April is Autism Awareness Month, with a purpose of raising awareness, acceptance and inclusion surrounding autism. By promoting acceptance and understanding of autism and neurodiversity we can create a more inclusive and supportive society for all individuals, regardless of their abilities. Neurodiverse individuals should be valued and celebrated for who they are, not stigmatised or marginalised for their differences.
We explore four ways you can grow your understanding of autism in order to be part of building a more inclusive and supportive society for autistic people of all ages.
1. Know that all autistic people* are diverse
Autistic people are as diverse as any other group of individuals. Autism is a spectrum, which means that there is a wide range of abilities and characteristics within the autism community.
“We’re all different, just like neurotypical people,” writes Megan for
WhyNot. “It’s called a spectrum for a reason, and if people have associated conditions such as ADHD, OCD, or intellectual disabilities, they will present with vast differences despite all being autistic. You don’t have to meet every diagnostic criterion to be autistic, so some autistic people might not present in the stereotypical way.”
While some autistic individuals may have exceptional abilities in certain areas, such as maths or music, this is not true for all autistic people. Research (Happé & Frith, 2014, Van der Hallen et al., 2015) has shown that while some autistic individuals may excel in certain areas, such as pattern recognition or attention to detail, others may struggle with these same skills.
By embracing neurodiversity and promoting acceptance of individual differences we can create a more inclusive and supportive society for all. As the I CAN Network states, "the world needs every kind of mind."
Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) created a great article for World Autism Understanding Day titled
If you find out I'm autistic, this is what I want you to know...
“The most important message is that no two autistic people are the same and that autism may not be what you think it is. It’s not a one-size-fits all approach and there is so much misunderstanding out in the public. Fitting in can be exhausting. The environment and people’s attitudes can often be more of a barrier for people on the autism spectrum.” (Aspect)
*CELA follows Aspect's viewpoint around how to describe autism, including using identity-first language. We realise that this is not everyone's preference and respect that each person may have their own views on describing autism. 2. Understand that autism is not a mental illness: it is part of an individual’s identity
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person processes information and interacts with the world around them. Autism is not a disease or a defect but rather a part of an individual's identity.
Autistic individuals have a unique way of perceiving the world that can bring both strengths and challenges. They may experience sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties and social differences that can impact their daily lives.
Unfortunately, the misconception that autism is a mental illness or defect can lead to harmful stereotypes and discrimination. This stigma can prevent autistic individuals from receiving the support they need to thrive.
Therefore, it is important to recognise autism as a part of an individual's identity rather than a disease or disorder. By promoting acceptance and understanding of autism, we can create a more inclusive and supportive society for everyone, regardless of their abilities.
3. Learn about identity-first language and how it differs from person-first language
Many autistic people and their advocates prefer what's referred to as “identity-first” language because it respects their sense of self and acknowledges that autism shapes their experiences and perspectives.
Identity-first language refers to the use of "autistic" or "autistic person" instead of "person with autism" or "person who has autism." This language choice reflects the belief that autism is an inherent part of a person's identity and should not be separated from the individual.
Person-first language, on the other hand, places the person before the disability or difference, such as "person with autism" or "person who has autism." This language choice aims to focus on the person first and their individuality rather than defining them solely by their disability or difference. However, some autistic people and advocates argue that person-first language can still perpetuate a sense of shame or negativity towards the disability, as it suggests that the person is separate from their autism or that autism is something that can be removed or cured.
Thomas Kuzma, an autism advocate and Aspect’s Engagement Officer explains his view on language in his
video titled Autism and Identity: "As an autism advocate, I identify as an autistic person. To me, autism is a part of my identity, as I have lived with this condition my whole life. It has taken time for me to be accepting of who I am and now I have reached a place in my life where I accept that my condition is a part of who I am, hence my phrasing, ‘autistic person’."
The use of identity or person-first language is a complex issue that involves the beliefs and experiences of the individuals involved. As Aspect states, "It is important to listen to and respect the preferences of individuals on how they wish to be identified and referred to."
4. Understand how to help autistic children learn through play
Engaging with children through play is an important way to build trusting relationships and promote children’s learning and understanding of the world. By getting to know an autistic child deeply and understand their interests and how they like to play, we can help them to learn and build their social capabilities.
It’s important to know that play may be different for an autistic child. Often autistic children are disinterested in the environment surrounding them, showing a preference for solitary play. They may not notice the people or resources in the space but are engrossed in their play, lining up cars or sorting shapes, possibly totally intrigued by a reflection, shadow, or the cause and effect of an opening and closing door. This lack of interest in people and the general environment can be a barrier to the child’s ability to imitate or to play imaginatively.
However, this does not need to be the case. Joining the child in their play requires skill from an educator who can seamlessly introduce new ideas, provoking the child’s curiosity The time might be fleeting but the engagement was real. And this is just the beginning.
Educators can use the child’s interests as a starting point for play and learning, and for bringing the play to life. It's particularly important for autistic and neurodivergent children as it can help them to develop multiple uses of materials and play objects rather than being fixated on one aspect. It takes time, relationships and careful observations to be able to engage in play in this way without taking the child’s agency away.
Look carefully and notice what the child is doing in play. Find their spotlight of attention and what they’re really interested in. Forget about your own agenda and any plans you had for the play.
Many autistic children are missing out on learning opportunities because they’re not interested in people. It’s up to us to make ourselves worth looking at and paying attention to—this is all part of using responsive interactions. Responsive interactions builds on social, back-and-forth interchanges with a child. Facial expressions and speech can be used by educators to attract a child's attention as part of a responsive interaction.
Watch this video showing an educator using responsive strategies during play with trains:
By connecting in this way, educators can provide clear messages the children that they are valued, respected, and worth our time. In order to do this we need to immerse ourselves in the play and become a supportive and helpful play-partner (Rogers & Dawson, 2010).
Summary of key points:
Autistic people can have a wide range of abilities and challenges. By embracing neurodiversity and promoting acceptance of individual differences we can create a more inclusive and supportive society for all.
Autism is not a mental illness, but a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person processes information and interacts with the world around them. It can bring both strengths and challenges, but it is important to recognise autism as part of an individual’s identity.
Many autistic people and their advocates prefer what's referred to as "identity-first" language, which reflects the belief that autism is an inherent part of a person's identity and should not be separated from the individual. However, it’s important to respect that each person may have a different preference over the language they use. As Aspect states, "It is important to listen to and respect the preferences of individuals on how they wish to be identified and referred to."
By getting to know an autistic child deeply and understand their interests, and by using responsive strategies during play, we can help them to learn and build their social capabilities.
*CELA follows Aspect's viewpoint around how to describe autism, including using identity-first language. We realise that this is not everyone's preference and respect that each person may have their own views on describing autism. References:
Happé F, Frith U. Annual research review: Towards a developmental neuroscience of atypical social cognition. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014 Jun;55(6):553-7. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12162. PMID: 24963529.
Van der Hallen R, Evers K, Brewaeys K, Van den Noortgate W, Wagemans J. Global processing takes time: A meta-analysis on local-global visual processing in ASD. Psychol Bull. 2015 May;141(3):549-73. doi: 10.1037/bul0000004. Epub 2014 Nov 24. PMID: 25420221.