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  • Writer's pictureTaja Estrada, Ph.D.

What is Autism, Really?

April is Autism Acceptance Month! Most people have heard the term 'autism' before. Many people have someone close to them who is autistic themselves - perhaps a cousin, uncle, or your child's friend. But what does autism look like, really? One of my favorite phrases is "When you meet an autistic child, you've met only one autistic child." That is to say, autism looks different for each individual. We all have our own personalities, and autistic individuals are no exception.

Simply put, 'autism' is a way to describe a neurodiverse pattern of thinking. Autistic individuals are highly sensory - in fact, sensory processing is often their primary language! Autistic children and adults often experience hyper- or hypo- sensitivity to various sensations, such as sound, touch, taste, scent, and vision. While one autistic child may cover his ears when out in public due to the overwhelming sensation of the surrounding sounds, another autistic child may constantly seek out sounds and ask you to turn up the radio while driving in the car. Autistic people have unique ways of organizing their world so that their sensory needs can be met. These strategies are unique to each individual. Perhaps they line up their toys and belongings, dive deep into one particular topic, such as dinosaurs, or engage in "stimming" behaviors, such as hand-flapping, body tensing, and facial grimacing. All of these behaviors help organize their brains and give them a sense of comfort in a world that, sadly, isn't currently well-suited for a neurodiverse brain style. When these needs are not able to be met, autistic individuals become overwhelmed and they may begin to scream in a high pitch, cry, rock their bodies back and forth, bang their head on the wall, or hit themselves on the head.

Based on their brain wirings, autistic people have difficulty with understanding and responding to social cues in the same way neurotypical people may expect. For example, the sensation of making eye contact has been described as too intense by many autistic children and adults. Engaging in reciprocal conversations is also challenging, but not impossible. They may be very excited and animated to talk about their favorite subject, such as Minecraft, fairies, cats, or trains. Yet, autistic individuals have difficulty understanding other people's perspectives, which may result in limited back-and-forth conversations (often seen as 'chatting' by many neurotypical individuals). These challenges often result in difficulty maintaining friendships with others. While many autistic children and adults yearn for friendships with their peers, they haven't quite figured out the "how" part of the equation: How do I find people who 'get' me? How do I make them my friend? How do I keep these friends?

Autism looks different for each person - and it also looks very different for females and males (The nuances of these gender differences will be covered in my next blog post!). And it isn't as uncommon as one would think: in March 2020, the CDC estimated that about 1 in every 54 children have been diagnosed with autism. 20 years ago, that figure was 1 in 150 children. Wow! That is a ton of newly-identified unique, neurodiverse people, who all help make this world a better place. Soon we will hopefully be able to make this world a better place for autistic individuals by accepting their differences and learning how we, as a society, can alter the environment to make it more friendly for our autistic friends and loved ones.

Note: If you're reading this and wondering why I used identity-first language (i.e., autistic person) instead of person-first language (i.e., person with autism), I encourage you to learn more about the importance of terminology. While I myself am still getting out of the decade-long habit of using person-first language, the foremost principle of autism acceptance is listening to the words, lived experiences, and preferences of autistic individuals.

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