their lives and opinions are still important but it may make sense to claim they fall under the umbrella of "disabled."
It would be as ableist of us to ignore the above fact as it would be to say all autistic people qualify as "disabled" in the traditional sense. For example, those who have what was once known as Asperger Syndrome (and now falls under the autistic spectrum) are often both quite talented in fields more neurotypical people find challenging and may be difficult to "spot" due to the masking skills they learn.
Does it make sense to still call those people disabled?
Childhood Tends to Be Hardest
For many autistic people, childhood is hard. Children and even adults can be cruel to people who are different. And if there is one thing autistic people often understand early, it's that they are different.
This is where again we have to be careful painting in strokes that are too broad, as the stereotype of the "autistic childhood" is not always going to be an autistic person's experience.
While it's true many autistic people actually can learn quite quickly, that isn't always true. Some autistic people find learning very difficult; people with Level 3 autism may even find learning to communicate basic ideas a major challenge.
This all said, as a general rule, autistic people struggle on a social level. They often have trouble understanding the emotions of others and the best way to communicate their own feelings.
Imagine, for a moment, if you found it very difficult to understand how someone felt. Imagine if many of your social interactions ended with people confused or even angry at you.
You may find talking in a way others view as "normal" a serious challenge and interact with the world around you very differently from your peers. Some autistic children, for example, may love the wheels on a toy car but not understand very well that it is supposed to be a car or why would play with it "normally." Rather than pretending it's a car, they may instead just enjoy spinning the wheels.
Autistic children are also more likely to face unique diet and nutrition challenges. We recommend parents try one of our spectrum kits if they're worried about their child's nutrition. In some cases, it can even have a notable effect on other behavioral issues.
While some autistic people will continue to experience these problems for much or all of their life, plenty also learn to socialize better with time. In fact, there are even special classes some take to help learn how to read people's emotions and show more empathy for those they care about.
Regardless, many autistic people get better at having a "typical" conversation as they get older, with or without special classes.
Masking is a term often applied to people on the autism spectrum, but it's a skill everyone learns. You don't act on every impulse you experience in your day-to-day. You know some behavior might annoy or anger strangers or those you care about.
For example, you may love sports. But if you're talking to someone who doesn't, you likely know not to bring it up all the time. Another example might be if someone has beautiful hair you'd like to touch. You suppress that urge unless you know them very well and that they wouldn't mind you touching it.
That said, masking for autistic people tends to be much more extensive. Some may construct what amounts to a whole fake identity to appear more normal to peers. They may pretend to like things peers do (or to hate things they actually like if they think their peers would view them as childish or strange).
The more extensive an autistic person feels the need to mask, the more stressful it can be. If you hate loud sounds, as many autistic people do, but feel you need to pretend to like loud music and parties, that will wear on you.
The Autism Spectrum Contains a Long List of Stories
Many people on the autism spectrum get so overwhelmed they may scream or have strong bursts of emotion that are difficult for others to understand. But some don't. Some may feel deeply isolated. But not everyone.
If you care about someone with autism, try to talk to them about their own experiences. If they have trouble telling you about them, try to watch how they interact with the world. Friends, family, and teachers can also help you learn more.
If you'd like to learn more about how our products may be able to help an autistic child, click here!