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Hidden Disabilities: Misconceptions About Autism (guest blog)

It’s currently UK Disability History Month, 18th November – 18th December. This year, one of the themes is ‘hidden disability’. Michael, an autistic student at Warwick, has written this blog tackling some common misconceptions surrounding his hidden disability.

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It’s currently UK Disability History Month, 18th November – 18th December. This year, one of the themes is ‘hidden disability’. Michael, an autistic student at Warwick, has written this blog tackling some common misconceptions surrounding his hidden disability. If you’d also like to write a blog relevant to disabled students, please do get in touch – email disabledstudents@warwick.ac.uk. 

This month is UK Disability History Month, with the theme of hidden disabilities. I live with a hidden disability, where you cannot tell from looking at me that I am disabled and yet it affects my life every day, often in ways people wouldn’t expect: I am autistic. Like many hidden disabilities, there are lots of myths and stigma surrounding autism, so for Disability History Month I am going to discuss some of the biggest misconceptions about autism. 

  1. Autism only affects children 

One of the biggest misconceptions around autism is that it only affects children.  Autism is a developmental disability, which means it is an impairment that arises before adulthood, whilst the brain is still developing. In the case of autism, it is a condition that you are born with, not caused by any external factors (and certainly not by vaccines, a long-standing, harmful and completely disproven myth!). However, whilst it is a condition that arises in childhood, it doesn’t magically disappear when you turn eighteen and all autistic children grow up to be autistic adults.  

It is also worth noting that whilst autism begins in early development, many people are not diagnosed until adolescence or even adulthood; this is especially true at the moment, where many autistic people are only being diagnosed as adults because understanding of autism is much better than when they were children. 

  1. Autism is just being socially awkward  

Of course, one key aspect of autism is issues with socialising and communication; for example, autistic people often struggle to interpret verbal and non-verbal language, and many autistic people have limited or no speech and communicate non-verbally or using communication aids. Much of the social understanding and ways of communication that are automatic for everyone else do not come naturally at all, and this is what adds to other people’s perception of autism as ‘social awkwardness’. However, autism is much more than this. 

One largely misunderstood aspect of autism is sensory issues. Autistic people often experience over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as light, sound, textures or taste. For example, I struggle with sensory over-sensitivity; my brain cannot filter out background noise and so I find it difficult to understand a conversation in a noisy environment or concentrate in a classroom with flickering lights. Where others can tune out unimportant stimuli and focus only on what’s important, I am constantly bombarded by signals from my senses that I cannot ignore. This can become so overwhelming sometimes that I have a meltdown, where my brain cannot process everything and effectively ‘switches off’. 

Another little-known aspect of autism is our reliance on routine and repetitive behaviour. The world can often be very confusing for autistic people, between the unwritten social rules and often unpredictable sensory information, and we tend to suffer from anxiety more than most so this is one way some people cope with that. Another aspect to this is repetitive behaviours, such as flapping our hands, rocking or fiddling with objects; this helps us with processing sensory stimuli and anxiety. What may look strange or fidgety to others is in fact a way of communicating how we feel and dealing with the world around us.  

There are more symptoms of autism and not all autistic people will experience everything as I have listed, but I hope from this you can see that being autistic is much more than being ‘socially awkward’. 

  1. You don’t look autistic! 

With the theme being hidden disabilities, this is a very relevant point to list. Many autistic people hear whenever they reveal their autism that they don’t look autistic or that you never would have guessed that they’re autistic – but what does autism look like?  

Often people hear the phrase autism spectrum and imagine it as a continuum with every human being on stretching from ‘not autistic’ to ‘a bit autistic’ to ‘very autistic’. This is not the case at all! You can’t be ‘a bit autistic’ or ‘very autistic’ – you are either autistic or you aren’t. Instead, autism being a spectrum means that autism is different for everyone who has it and each person has different strengths, weaknesses and support needs. This means it is impossible to know by looking at someone whether they are autistic or not, because we are as diverse a group of people as any other. Autistic people can be any gender, any race, any age and any sexuality; like many other disabilities, people from all walks of life can have autism.  

People often say ‘you don’t look autistic’ as though it is a compliment – as though being autistic is a bad thing. But it is important to note that whilst autism is a disability and impacts on our day-to-day life, it is not a good or bad thing: it is simply a different way of being. Saying to us that we don’t look autistic may sound like a compliment, but it dismisses our experiences and difficulties, as well as making us feel like we should be ashamed of our disability (which we absolutely should not be!). 

  1. Autistic people will never live normal or fulfilling lives 

This is one of the most pervasive myths surrounding autism (and disabilities in general), and a very important one to debunk. Particularly when someone is first diagnosed with autism, people often worry that the autistic person will never be able to live a good or fulfilling life. They may believe that we will never be able to make friends, get a job or have relationships. There was a time in my life where I believed those things about myself, but today I am at university studying a subject I love, with a group of close friends who understand and support me. I might have needed more help than most people do to get to this point, but the important thing is I am happy and achieving what I have always wanted to achieve. With the correct support, autistic people can be just as happy and fulfilled in life as anyone else. 

It is also important to adjust expectations – what is a ‘normal’ life anyway? We often take non-linear paths through life, achieving milestones at our own pace, but just because our lives might look different to what’s expected of us doesn’t mean we aren’t happy. Some autistic people may never be able to go to university or get a job or get married, but that doesn’t make their lives any less worth living or any less fulfilling – it might not be what is considered a normal path through life, but so long as they are happy, why should that matter? 

I hope that you now have a better understanding of autism and some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding it. Many of my examples in this post I have taken from my own experience of being autistic, but that doesn’t mean every autistic person will experience these things in the same way – if you have an autistic friend or family member and you want to know more about how their autism affects them and what you can do to help, just ask! 

If you would like to learn more about autism and how you can support the autistic people in your lives, check out the National Autistic Society, the main charity supporting autistic people and their families and friends in the UK, or get in contact with Autism at Warwick, the university’s society for autistic students. If you would like to learn more about UK Disability History Month, check out the UKDHM website. 

Thank you for reading! 

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