Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What Autism is Not

A few weeks ago, my son's therapist, who is also on the spectrum, mentioned that she's seen a shift in dialogue on the internet.  In the past people used to say "retarded" as a barb to mean that someone is stupid or unintelligent.  She said she witnessed someone saying autism in the same manner.  As in "you're so autistic."  Naturally it bothered her.  She's autistic and clearly she's not stupid.

I'm not really surprised. People use language like that all the time. Retarded is a medical term, but it's been turned into a nasty word so much so that I'm sure someone is going to tell me to stop using it even though in this context I'm not using it derogatorily.

I fear that using the word "autism" may be headed in the same direction as using "gay" is. In one context, using "gay" is fine and in another you're essentially telling a person that the they are too effeminate.

The problem, though, is that I can see that people truly believe that being autistic means you are stupid or have a lower IQ.  So let me clarify this for you...

Being autistic is like being neurotypical.  It doesn't necessarily mean that your IQ is any higher or any lower than the average.  Autistics aren't necessarily savants or have intellectual disabilities.  It's not even classified as an intellectual disability even though IQ tests are weird for people on the spectrum, but that's because they aren't designed for people on the spectrum either.

Likewise I ended up correcting an autistic person over twitter who characterized being autistic as having a "mental disability" or a mental disorder.  A mental disability is depression or schizophrenia.

Autism is a developmental disorder.  Basically it means you have it from birth and you develop skills at a slower rate.  That's it.  You aren't insane and you aren't unintelligent.  It's something else which is why it has it's own characteristics which fall into a spectrum disorder.

Most recently I read someone saying that people with autism have a low EQ or emotional quotent.  That's not true either.  Autistics aren't vegetables.  They feel things.  They also recognize when someone else is feeling something too, but they may not be able to identify what that is.  They may not also be able to respond with typical emotions either.

Let me give you an example: My son gets in trouble at school.  He gets called out by the teacher in class.  He is feeling scared because he's not sure exactly what the teacher will do (send him out of the classroom or move his clip etc).  He's also embarrassed because his classmates realize that he's messed up (again).  So how does he react?  Does he lower his head?  Cower under his desk?  Cry?

Nope. My son looks you in the face and smiles.

His teachers take that to mean that he is proud of his mistake or doesn't care, and he gets chastised more for it.  They don't bother to ask him how he feels and make assumptions of him even though they know that he's autistic (that's the frustrating part and the one I want people to walk away from here).

He is reacting.  He does care.  He's not a robot.  He feels things acutely.  So if you know someone who is autistic and they don't react or react differently than you'd expect: TALK TO THEM!

I know my son well enough to tell when he's upset, angry, happy, scared, etc.  But that's because I've lived with him since birth and just know him that well.  I don't however assume that I can guess the same thing of other autistics.  Most autistics that I know will be happy to tell you what they feel because they are tired of being misread or told that they don't feel at all.  They want you to know and they welcome telling you because you're probably the first person whose bothered to ask them instead of assuming.  It isn't considered rude or impolite.

So there you go. Spread the word. #autismawareness

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