To be neurotypical and to have an autistic person in your life means that you are dealing with someone whose brain is wired entirely differently than yours. Some, like myself, may be intelligent, and therefore assumed to be normal (normal being defined as within two standard deviations from the mean). I have a MENSA qualifying IQ, and a vast vocabulary, but I am still neurologically disabled. Some, especially women with autism, may have developed social masking to better hide their disabilities and function in social situations. But, we may also require accommodations in our friendships and professional relationships.
We have the strength of thinking in systems. We think in evidence. We think in black and white terms. We do not do well when we are expected to read between the lines, or think in abstract terms. If you have an autistic person in your life, you must set out clear expectations. To expect them to guess, to infer, to skip around the subject, or to speak to them in metaphor expecting them to “get it” is to set them up for failure.
We thrive in routine, in the predictable. When we are faced with overwhelming situations, we shut down, we turn inward, we self soothe through repetitive behaviours (also known as stimming), and we seek to get back to something familiar and predictable. Stimming may not be hand flapping or vocalizations. I knit and crack my knuckles to self-soothe. Taking away the familiar or preventing self-soothing will often result in a melt down or acting out behaviours, even in those who are high functioning, because we have no other way to cope. We are allowed to cry. We are allowed to be upset. We do not function “organically”. Many of us have rigid schedules that are essential to our ability to function. It is not okay to throw something on us last minute. We simply cannot process. We like order. Because we understand order.
A large proportion of us have tummy issues, and when we are stressed or overwhelmed, we may experience severe gastrointestinal distress. No, we do not want a tums. No, we do not need a glass of water. No, we do not want your home remedy. We require calm and predictability for our tummy to settle. Many of us have developed unusual or strict food preferences. We know what our tummies can handle, please do not lecture us on nutrition.
Giving clear direction and direct communications is as important to our success as providing a ramp for a person in a wheelchair. We are not asking for a lot, but we do require some basic accommodations, even if we appear to function as neurotypical. We do not know what the boundaries or rules are if you have not directly told us. Please do not punish us when we exhibit symptoms, especially if you have failed to provide accommodations. Being able to socially mask, being intelligent, or being “high functioning” does not erase our diagnosis, nor the severity of our disability. If you are unsure how to accommodate anyone with a disability, be it physical, neurological or psychological, please ask rather than assume.
If you know someone with autism, or if you want to be an ally to those with autism, please share this PSA.