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…
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; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts…
Growing up as an aspie kid in the seventies and eighties in Britain sucked. But it sucked for everyone, in some respects. No one had heard of autism (outside of psychiatry circles) anyway. Of course, those of us that are aspie didn’t even know we had Asperger’s Syndrome, or any autism profile, back then. We just knew we felt different, and saw the world differently to our peers.
The 70s and 80s were wonderful in many ways. But growing up as an aspie kid in the 70s & 80s sucked. (Stock shot).
If we could sum up the era of the 1970s and 1980s in one word it would be disrespect. Of course, there were benefits to growing up in this era – no technology to interfere with playing in the great outdoors, for example – however there was a happy slappy culture in UK homes that saw many parents dish out smacks willy nilly, and use unkind name calling.
At school, corporal punishment was no longer an issue (at this author’s 1980s comprehensive school at least – as corporal punishment was outlawed in UK state schools in 1986; my second year of high school.)
However, teachers weren’t immune to flinging wooden blackboard rubbers around with happy abandon, and they were verbally abusive on occasion.
Casual violence in schools and homes
Some things are best consigned to history.
A lackadaisical approach to casual violence seeped through generations and families. As it was ‘ok’ to smack your kids at home, it was ok to do it at school. Boys hit boys, boys hit girls, and the school bus often witnessed ripples of slaps to the back of heads going down the aisles.
(Incidentally, modern research has, thankfully, found that smacking kids is detrimental.
The NHS reports that: “Researchers made the case that smacking in childhood could have the same long-term negative impact as traumatic life events, such as being sexually abused or parents getting divorced.”)
Autistic in the 1980s
In my comprehensive (high) school, with 180 kids in my year, three or four kids would likely have been autistic. I can only recall one person in my peer group who may have had learning difficulties, and he was regularly tormented, and had legendary ‘meltdowns’, when school furniture would fly. I don’t remember him receiving any special support from educators, but perhaps he did.
Lorna Wing’s pioneering work in autism research
Psychiatrist and autism researcher Lorna Wing and her colleagues would go on to change the face of autism research. Ms Wing pioneered new changes to autism diagnostic criteria; in 1981 she published a paper called: ‘Asperger’s Syndrome: a Clinical Account’, however Asperger’s wasn’t included in medical diagnostic guidelines until the 1990s.
So, in the 1980s, in the average British household, few people had heard of autism. (The film Rainman didn’t hit cinemas until 1989, and it was probably the first time many people had any kind of awareness about autism.)
In addition, in my educational circle at least, few people knew of dyslexia; and anyone perceived as being different, whether due to perceived sexuality, neurodiversity or otherwise, was subject to widespread disrespect.
Kind words, kind hands
Family life through the ages
There was no talk of kind hands or kind words in the 1970s. Our parents were born in the years directly after the war. Many new parents in the 40s and 50s must have suffered terribly, if not directly by active service and the toll this took (especially in terms of the many fathers who didn’t return home), than by austerity. The post war years were stark for many families. Good food was presumably scarce in many homes, emotions were frayed, and money, for many families at least, must have been extremely tight. Respect for children was presumably low down on the list! So, it’s no wonder that by the time the post war babies became parents, familiar disrespectful habits were resurfacing.
It’s key to remember that autistic children experience difficulties with social communication, expressive language, impulse control, repetitive processes and sensory challenges. Being smacked surely only adds to their sense of confusion?
This disrespectful culture has changed
Thankfully, now many of the kids of the seventies and eighties are parents too, to a large degree this disrespectful culture has changed. It does of course depend on individual circumstances, socio-economic situations, as well as culture, geography and finances, but for the most part, today’s parents are seemingly more respectful. Smacking children is very much frowned upon in all circles.
Autism education has never been so accessible
Smacking children was de rigour in the 80s and 70s
Today there is also a wealth of information available to us on parenting and neurodiversity, and of course, resources are just a click away online. Want to order a book on autistic traits in children, or go on a ‘Parenting the PDA child’ course? Google will sort that out for you in seconds. Autism education has never been so accessible.
Smacking kids, and the law
Smacking is currently not illegal in the UK, providing it amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’, according to section 58 of the Children Act 2004. However, Scotland and Wales are planning to ban smacking, at the time of writing.
So, in the 21st century, smacking children is a no-go; but even if it wasn’t frowned upon (or made illegal), today’s parents just don’t want to smack our kids (although sadly there are bound to be some exceptions). Why would we want to inflict violence on our children? We know from experience it serves no purpose. It’s invariably just a frustration-releasing exercise on the part of the parent.
Kind hands and words for autists
And for parents of autistic children, it’s important to teach them that kind hands and words are the way forward. Life is already frustrating enough for young autists, and their impulse control is often under-developed. The very many kind and empathetic kids around today, who are educated about showing and understanding their emotions, is testament to today’s more respectful familial society.
So what’s the next step? Certainly, for all generations to learn more about autism. And, we believe, for the respect that we’ve mentioned to continue across the autism community. Currently there’s noticeable divisions between #actuallyautistic activists and educators, and self-styled warrior ‘autism parents’. The latter may seek cures for their children’s autism, and some speak of ‘loving the child, hating the autism’, as if the two were separate. You can even wear a t shirt emblazoned with phrases such as these!
(Read our views below!!)
‘I’m a haemorrhoid warrior!’ Why Autism T-shirts and ‘Autism Warrior’ garments are insidiously wrong
If autists could gain the respect that every neurodiverse individual deserves, the world would certainly be a better place, for ourselves and for future generations.
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!