By MACKENZIE STEELE

 

Since Monday kicks off Autism Awareness Week, I wanted to talk a little about what autism actually is and test everyone’s knowledge.

I think most people are aware of autism now, but awareness and understanding are different. I know this well, because I’m on the Autistic Spectrum.

Look at the two descriptions below, and answer this question (if you get it right, you’ll get an imaginary cookie): Now you know I’m autistic, which paragraph do you think would best describe me?

1: Quirky. Passionate. Amazingly smart, but very dumb. Socially awkward every now and then. Probably has bat hearing, hates itchy clothes. Redefines unique in the best way.

2: Loud. Hand-flapping. Savant. Computers, Star Wars, trains, Math. Anti-social, not good with people. No empathy. Same activities rigidly repeated over and over again.

If you went for the second one, congratulations! That’s why I’m writing this article. The real answer is the first description, while the second description is an inaccurate media stereotype.

I offer the following as proof:

I bring up unicorns randomly in a conversation just for fun. I have a hypothesis that wearing dresses helps me pass exams. I talk too much and overshare and always apologise for every social mistake I make (so, frequently). I love people, but don’t understand them. I insist on helping others with their problems, even though I’m barely sorted myself. I get A’s in university and high school (sadly, it’s not such a good result in secondary study as it is for tertiary). I love genetics more than any other subject.

I have light-sound synaesthesia, among other sensory processing problems. I can hear my mother whispering about dinner being served, and remember a list of everything anyone has ever done to upset me, but I never have any recollection of ever being told to finish my math. I always sign up for too many activities at the beginning of the year, then have a huge, uncontrollable meltdown over the fact that I can’t do them all later. I can idly figure out how long you’d have to boil a human-sized bacterium to kill it, but stacking dishes is beyond me. I dance like an epileptic arachnid, and I enjoy ballet.

Do I fit the stereotype? No, absolutely not. Does everyone else on the Spectrum act like me? Thankfully no! But that doesn’t mean that I’m any less on the Spectrum.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a varied diagnosis, which is indeed a spectrum, but maybe not the linear kind. Take a few seconds to look at this little comic which I think gives the best explanation of the Autistic Spectrum, ever.

As you’ve just seen, some of us have huge vocabularies, others aren’t so good with speech. Some people on the Spectrum have no empathy or imagination or humour at all, but some Neurotypicals (non-autistic people) are just the same.

One thing that wasn’t covered was stimming. Hand-flapping is what we call a stim, a movement used to calm, think and concentrate, or pretty much whenever. It’s kinda like pacing, or chewing your pen. We don’t all hand-flap, I personally rock, but I knew one person who had a piece of string to play with, another who fiddles with a ring. It’s a personal thing, and some are more subtle than others.

I like to think that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, even in the brain. For every talent you have, you have a deficit equal in strength. It’s just that my pattern of talents and problems has a name, because sometimes the problems are so big they trip me up, and every now and then I need a little help.

The upshot is, the Autistic Spectrum isn’t all Sheldon Cooper and Rain Man.

We are real, complex people, just like anyone else, and we have the right to be treated that way.

If you’d like to find out more about the Autistic Spectrum, there are a few things you can do. The best is to talk with someone who is actually on the Spectrum. The next best thing is to find autism communities online, most are happy to be bugged but just check. You can also look at information sites, but remember that those aren’t written by autistic people so might not be an accurate depiction. Here are a few sites to get you started:

The Mighty – Has all sorts of articles, not just about the Spectrum, but it’s all relevant and accurate and a lot of it is personal experience.

WrongPlanet – Forums and articles by autistic people. Most things are aimed at others on the Spectrum, but everyone is welcome to jump in and ask questions, and you can view the forum without becoming a member.

Autism NZ – The official organisation for looking after New Zealand’s autism population. The information page focuses just on classic male autism, which – as I’ve tried to say above – isn’t the whole story. If you don’t like the inconsistencies, comment below and I’ll see what I can do. And of course, you can comment below, and we’ll clear up any questions you have.

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