This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!
Yesterday I shared seven highlights of being autistic; today I’m sharing seven challenges. It would be dishonest to imply that autism is without struggle – that it is a purely neutral neurological difference – and it would make advocating for necessary supports far more difficult. We have to acknowledge what our problems and needs are before we can ask for help or expect others to recognize our challenges, after all.
- Social communication deficits
- This is part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, actually. This is all the awkwardness and unusual behavior and missed cues – the differences in posture or gesture or volume that make a person stand out, or the more subtle tells of anxious fidgets and poorly timed laughter. This is being 13 and hurting a family member’s feelings because you didn’t appear grateful for their Christmas present, and being totally confused about it because you thought you had done everything right. This is being in high school and having a peer tell you that you really ought to look someone in the eye when having a conversation – and then learning to focus on people’s noses instead, so well that your psychologist doesn’t realize that’s what you’re doing (this may be part of why I like large and distinctive noses 😛 ). This is laughing with everyone else even though you didn’t understand the joke, or laughing at statements that no one else finds amusing. This is forgetting social scripts because you’re just so excited about something, and jumping right into the topic without the formalities of the greeting first. This is mistiming the breaks in the conversation and either cutting people off before they’ve finished or pausing too long and making them think you’re tuning out. It looks different for everyone, but it is always present and it takes a toll; even if you can play the part most of the time, it can be extremely draining, and when you can’t act that role you risk stares and stigma.
- Sensory sensitivities
- This can also be a major struggle for many (most, probably) autistic people. Noises (even at normal volumes) can be physically painful or excruciatingly uncomfortable, as can certain smells. Textures – as relates to both touch and taste – can be incredibly important. Rondel cannot tolerate the texture of foods like banana, avocado, and sweet potato, for instance, and craves very cold or very dry foods instead. Touch can be very overstimulating; for example, we were releasing ladybugs and while the kids were letting them walk all over their hands, the feel of their feet on my hand made my whole body tense up and lingered for hours after the fact. While every autistic person is going to have different sensitivities, it is fair to assume that all of us will “overreact” to some sensory input in potentially unexpected ways – and it’s just the way our minds and bodies work together.
- Language development
- Many autistic people struggle with some sort of language impairment; autistic speech ranges the full spectrum from non-verbal to completely fluent, but even the most verbal individuals tend to show certain idiosyncrasies. Some autistic individuals use assisted communication devices to help express their thoughts and feelings in words when they can’t do so verbally. My friend’s son can speak a limited number of words and phrases (always increasing!) that he uses to express a large range of questions and comments. Rondel began speaking rather earlier than normal, but his speech was very difficult to understand and his grasp of pronouns is still shaky (he refers to himself in second person, especially in emotionally charged environments). I used to have fairly significant echolalia, and would repeat whole sentences or the final few words of a sentence after speaking (I remember doing it quietly for a while, and then just in my head eventually. At one point my mom told me that she had considered taking me to a professional about it when I was little, but it tapered off on its own). Language abilities are not an accurate indication of an autistic individual’s intelligence or communicative desire, however. Amy Sequenzia is an excellent example of a person who, despite not being able to speak, has intelligent and powerful thoughts and ideas to share – she just uses the written word instead of the spoken word to do so.
- Rigidity (discomfort with uncertainty and change)
- An autistic person doesn’t necessarily have a rigid schedule for each day which must be followed down to the time at which they use the bathroom – that’s a bit of a stereotype. But routines are most certainly a source of stability and thus of comfort, and it takes some time for the autistic mind to recalibrate when those routines are changed. Just today, for instance, I had to do bedtime with all three kids on my own, so I brought Aubade’s bed into the boys’ room and talked all afternoon about how we were going to have a sleepover and I would be snuggling with Aubade so I’d still be in the same room as the boys. When bedtime actually came, however, and the normal routine was altered by the fact that I was on Aubade’s bed rather than one of theirs, Rondel couldn’t handle it. He became angry, defiant, argumentative, and so keyed up that he couldn’t stay still or quiet, until he left the room for a bit to rage away his discomfort and adjust to the changed circumstances. I have found that for both myself and Rondel it is best to have a clear idea the night before (or at least first thing in the morning) what the general plan will be for the day, so that I’m not setting up expectations to be unmet, and to be honest and patient when plans do have to change.
- When I spoke with my psychologist on Thursday, she mentioned in passing that anxiety is such an assumed aspect of autism that not all clinicians even bother to mention it separately on a diagnosis. I always, always thought anxiety was normal. I didn’t realize until adulthood that most people don’t feel sharp pain in their chest after every significant social event (like an evening spent with a date), or have to do breathing exercises before making a phone call, or go through life with a generalized fear that they’re going to make a mistake and ruin everything, or scratch their skin until it bleeds to keep the nervous tension manageable. I didn’t even know that all of that was called anxiety until my youngest sister was diagnosed and I found myself trying to explain it to our middle sister… it was just how life was, for me. And apparently that’s how it is for most autistic people; according to Chris Bonnello’s 2018 autism survey (with over 11,000 responses), about 60% of autistic people struggle with anxiety disorders – it was at the top of the list of co-occuring mental health conditions.
- Intellectual impairment
- This isn’t a side of autism I’ve personally experienced, except potentially secondhand though my friend’s son (although it is hard to tell because of his language delays). But according to the scientific literature at least half of all autistic individuals are also intellectually impaired, and in clinical terms this is the dividing line between “low-functioning” and “high-functioning” autism (I’m aware some people dislike these terms for their over-simplification and potentially demeaning tone, but as they’re used in the scientific literature it’s helpful to know the definition of the terms in that context). Autism advocacy that ignores this half of the autistic population is thus woefully incomplete! And this is definitely a challenge, given the unreliable quality of special education in the schools and residential support for adults. These people are at the highest risk of being abused, neglected, or taken advantage of, and it is important for society as a whole to realize that having less intelligence – just like having poorer social skills! – does not make a person less deserving of dignity and as much autonomy as is feasible.
- Emotional expression
- Emotions can be terrifyingly treacherous for autistic people. They can be devilishly difficult to decipher, acutely uncomfortable to witness, and extremely explosive to experience. I find myself trying to share with Rondel the same lessons I had to learn about the anger that tries to take over, and empathizing with the overwhelming strength of those volatile emotions (I still have them after all – I’ve just learned more coping strategies by now). Some of the scenes in movies that are most moving to my husband are intensely horrible for me because of the raw and visible emotion involved; I can engage more fully with the character’s emotion if it is diluted or filtered somehow, like through the written words of a book or animation and scripting aimed at a younger audience. Otherwise it is too overwhelming. Similarly, I struggle to talk verbally about things that are important to me (or things that have a lot of anxiety wrapped around them). Both my mom and my husband have at different times in my life maintained a joint journal where I could write down things I needed to express and communicate and receive written responses without the anxiety-ridden emotional tension of a face-to-face conversation.
Every autistic individual struggles with different challenges, and these are just a few of many. I didn’t touch on the existential loneliness of feeling disconnected and different and left-out; the low employment rates of autistic adults; the common physical co-morbidities associated with autism; or the ever-present mask and concomitant imposter syndrome. But I think it is important to share another finding from Chris Bonnello’s survey: that of all his autistic respondents, less than 15% would take a cure for autism if it existed.
Challenges and all, autism is a part of our identity and to remove it would be to fundamentally change who we are. Instead of trying to do that, let’s acknowledge our differences and struggles and design (or improve, or strengthen) the societal supports that will allow autistic individuals to flourish and thrive in their own unique way.