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 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…
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…
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts…
Also published on Medium.