April is Autism Awareness Month, when people are encouraged to take time to understand more about autism, and how it affects autistic people and their everyday lives.
According to the National Autistic Society, more than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum, and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.
Autistic people can face inequality, misunderstanding and isolation – so it’s important for those who aren’t on the autistic spectrum to be aware of these challenges, to empathise with them, and try and make the world a little easier for autistic people where they can.
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.
It’s a spectrum condition and affects people in different ways, with no two people being the same in their strengths and challenges. You might have someone in your family who’s autistic, or know a child at your children’s school on the autism spectrum.
The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people might need significant support in their daily lives, while others need less support and live completely independent lives.
The National Autistic Society has some excellent information to help understand what challenges autistic people may face during their everyday experiences:
Communication and social interaction
Autistic people can find it hard to understand concepts like tone of voice. For example, they may take what you’re saying literally when you’re being sarcastic. Some autistic people have limited speech or are unable to speak to all, while other autistic people have fantastic language skills but still struggle to recognise tone of voice.
Repetitive and restrictive behaviour
Autistic people often prefer to have routines so that they know exactly what is going to happen and when. They may prefer to travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat the same meal every day for months at a time.
As a result, changes to routine can be very distressing for autistic people and make them extremely anxious. Having to adjust to large disruptions like changing schools, or even small events like a quick bus detour, can trigger their anxiety.
Anxiety can impact quality of life for autistic people and their families, so it’s important for them to recognise their triggers and find coping mechanisms to reduce stress.
Autistic people may experience increased sensitivity to sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, certain background sounds like music in a restaurant may be unbearably loud or distracting to an autistic person.
Likewise, schools, workplaces and shops can be particularly overwhelming and cause sensory overload for an autistic person. You may have seen some supermarkets adopting a ‘quiet hour’ where they turn down lighting and switch off sounds, to help those with autism or parents with autistic children enjoy an easier shopping experience.
Highly focused interests and hobbies
Many autistic people have intense and highly focused interests, often from a young age. They can become experts in their special interests, and often like to share their knowledge.
Being highly focused helps many autistic people perform well academically and at work, but they can also become so engrossed in particular topics or activities that they neglect other aspects of their lives, so it’s important to look out for things like poor personal hygiene.
Meltdowns and shutdowns
When everything becomes too much for an autistic person, they can go into meltdown or shutdown. These are very intense and exhausting experiences for them.
A meltdown happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioural control. In children, this is often mistaken for temper tantrums as they struggle to express how they’re feeling.
A shutdown appears less intense to the outside world but can be equally debilitating. Shutdowns are also a response to being overwhelmed, and might appear as though an autistic person has gone quiet or has ‘switched off’.
If you think you or a child may have autism, it’s important to get in touch with a doctor to get a diagnosis. Of course, many non-autistic people share similar sensitivities and challenges with autistic people, so it’s always worth speaking to a medical professional to understand the root of particular behaviours and discuss coping mechanisms.