A Piece on Autism and Neurodiversity

So many neuro-typical people minimise the lived experience of autistic people by joking that they themselves are “a little bit autistic”.

Have you ever heard someone say “I’m a bit on the spectrum…” because they like to have a clean desk or a tidy car? 

These glib comments lead to the minimisation of autism and, in my view, chip away at the authentic identity of our autistic peers. This, I feel, is not good enough. 

Autism is an invisible, complex neurological difference that influences how people experience and interact with the world. Approximately 50,000 – 75,000 people in Ireland are autistic. Each person with a diagnosis of autism is unique. Just as no two autistic people are the same, no two neuro-typical people are the same. This is a crucial point.  Generalisation, when it comes to supporting people, does not work. Imagine the danger of assuming you know all about a race of people after meeting one person from that race. It is inconceivable!

People whose brains function differently to the general population are considered to be neuro-divergent; autism falls into this category. We need to affirm the neuro-divergent experience though understanding, empathy and curiosity. We need to celebrate the unique perspective that our autistic friends have and we need to strive towards understanding the requirements that they may have to thrive and become successful. 

As our autistic friends are living in a world that is designed mainly with neuro-typical people in mind, it can be a frustrating place to be. For example, from babyhood, we are told that we need to look people in the eye when we are talking to them. This can be painful for some autistic people. It can also feel like an act that is too intimate to be used in casual interaction. We need to respect and accept this experience; we need to stop forcing people to act in ways that feels uncomfortable to them.

The neurodiversity movement asks us to consider the human race as one beautiful, bold group of humans, each with a different brain and mind. Neurodiversity embraces and celebrates the differences that exist between us all, it does not rate us or put us on spectrums. 

The ideology of autism as a spectrum has become linked to the idea that some people are “high functioning” while others are “low functioning” – I wonder, who determines this? How can we rate if one human is better at functioning than another? Are they better at breathing, eating, drawing, driving or telling jokes? 

As humans, perhaps our energy would be better served by trying to understand each-others’ preferences, interests, dreams and wishes. Let’s help one another out, let’s strive towards understanding each other, let’s accept that we each have flaws that need to be accommodated. Autistic people need help to understand the ways of the neuro-typical world, and neuro-typical people need help to understand the ways of the autistic world. Let’s start by focusing on each other, rather than the diagnosis or lack thereof. 

So, next time you hear someone say that an autistic person is “on the spectrum” perhaps you can retort by saying “oh yes, the spectrum of humanity!”

Rita Ní Dhuigneáin, Chartered Psychologist, Ps.S.I

Rita is a Psychologist at National Learning Network (NLN), the training and educational division of the Rehab Group.