This post on judgement aims to help inform friends and family members of individuals who believe their child may be on the autism spectrum; as well as educators who have been approached by parents with the same concerns.
This article isn’t designed to belittle anyone for their lack of knowledge about autism. For example, outside of psychiatry circles, no-one had much awareness of autism until at least the 1990s; and the Government’s teacher training framework (that taught educators how to support children with special educational needs, especially autistic children), wasn’t rolled out until 2016.
(Meaning many teaching or support staff members still lack some experience in the field.)
Access to autism information
The end result is that, thanks to a wide array of information on autism being available to today’s parents, their own family members, especially older relatives, often simply haven’t had the exposure to the autism education and awareness that we enjoy today. And teachers and educators who haven’t received specific autism training, or haven’t taught children diagnosed with autism in their class, also may not be fully up to date with the latest schools of thought.
Hence, this article aims to help extended family members and educators understand the most helpful responses, if someone’s shared concerns that a child may be autistic.
What not to say…
Here’s what isn’t helpful as a response, however well-meaning, to a parent who’s expressed the view that their child could have an autism spectrum condition (ASC):
I am sure there’s nothing wrong with him.
All children do that!
But she doesn’t look autistic.
Normal people do that too.
I wouldn’t worry – we’re all a little bit autistic, aren’t we?
She will grow out of it.
Maybe it’s a discipline issue?
You’re spending too much time on the internet, looking for conditions that aren’t there.
But he can hold eye contact!
She is completely fine at school. Maybe the problem is the home environment?
Maybe he’s reacting to your anxiety?
Autism wasn’t prevalent in my day.
My friend’s son is autistic, and she doesn’t act like him at all.
More helpful reactions could be:
Can you share some of your resources with me? I’d like to know more.
What can I do to help, in the way of research or reading?
She may not be autistic – but assuming it’s a possibility – what can I do to help reduce her challenges, or make her feel less anxious?
Wow. That’s a lot for you to be dealing with as a family. How are you feeling? (Or, how do your concerns make you feel?)
What are the next steps for you, and is there anything I can do to support you?
And for educators…
And for educators – if the teacher lacks exposure to autistic children, or hasn’t had the experience in terms of spotting the very subtle cues of autism that are shown as autistic children develop:
Let’s talk to the SENCO about your concerns.
I will observe the child in the classroom and note down any anxiety-related behaviours, or reactions to social or sensory situations.
I will talk to any colleagues at the school with experience of un-diagnosed autism cases, to see if they have any procedures or experiences that we can draw from.
Autism and education
In terms of educators, Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society states:
“More than 1 in 100 children are on the autism spectrum. So every teacher will have autistic students in their classes at some point in their careers and they deserve to be given the understanding and skills they need to teach autistic children effectively. Teachers don’t need to be experts in autism. A fundamental knowledge of what it means to be autistic and the often simple adjustments that can help, could transform the experience of autistic pupils at school.’
It’s worth noting that if a parent has expressed concerns to a teacher or SENCO about their child, their concerns should be taken seriously, even if absolutely no obvious signs or behaviours are seen at school.
Read more about SEN support in schools at this link:
The National Autistic Society states: Before your child is identified as needing SEN support in school, the class teacher and SENCO should make an analysis of their needs, using the teacher’s assessment and experience and evidence of their progress, attainment and behaviour. Your views and your child’s views should also be taken into account. You should always be consulted and kept informed of any action taken to help your child and of the outcome of this.
We hope this article is useful, or provides food for thought for any parents struggling to get family members or educators to ‘believe’ their concerns that a child is on the autism spectrum. Essentially, when responding to a parent’s concerns, we believe it’s generally unhelpful to start a sentence with ‘I am sure’, unless you’re clinically qualified to diagnose autism. As this can seem judgemental or belittling to the parent!
It’s always a good idea for parents to document their concerns in the way of diaries, videos etc. This can be useful to show educators, doctors and health visitors (for pre-school children), and shows the parent has done their research, and is serious about their concerns. A benefit of keeping a diary is that any behavioural patterns can be spotted, and links made to external factors. Elements like sleep, nutrition, social responses, anxiety and any patterns of behaviours (and their timings, e.g. within an hour of leaving school), can all be noted.
To conclude, we’re not trying to be judgemental ourselves about other people’s lack of exposure and experience to autism spectrum conditions; but simply want to raise some interesting points of debate that could help parents on their journey towards their child’s assessment for autism.
Further reading: read about the key features of autism in this blog.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Conditions / Disorders; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.
It is sometimes tempting to think of autism like a face-mask or pair of glasses that an autistic individual puts on – as if their true self is beneath, and the face-mask or glasses sits atop.
But this would mean that the accessories (or their autism) can be cast away, which isn’t the case. An autist’s autism (or Asperger’s) was there since they developed in utero, and will be there until they die.
An autism shadow?
For an autistic child, when we see challenging behaviour – such as impulsivity, irrationality and demand avoidance – it’s tempting to see all of these behaviours as choices. As if the child were able to add or remove their ‘autisticness’, and their ‘true self’ made poor decisions. On days when they appear ‘less autistic’ – e.g. more relaxed, aware of the effect of their behaviours, and less panicked about making choices – it may seem as if this is the real individual, and that autism is their alter-ego or shadow. Or that autism over-shadows them.
But in reality, what is happening is likely to be that on their ‘less autistic’ days, the autist is less stressed and anxious; feeling more in control; has more certainty in their day; and is exercising skill-sets that mean their capability to cope with life meets or exceeds their challenges.
When challenges exceed one’s emotional toolkit
Likewise, on their ‘more autistic days’, the challenges facing them – socially, emotionally and from a sensory perspective – are likely to be exceeding their emotional toolkit, and ‘life skillsets’.
Therefore, could we say that autism can be seen as a filter or a frame through which our brain (that of an autistic individual), processes, sees and experiences the world around us? It is never separate from the ‘real’ us. It is the real us.
How do we help the autistic child become unstuck?
This way of thinking may help us understand some challenging behaviour exhibited by an autistic child. The question should usually be (from family members or educators); what’s missing from their skill-sets? What’s causing their panic or confusion; what ‘outside’ demands could be reduced? And what self-care is needed to allow their brain to recalibrate and become ‘unstuck’?
Think like an autist…
Sometimes the answer is skewed, in that what seems appealing to an NT (neurotypical) mind causes conflict for an autist.
The sumptuous multiple choice breakfast buffet on holiday that’s too confusing; the funfair that stimulates too many senses; the birthday event that is populated by too many guests, even if they’re known and loved.
In an education setting
In an education setting, a favourite book may become an emotional barrier if the reading space is too noisy or busy; an eager and able mind may decide something is ‘too hard’ if too many people are watching; the apprehension about a photo being taken after an event may cause anxiety about the event itself; and the fear of failure, or of not meeting one’s own impossibly high standards, may mean a project isn’t completed, even if it involves a favourite character or subject.
A balancing act when you’re on the autistic spectrum
Life with a young autist, or AS a young autist, will always be a balancing act between challenges and coping mechanisms. Educators and parents need to become canny problem solvers and lateral thinkers, in order to spot the root cause of a frustrating or non-sensical (seeming) behaviour. Then, sometimes the puzzle is unlocked. (But trying to work out an autist’s train of thought as if they were an NT can often get in the way of finding the answers!)
You may also like to read this blog on re-framing how we think of autism…
If an autistic person were a tree: visualising autism & an autistic individual’s ‘being’
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts…
There is a mum in the school playground and she seems a little different – you could say she is quirky.
There are a few small visual differences – maybe she has cool, coloured hair, the odd piercing or tattoo, and isn’t following the fashion sense of most of the mums; there’s an air of quietness about her that makes her seem aloof. But that’s not unusual, right?
Lots of people have body adornments, and don’t follow the fashion pack; and may of us are introverted.
But it’s not just that there’s something slightly different about her appearance and body language, when compared to most of the other parents and the adults at the school.
How people interact with autistic individuals
There’s a difference in terms of HOW people interact with her. The fact that she is on the autistic spectrum, and the other neurotypical adults know she’s different even before she speaks, is apparently ‘to be expected’, and normal – human nature. It has been proven that neurotypical / NT (non-autistic or non-neurodiverse) people subconsciously know that an autistic individual is different, and respond accordingly, usually in a subconscious manner. (Read more in the Scientific Reports’ paper: ‘Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments’.)
An unusual facial expression, a pause in the beat of conversation, a relaxed face instead of a forced smile, a perceived-aloof demeanour – any number of tiny subtle differences that a psychologist would notice (but that untrained eyes do not), mark this woman out as slightly different.
But the ostracision that autistic individuals (including those with Asperger Syndrome-type autistic profiles, like this woman) experience is not necessarily a conscious process – it happens intrinsically, like a sort of miscommunication at the most raw level.
If the woman does not know she has autism spectrum disorder / condition (ASD/ASC), or is ‘Aspie’, she may well develop low feelings affecting her confidence, and may experience feelings of loneliness, rejection and other issues like depression. She may even style her body differently, in terms of adornments or hair colour, just to pre-empt other people’s perceptions of her, or create a kind of barrier or field around her – again, this may be subconscious, almost like another level of autistic masking.
The in-crowd of alpha females
She is aware of the dismissive behaviour of many of her peers. In any case, she probably has no wish to fit it with the in-crowd of alpha females. But she’s spent years being a people pleaser, so probably keeps on trying to make the effort to be friendly at some level. (It should be noted of course that some of the ‘dismissive’ behaviour could itself be caused by THAT individual’s own insecurities, or social difficulties!)
Not everyone blanks the autistic woman, of course. The mums that have taken the time to have a conversation know her a little better; and there are always the other quirky types that she fits in with – maybe they have OCD, anxiety, addictions or low-moods; somehow, they spot a fellow neurodiverse individual. Perhaps they’re just attuned to the more fragile mind? Perhaps they’re NT, but simply kind and open individuals who make an effort to include others socially?
NTs find autists ‘different’
Whatever the case, these dismissive interactions are generally subconscious. Put simply, NTs find autists and those with Asperger’s ‘different’, although they may not know why – communication is a two way thing, and these two individuals – autist and NT – are speaking different languages. It’s no one person’s fault if communication breakdowns ensue.
Yes, it’s agreed that autists experience communication difficulties; however there is a wide assumption that the communication difficulties in a group setting are the autist’s fault. Not true!
It takes two to tango, and it takes two to converse
Current studies like this one: ‘Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments’ – show that the issue is in fact between the two parties conversing. It takes two to tango, and it takes two to converse.
But to what extent do specific personality or neurology types make a difference? Is it fair to assume that most of the difficulties occur between autist and neurotypical individual? Or maybe just between autist and non-empathic (or impatient) neurotypical individual?
What if a Japanese person met someone fluent in the little spoken Creole language, Taki-Taki, from South America? Would we automatically blame the South American for the difficulty in mutual communication? That would be foolish, as both individuals would struggle, based on what is known to them linguistically, and their communication abilities at that time.
The above report states that many aspects of social presentation are ‘atypical’ in individuals with ASD, including abnormal facial expressivity, irregular use of gaze, lower rates or unusual timing of expressive gestures, and unusual speech patterns.
It concludes: ‘The reluctance of ‘typically developing’ individuals to engage in social interactions with their ASD peers further limits the opportunities for individuals with ASD to practice their already fragile social skills. This can have a significant negative impact on the ability of socially aware and socially interested individuals with ASD to improve their social communication abilities.’
Our conclusion? Autists aren’t FAILING at communication. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for perceived social faux pas. We’re simply communicating in the way our autism allows us to communicate. Just as the NT individuals who don’t engage with us are doing what comes naturally to them. Importantly, IT’S NOT THE AUTIST’S FAULT. They’re not weird. Or rude. They just see the world a little differently, and communicate in subtly different ways.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
Interested to read more? Find out about ‘social hangvers’ for autists at this blog…
The emotional cutlery drawer of spoons, and the ‘social hangover’ (ASD, ASC, Asperger’s)