Autism differs from one autistic person to the next. Assuming that all autistic people require the same amount of attention and support is absurd. I have often found myself unsure about how to act or be helpful towards my autistic friends and I know for many others starting to gain more awareness about autism; you may be in the same situation.
Autism is a disability that affects how people communicate and interact with the world. Despite this, autistic people still have ways of interacting with the world as best they can. People often think those with autism lack empathy. That is simply not true. In fact, they are highly concerned about the feelings of others, more often than not. Other misconceptions include autism being a disease, vaccinations and bad parenting causing autism, and autism becoming an epidemic. These myths come about by those who aren't properly educated about autism. Therefore, as more awareness is being created around autism, it is important to understand how to support your autistic friends.
I often considered myself as someone who struggled to be a good autistic ally. With my first autistic friend, I wasn't sure how to support them and it felt like I was being constantly unhelpful. I didn't know how to help them in high-stress situations or situations that cause sensory overload. over sensory situations. I didn't know what stimming mechanisms they used. I didn't know how to understand them. This was all before I learnt to be patient and listen. I was listening to my friend explain themselves as well as watching their actions to understand how they overcome a situation. This way I could replicate the same support to make it easier for them.
I currently have many autistic friends which experience their autism differently. are all on different parts of the spectrum. They are what led me to write this article. If they're comfortable with answering, I like to ask how their autism affects them and what I can do to support them so that I can make sure I do my best at being an ally. Here are some words of advice and suggestions that I have gathered along the way of asking them:
1. Treat them like they're a normal person. Being autistic doesn't mean that they are a freak or distinct from the rest of humanity. They just want to be treated as normal. This can happen through acceptance, love and inclusion. Accept them for who they are and love them all the same. Don't leave them out from activities or events you have with your other friends.
2. Everyone on the autism spectrum is different and for someone to ask an autistic person to make noises is a horrible thing to do. Not everyone on the spectrum is like that and no one should assume that they are. Respect them for who they are.
3. Allow them to stim if they need to. Stimming is a repeated action using body parts or objects to help reduce stress or anxiety levels. It could include the tapping of fingers, jumping, spinning, rocking, flicking of objects, or even twirling a piece of string. Some autistic people do it for fun, others do it as an attempt to gain or reduce sensory input. Some situations can cause a high amount of stress and stimming can help that. Please do not treat them as if they are weird for stimming. They are not freaky, weird or embarrassing for their stimming and for just being themselves. If their stimming mannerisms bother you, please let them know in a polite way.
4. Have patience. A lot of it. Autistic people process things differently and as a result, may come across to you as strange and weird. You must remember to have patience, tolerance and understanding in these cases. For example, understanding why they may leave a situation where it is loud as it could be a result of sensory overload. Patience can make an autistic person feel more comfortable, especially when voicing their feelings as they can be really hard to articulate at times.
5. Which is why this point is very important: refrain from talking over them. Most times autistic people don't need someone to speak for them and if they did, they would request that. It is extremely frustrating for them to be babied or interrupted just because they're autistic. For example, not calling out their deficiencies in social skills unless they've told you.
They're trying extremely hard to mask that so they would feel uncomfortable if they were called out in it without their consent. They do not need an advocate for their voice, they just need time and patience to express their own.
6. Even the littlest things are seen as support, for example- putting subtitles on when watching something to support their audio processing.
Remember, being autistic is a part of them and the spectrum is so big that it affects every autistic person differently. You need to ensure you have patience and understanding so you can start your journey to being a good ally. Be kind and love each other.
Okay, so a lot of people have their own viewpoints on what autism actually is, and a lot of these opinions are media based. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder, and has many different factors, including but not limited to, social interaction, communication (both verbal and non-verbal), intellectual capacity and repetitive behaviours. When people hear autism, they typically think of Rainman, Sheldon Cooper, or the highly intelligent, quiet person at school that is socially awkward. That is autism, but that isn’t solely what it is.
I was diagnosed a few months ago with high-functioning autism. This basically means that I’m able to communicate to a degree, although I find it difficult, and I struggle picking up on a lot of different social cues, and struggle in some social situations. I do have a higher IQ than a lot of people my age, and I have some extreme obsessions, namely with music. It’s my strongest passion. Mention George Ezra or Lewis Capaldi and I could talk for hours with no issues.
It took 17 years for me to actually be diagnosed, because first of all, I’m a girl. There are so many differences between boys and girls being diagnosed. Boys display autism differently from girls. It’s so much harder to receive a correct diagnosis as a girl, often being told that it’s “typical girl behaviour” because of our obsessions, or social awkwardness and that all girls do it. I showed behaviours from a young age, but was told “I’ll grow out of it.” I didn’t. Fast forward to age 15, I was receiving some help for my anxiety when I was asked about my thoughts on Autism, and if I thought I maybe had it. At first, I was in denial, going off the stereotypes. I did some research, and deliberated for a while. It makes so much sense. I went through a test called an ADOS, which is used to help diagnose autism in children and young people, and a week later I was given a diagnosis.
I’ve found over the past few months, when I tell people about autism, or have seen other things on social media, there are a lot of misconceptions and people jump to conclusions. I want to address a few of these.
“You don’t look autistic.” This is probably one of the worst things that you can say to someone who has been diagnosed. There isn’t a set look when you’re autistic, it’s not like we have 3 eyes or a horn coming out of our heads. “Oh my god you must be so smart can you do my homework?” No. I’m not doing your maths homework. Or your science homework. I’m hopeless at both, they’re not my thing at all. “Are you sure you’re autistic? You don’t act like it?” This is one of the more annoying ones, where people look taken aback because you’re actually able to engage in conversation. “Don’t you have those ear defenders things?” Nope, I like to joke about it with close friends, but I can actually process a lot of sensory things. They’re helpful, but I’m not reliant on them.
Now this one is even more annoying, but people try to compare me to another autistic person they know. “Oh but my friend's cousin's sister is autistic and she’s non-verbal.” Okay? It’s called a SPECTRUM. Where everyone is completely different. This also means it isn’t just a straight line, with non-verbals at one end, and high functioning, maths geniuses at the other. It’s so much more complex than that. No two autistics are the same.
So, I hope I helped with some of the misconceptions. For any autistics, or those waiting to be diagnosed, if you ever want help, I’d highly recommend looking at the National Autistic Society’s website. They have a lot of information, and in some areas, they even have support groups, which I personally think could be brilliant!
Did you know that, on average, ADHD is diagnosed in three times as many boys than girls? This is despite the fact that there is no conclusive evidence that ADHD is less frequent in female than male demographics, only that its presentation tends to be different. Often, girls and people who are AFAB (assigned female at birth) present with greater inattentive symptoms, internalized hyperactivity, and less externally disruptive symptoms. They tend to develop anxiety and people-pleasing coping mechanisms to mask their ADHD symptoms, and their struggles get missed or mistaken. Even professionals fail to spot ADHD in women, girls, and other AFAB people, simply because most information and early research only pertains to young boys with the hyperactive type. My own ADHD went unnamed, but not unnoticed, throughout my childhood and most of my adolescent years.
Even still, I know I am one of the lucky ones: once it came, my diagnosis was quick and easy. I lucked out on a psychiatrist who believed me and supported me. I had waited years for a moment when someone would finally look at me and tell me “you have ADHD,” but the moment itself never actually came. After taking an in-depth patient history, giving me treatment for some other problems, and discussing the nature of my symptoms, I was simply prescribed medication. Weeks later I still questioned if I had actually been diagnosed. It’s silly, but it’s something that is so common for those of us with ADHD who are used to our experiences being dismissed. We always question ourselves because that is what the world has been doing to us our whole lives. Yet, as time went on, I realized that the diagnosis was real, valid, legitimate, and something that will influence the rest of my life - possibly as an obstacle at times, but also majorly for the better.
Before my appointments with this psychologist, I had already been struggling. Between gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, stress, tense family relationships, disordered eating, frequent panic attacks and sensory overload meltdowns, and recurrent anxiety and depression, my mental health was... a boiling hot mess. But because I was somehow still excelling in my structured activities, no one thought that I could possibly have a neurological developmental disorder. And for a long time, neither did I. They did not dismiss the idea of it, more that it simply never came up. Why should it have? So, I started therapy, which I stayed in on and off for almost four years. It helped me get through the stressful four years that were my hectic high school life with undiagnosed ADHD, but nothing from therapy seemed to make any lasting difference for my mental health or general wellbeing. Despite doing well, I was still struggling.
Now that I have that official diagnosis of ADHD - as well as diagnosis and treatment for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), which was an underlying cause of much of my recurrent depression and anxiety - I am in therapy again. Though what I discuss and work on in my current sessions is not so different from what I would do before as far as I could remember, the manner in which we would go through things was completely changed. Before, I would simply discuss an experience, and the therapist would connect it to an idea and coping mechanism. The next week, we’d move on. Unfortunately, so had my brain. I couldn’t retain the information long enough to actually incorporate anything useful into my day-to-day life - thanks, ADHD. Now that I am working with a therapist who understands my ADHD, she gets that I may need more support and close working than with her other patients, she is able to work with me and my brain productively. I never realized how much support I could actually get from therapy until I noticed that I was finally able to progress through my sessions while retaining the information I’d learn in the past.
Having a diagnosis, especially for conditions like ADHD, can be a life changing experience. A diagnosis brings along proper treatment, validation, external support, accommodations, and understanding. Though all of these are important, simply knowing you have ADHD - that new understanding of how your mind works - is possibly the most powerful part. Despite the numerous myths and misconceptions about ADHD that plague far too many people, ADHD is one of the most researched conditions in all of medical history! With the internet, so much of that information is accessible right at our fingertips. So learning more about what it really means to have ADHD and how to work with your ADHD brain has never been easier. They say knowing is half the battle: nowhere in my life has this been truer than with my ADHD.
In fact, even years before I finally was able to meet with a psychiatrist, I already embarked on this journey of understanding and working with my ADHD. The main obstacle I faced was not that people didn’t know about ADHD, but that a lot of people think they know what ADHD is so they never do any research about it. In reality, they are actually very misinformed, and at times may spread information that is wrong and harmful. Most of my life I had heard of ADHD, but only thought of it in the case of extremes and stereotypes. As I started researching it, however, I recognized much more of the symptoms in me. I am not so impulsive that I put my life in danger, or so inattentive that I do poorly in school, but the symptoms still affect me from my home life to the way I think. And there is so much more to ADHD than what the name or diagnostic criteria suggest. All of a sudden, looking back on my life, everything seemed to make a whole lot more sense. I’d been given glasses for the first time and I could finally see clearly.
The great thing about a buttload of information about ADHD being online is that there is also a lot of information about different ways to shift my life to work best with my brain. Slowly over the span of two years I began implementing these informal accommodations, and my life started to feel so much easier. Learning about my brain and why I act in certain ways allowed me to make peace with things that, until then, I had felt were only “flaws.” I was more comfortable with myself, and let myself do what I need to manage my attention and energy. I forgave myself for forgetfulness, and started learning how to organize my belongings in a way that works best for me. I flipped back and forth about whether or not I was comfortable saying “I have ADHD” because I had no professional diagnosis, but I was able to learn much more about my brain and how ADHD affects my life. I recognized that even if I didn’t have ADHD, I can still use any tips that help me, and there’s no harm in that. And any sense of self doubt vanished when all the extensive research I had done to increase my understanding of my ADHD brain helped me get my diagnosis.
Every day since that fateful appointment with my psychiatrist, I have been so grateful for my diagnosis. Even though I understood my ADHD brain, the people in my life didn’t necessarily. Post diagnosis, there was an adjustment, and it’s still in progress, but now my parents understand why I don’t seem to learn from my mistakes or their discipline, or how my room can never be organized with everything put away. With medication and proper therapy, as well as the support and understanding of my family, managing the challenges of ADHD has never been easier - in spite of everything going on in the world today. I haven’t taken any formal accommodations yet, but I may when we return to in person learning. And, most importantly, I am still learning about my brain every day. Reading about ADHD and learning how my mind works - how it’s always worked - helps me love myself a bit more and grow a bit every day.
For more information about ADHD, check out the links below!
(Apologies for the U.S. centric list, most of the well established research and resources for ADHD are U.S. based and centered. In fact there is an interesting niche in ADHD research about ADHD in the U.S. vs in other places in the world!)