An Invitation to the World of Autism

“I am different….. Not less. Autism is a part of who I am, and I wouldn’t change it”.  – Dr. Temple Grandin  (American Scientist and an Autism Spokesperson).   

In one of our previous articles, we talked about Neurodiversity and how the concept emerged. Neurodiversity refers to the diverseness of human brains. The vast and extensive differences in neurocognitive functioning within homo sapiens. There are numerous neurological variations, Autism being one of them. The term ‘Neurodivergent’ was coined by Judy Singer, who was on the Autism spectrum herself. The Neurodivergent movement advocates that individuals with autism and other cognitive or neurological differences should be viewed as people with normal human differences in behaviour. The goal of this movement is to broaden the notion of what is viewed as normal and acceptable rather than trying to ‘change’ different  behaviours.

What is Autism?

Autism is a pervasive cognitive or neurological condition and affects almost every part of the individual, their personality, experiences, how they grow up, communicate, think and move. Autistic people may act differently but it does not imply that they are ill or sick. It merely indicates that, neurologically, autism has something to do with the person’s mind as the structure of the brain may be divergent or different from non-autistic people. Moreover, developmentally, autism begins before birth when the fetus is developing. It is either going to be neurotypical or neuroatypical. So, the notion that autism is something one gets due to vaccines, is not true. It is not a disease that one catches. If you are autistic at birth, you are autistic your whole life. It is not a medical condition that needs to be “cured”. It is the environment that makes them disabled but if the society perceived it as a different way of living, the distress and the stigma experienced by them in an ableist world would reduce.

If someone close to us or a loved one is diagnosed with autism, we might want to point fingers and try to blame something for causing it. But the truth is autism is a naturally occurring variation in the human brain. Autistic people have alway been there, it’s just that they did not receive the recognition they deserve. More than often it is misdiagnosed as OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). The similarities between the symptoms of these two disorders are difficult to distinguish and are sometimes impossible to tell apart. However, the treatment process for both is entirely different. Autism spectrum is a “developmental disorder” as the symptoms start to show when the child is one or two years old. These children follow a different developmental pattern, but it does not mean that they don’t develop or grow. Every person develops and grows at their own pace and the same applies for autistic people. Just because a child starts speaking late, does not mean that they will not reach or achieve other milestones in life. They have just as much capacity and capability for learning, growth and development as a non-autistic person. They see the world differently, they process the sensory input differently, so they grow, develop and learn differently. 

What are some of the autistic traits?

Every autistic person is different, there are certains characteristics or traits that make this invisible ability visible. It is something that might be perceived as ‘unusual’ by the ableist society but they are merely human traits that are present in everyone to a certain degree. Some of them are:

  • Distinct ways of processing information Since autistic people process sensory information or input differently, they look at the world in a different manner, perceive it in a unique way and process all that they are seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling differently or contrary to that of non-autistic people.   
  • Different capacities for language – Some autistic individuals naturally think in visuals or in abstract feelings. Many might not communicate using words, so using spoken language or written words, may not come naturally. And since we live in a society which is very much based on spoken language, there is a constant need for translation. 
  • Atypical sensory experiences The three basic senses- tactile, vestibular and kinesthesis – form the primary focus of sensory integration or input. Autistic people may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to these basic senses, or both at the same time. 
  • Stimming – Also known as stereotyped or repetitive behaviours, is, as the term suggests, a repetitive or a recurring habits like movements or noises. This helps some autistic people manage their emotions or feelings when they receive over-sensitive sensory integration. There are various forms of stimming, for instance, finger flicking, hand flapping, rocking back and forth or side to side, wringing of hands, twirling their hair, chewing or biting on a piece of clothing or object, or vocal stimming like repeating a favorite word or humming or singing. Stimming is a very autistic behaviour, and many autistic people try to control or prevent their stims due to the fear of being stigmatized. Since we live in such an ableist society, and since autism is mostly invisible due to the lack of physical traits, when autistic individuals start to stim, this invisible condition becomes visible. 

Autism in India: Many people state that autism happened in recent years, but just like many other divergent mental conditions, autism has always existed. According to this article, one in eight children in India are autistic. And just like the other marginalised groups, there is hardly any awareness or knowledge about autistic people in India. Culture plays an important role when it comes to forming an opinion about something. The cultural beliefs and practices define or influence the way people perceive, think, feel and behave. It provides people with the framework of what is meaningful and relevant. Hence, it is imperative to spread awareness and educate people. Culture can be considered to be fluid and dynamic, meaning that it is not rigid and can be changed or revamped over-time. But despite the cultural transformation, in India, disability is still seen as ‘tragedy’. The parents, when they find out that their child is autistic, try to hide the child from the community. They minimize the child’s social contact, fearing that they will be stared at or made fun of or bullied. When it comes to autism, the level of ignorance is quite high in India, as it is considered as ‘taint’, ‘shame’ or ‘disgrace’, even though there are many groups and organisations created solely for the purpose of spreading awareness and providing a safe space for autistic people. 

Autism and Intersectionality: Literature on autism and intersectionality is scarcely available due to lack of awareness. Autistic people can and do live a fulfilling and meaningful life. However, living with autism brings forth particular challenges. There is little literature on LGBTQIA+ individuals who are autistic. But this does not mean that they don’t exist, it only means that because of the unequal structures in our society, the oppressed identities have multiple barriers, making it difficult for intersectional individuals to be visible or acknowledged. Individuals and families have a hard time navigating the intricate network of gender variance and autism, and have difficulty seeking out help as they don’t know who to reach out to when a child or a loved one needs support, guidance or intervention to address gender dysphoria and other related challenges like anxiety and depression. 

How to help/support an Autistic person?

If your child or a loved one has been diagnosed with autism, then you must be wondering or worrying about what to do next. Being autistic does not mean that they are sick or will suffer through life. This just means that they experience life in their own unique ways rather than what is perceived or dictated as “normal” by the ableist, binary/cis gendered, patriarchal society. 

While it is true that autism cannot, and doesn’t need to be, ‘cured’, early diagnosis and intervention can make it easier for both the parent/guardian as well as the autistic person. There are treatment methods that can help them in acquiring new skill sets as well as overcome developmental challenges. Below are some tips to make ones daily life a little easier:

  • Establishing framework and safety: Sometimes autistic children are not able to apply what they have learned in one setting to another situation, like they might use sign language to communicate outside but not use it at home to communicate. Being consistent in your child’s environment is a good practice to reinforce learning. Encouraging children to transfer what they learn from one environment to another. Maintaining a high structured schedule, with regular meal time, school, therapy and bedtime, helps in being consistent. 
  • Creating a safe zone at home: Form a private area or space for the child or person where they can go and relax, feel secure and safe. This can be done by organizing and forming boundaries in ways they can understand them, for instance, using visual cues like coloured tapes to mark the areas that are off-limits or using pictures to label things.
  • Communicating or connecting using non-verbal methods: Verbally connecting or communicating with autistic individuals can be challenging sometimes. However, one doesn’t need to talk or touch to be able to share experiences or bond. For this, one needs to be observant to the sounds they make or their gestures or even facial expressions. Paying attention and figuring out what causes them to have tantrums or meltdowns are necessary. 
  • Seeking help and support: Isolating or hiding individuals with autism due to the fear of stigmatization only reinforces it. There are many groups and organizations where they can socialize and form connections. Autism is not a disease or an affliction that needs to be cured. No, it is only a different way of living. It is not autism, or being neurodivergent, that labels an individual disabled, it is the way they are treated in this ableist society that marginalizes them. With the help and support of families and friends, they can grow up into happy and healthy people. 

This article is written purely to provide information on Autism. Autistic individuals have their own voice and ways of communication, and don’t need someone from the outside to speak for them. Below are some links to accounts where you can learn about autism from autistic people. 

Insha Fatima,

Writer at Pause for Perspective.