New to Autism?
So you've heard about this thing called autism, but don't know much about it. Maybe someone you know has it. Or your child has just been diagnosed with it.
And from what you've seen, it comes with some unusual behaviors. Poor eye contact. Meltdowns. Odd repetitive movements. Difficulty handling change. Difficulty with social interaction.
It's not from bad parenting, or because the person is doing it on purpose.
It's because the person is fighting a battle inside. They are living in a confusing world that is difficult for them to understand, and they are dealing with sensory issues, information overload, and anxiety.
We (yes, I'm autistic myself) deal with a lot of sensory overload. Lights can be too bright, sounds too loud, clothes scratchy, and food can have a weird texture. It's because our brains aren't good at filtering things out. So we get everything around us. Our brains pay attention to it all. And sometimes that gets to be too much.
Trouble with Change
We don't do change well. We like routines and to do things a certain way. And we can get really upset, frustrated, even angry when things don't go the way we want them to. It's because too much information is being fed to the decision-making parts of our brains. Too much detail.
It's so much detail that our brains get overloaded. We focus on the details. It makes it hard to categorize things and form concepts in our minds. So we have trouble seeing the similarities in people, places, situations. Everything is new. Everything is different. It's all confusing to us, so we like routine because it's familiar, and predictable.
We also have trouble with social interaction. Our behavior may seem odd, like we don't know how to behave in a given situation. But if our minds have trouble forming the concepts of situations, how can we possibly know what do in those situations? It makes it really hard to know what to say, what to do, when every situation is new and different.
And sometimes we have trouble talking. Words can be hard for us. The speech centers of our brains have trouble talking to each other, and to the parts of the brain that control speaking. So sometimes we have trouble putting thoughts into words, or trouble saying them. Some of us are completely nonverbal.
And when we do interact, we often don't make the eye contact you expect us to make. We're so focused on details that we don't see your face - we see the parts of it. We see every part of it individually. It makes your face a lot of information to process. Again, we get into sensory overload. So to avoid that overload, we look away, and don't make eye contact.
Trouble with reading faces
Because we mainly see the parts of the face, not the face as a whole, it also makes it really hard to read your expression. We don't see that you're angry or upset. We do see that your eyes are wide and staring, eyebrows arched, that your nostrils are flared, but our brains can't put that together into expression, or that the expression means you're angry. We're not ignoring what you're feeling - we just don't know how to read what you're feeling.
We tend to have a lot of anxiety, because our brains are low in serotonin, the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) that helps regulate mood. And our fight-or-flight responses are going all the time, leaving us stressed out and worked up.
We sometimes have odd behaviors. We might flap our arms or hands. We might spin in a circle. We might jump up and down. We might hum incessantly. We might touch things. It's called stimming, short for self-stimulation, and it's to comfort and soothe ourselves from all the anxiety and stress.
We may only be interested in specific things, talking about specific things or doing specific things. We have really busy parts of our brains that have trouble talking to each other. So our brains get focused on that one thing, and we have trouble branching out to other things.
It's not all bad
Those of us with autism are more than just our challenges. We often have things we're good at too. We can be really good at remembering details about things we're interested in. We sometimes have really good visual memory, and can remember everything we've seen. We sometimes see patterns in things that no one else does. We see the world in a unique way.
It's a Spectrum
The full name of Autism is Autism Spectrum Disorder. And it's important to remember that it is a spectrum. Each of us is different. For some of us, these challenges will be very severe, but for some they are minor. We may have some of these symptoms but not others. For example, some of us don't ever make eye contact, some of us do but it's uncomfortable, for some it's no difficulty at all. We each have our own unique combination of challenges we face.
So, I would ask that when you see us, meet us, interact with us, to please be kind. We're not bad people. If we're misbehaving, it's usually not on purpose. Things are challenging for us, and we're doing the best we can.