Let’s All Strive to Move from Autism Awareness to Autism Acceptance!
By Judith E. Lipson, M.A., LPC
I hope that one of the reasons that you follow my work is to continue to understand various ‘differences’ from a more expansive view. This article is about autism. It’s when we understand the “why” of something that we can truly learn to accept it for what it is. Autism is not a condition to cure, but rather it is a series of conditions that causes or allows the individual to interact with their inner and outer environment differently. Sometimes this brings about challenges, but that’s most frequently due to our rigid societal expectations and assumptions. Let’s all learn to recognize the aspects, and see the gifts that are part of this spectrum, so that we no longer view it as a “disorder”.
Q: What is autism?
A: Autism isn’t one condition. It’s a collection of related conditions that are so intertwined and so impossible to pick apart, that professionals have stopped trying. If you only check one or two boxes, then they don’t call it autism, they call it something else. Here’s a graphic of the various aspects. Remember that autism is a spectrum condition. Some individuals with autism (sometimes referred to as autistics) have less of one of these issues, or it may no longer be apparent. According to the DSM-5, autism is a life-long condition that can ease in intensity and life-challenging ways, but it doesn’t go away. And remember: If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met ONE person with autism.
Q: Is the person ‘an individual with autism’ or ‘autistic’?
A: That’s actually a good question and you will get differing responses. Initially we referred to these folks as autistics. Then perspectives about disabilities changed and it was considered most appropriate to see them as individuals who are not defined by autism, but rather who have autism (recognizing that they have many other facets to define them). I work with a lot of folks on the spectrum, from many age groups, and am frequently told that they recognize how autism informs their daily lives, and thus very positively and proudly define themselves as autistic (along with their other descriptors of spouse, parent, employee, artist, writer, etc.)
Q: I hear that it is harder to identify girls and women on the spectrum.
A: It does seem to be more difficult since females present differently than males.
All the literature, clients that I talk to, and my experiences with my own clients acknowledge that recognizing and diagnosing autism in those who are born female can be more challenging. Some believe it’s because many girls seem to intrinsically find it easier to mimic peers as well as others’ socialization. Additionally, they are less likely to have the same types of areas of interests as their male counterparts, so their identity on the spectrum is less recognized.
My intention in this section is to provide you with a variety of links that can better inform you. I hope you find this information beneficial. I encourage you to reach out with questions, and to let me know about any professionals that you have met who are adept at diagnosing ASD in the AFAB (assigned female at birth) population.
From the article, Why Do Many Autistic Girls Go Undiagnosed? by the Child Mind Institute: “Autism is a developmental disorder that is marked by two unusual kinds of behaviors: deficits in communication and social skills, and restricted or repetitive behaviors. Children with autism also often have sensory processing issues. But here’s the hitch, according to Susan F. Epstein, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist. ‘The model that we have for a classic autism diagnosis has really turned out to be a male model. That’s not to say that girls don’t ever fit it, but girls tend to have a quieter presentation, with not necessarily as much of the repetitive and restricted behavior, or it shows up in a different way.’ Stereotypes may get in the way of recognition. ‘So where the boys are looking at train schedules, girls might have excessive interest in horses or unicorns, which is not unexpected for girls,’ Dr. Epstein notes. ‘But the level of the interest might be missed and the level of oddity can be a little more damped down. It’s not quite as obvious to an untrained eye.’ She adds that as the spectrum has grown, it’s gotten harder to diagnose less-affected boys as well.”
In the article: Autism is Still Under-Diagnosed in Girls and Women, they propose four ways testing should change: “From an autistic woman’s perspective, the diagnostic assessments need rethinking:
- they should consider autistic strengths and not focus solely on deficits and impairments. Sometimes autism isn’t considered because of the presence of strengths
- they should incorporate the common lived experiences of autistic women. These have now been well-documented by autistic women, many with successful careers and yet areas of difficulty
- the differences between the presentation of autism in females and males should be reflected in the diagnostic criteria
- autistic people should be included in the design and content of diagnostic tests.”
Why Camouflage Autism? specifically talks about a female’s potential for camouflaging their autism.
Developing a Positive Sense of Identity by Dr. Michelle Garnett explains more about spectrum women developing a positive identity and includes many insights to recognizing ASD in females. It also discusses the benefits of identifying it earlier, as well as the uniqueness of having ASD as a woman.
Autistic Women in the Workplace provides guidance to identify one’s career, and to recognize greater understanding of the special challenges as well as the special gifts that autistic women (or women with autism) can provide. Gifts can include leadership skills, teamwork, communication skills, and work ethic. Some of these items might surprise you; I encourage you to read the article. The author also discusses guidance for receiving accommodations in the workplace.
And learn how to address social challenges at work as an autistic adult.
The Boston Globe article entitled What Happens to Autistic Children Once They Become Adults offers a bit more generalized approach to ASD and careers. This article highlights some amazing work programs that have been developed in Florida and Massachusetts.
There are many resources for folks with ASD who are in relationships. I happen to love this article since it approaches healthy relationship-building from both the ASD and neurotypical perspective. How to Be the Best Partner to an Autistic or Neurotypical Person is both enlightening and refreshing. 10 Things You Need to Know About Your Autistic Partner is also enlightening.
Anytime we talk about autism I think it is imperative to have an opportunity to better understand meltdowns. This article about meltdowns, written by one with autism, offers an outstanding opportunity to understand the process and the experience. By the way, this is not a quiz asking you to select the correct choice for each item. Rather, each issue provides a variety of ways to understand what is really happening. Please read each item (A through E) that completes each phrase so that you can better understand your family member who experiences meltdowns.
And here’s a related article about autistic burnout. The authors explain that it is different than depression (though depression might be incorporated in the symptoms) because there is increased sensory sensitivity and the need to isolate in order to recover.
Q: Why does my student with autism make a prolonged noise when I begin to speak, but stops when I stop talking?
A: Sometimes individuals are highly triggered by sounds, yet by covering it with something they can control (tapping, shrieking, etc.) it is easier for them to deal with the original sound.
Q: I have been told that my student’s behaviors are stims. What does that mean? I feel that they are distracting and disruptive for my student and I want to know how to make them stop.
A: Stims or stimming is shorthand for self-stimulating behaviors. These are actually quite helpful for your student as they help them to soothe their (overly) reactive nervous system in the moment. I was at a conference once where the presenter suggested that we try to mimic these behaviors on our own to see how it feels. Most neuro-typicals do indeed find them soothing. Regardless, it is soothing for your student. I was also cautioned by this presenter to be careful when trying to stop a stim, as it will be replaced by something else, which might not be as socially or classroom acceptable. Here’s a graphic that explains more about stimming.
Q: How do you teach appropriate eye contact?
A: First of all, let’s understand the possible reasons why those with ASD or other individuals avoid eye contact:
- Some cultures discourage looking into another’s eyes.
- If the individual has misaligned eyes (eyes that don’t work together adequately), uncomfortable distortions can occur prompting them to avoid looking at an individual’s face. Misaligned eyes, which are typically not recognized by an untrained professional or without a neuro-vision exam, can also cause challenges with reading, eye-hand coordination, balance and/or depth perception. Click here for a questionnaire provided by a neuro-vision clinic.
- Individuals who have experienced abuse have often learned that it is safer to not look someone in the eyes.
- Intuitive, empathic individuals may avoid eye contact because they “know everything there is to know about the person, and feel it in their own body”. (I originally learned about this from a 17 year old student who explained this to me with those words.) The answer to the next question offers a strategy for this.
If it is still deemed appropriate to teach eye contact you can suggest that the individual make brief, but regular or occasional visual contact with the individual’s face, possibly looking at the eyebrows instead of the eyes.
Q: How do I tune down how sensitive I can be?
A: Part of this answer is energetic, part of it is how you think about things.
- You don’t need all the possible information to know how to respond, so bring in less.
- Turn down your senses just like you turn down the volume of the podcast or music that you are listening to.
- Understand that it is not your job to take care of everyone, or to ‘save the world’.
- Practice energy modulation and drain your receptacle. (Listen to this short clip to learn how.)
- Practice radical acceptance for having this gift.
Q: I’m wondering how autism (ASD) and ADHD may be reflecting a more evolved state.
A: The theory that I offer here is not based on research or data, yet I have heard it discussed by others. I believe the increase in the number of folks with ASD or ADHD may be related to the fact that they are neurologically more sensitive to their environment. We know that these folks tend to be Sensitives. It makes sense that if they are highly attuned to their 5 senses, then they are also sensitive to various factors in our environment. This includes a hyper-reactivity to sensory input as well as various chemicals, additives, and drugs in our food, air and water. All of this can lead to medical conditions as well as neurological over-stimulation leading to meltdowns and other difficulties.
There are also benefits with these heightened awarenesses. These individuals at their core often have a very evolved awareness of Oneness. They seem to have a clearer sense of peace, goodness, and compassion for others and are more in touch with our similarities than our differences. They have a very clear sense of right vs wrong and are often quite frustrated with the state of the world. Hence, I’m very pleased that their numbers appear to be increasing as we need citizens who are more prone to bringing light, goodness, and compassion to our systems as well as enlightened relationships with each other.
Hans Asperger said, “It seems that for success, in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. For success the necessary ingredients may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simple practical, an ability to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways.”
And as stated by Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield, MI. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties, work or school related anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and those who wish to Remember and Become ‘Who You Really Are’. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and email@example.com, and visit www.JudyLipson.com for more information.
This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to replace medical care.