Often, I dread telling people what I do for work in social settings, even though I’m very proud of what I do. Apart from “Can you read my mind?”, the next most common response I get from others is “We’re all a bit autistic, aren’t we”. A statement, not a question. A statement usually accompanied by a light-hearted chuckle. Most people probably do not say that out of a malicious place. Despite so, I often freeze in frustration because where do I even begin? And if a practitioner working in the neurodivergent space does not know where to begin, how is it like for autistic people getting this response left, right and centre? So, one day I sat down and made this infographic that I can carry around to help me say,
“No, we aren’t all a bit autistic.”
Look at the diagram above. Everyone probably experiences some of these struggles or traits every now and then, but an autistic person will experience most (and for some, all) of these traits and struggles to varying degrees. This is exactly the reason why autism is such a complex condition. No two autistic people will present the exact same way on this profile (i.e., basically the entire diagram above) because autism is a highly heterogenous condition, which means a condition involving more than one gene. ‘More than one’ would be an understatement. So far, hundreds of ‘risk genes’ have been identified through large-scale genetic studies conducted on autistic individuals and their families. That, combined with epigenetics (i.e., an individual’s behaviours and environment affecting their gene expression; for instance, whether or not a particular risk gene we carry is being activated in our lifetime), makes autism an incredibly complex condition for even scientific researchers to fully understand at this stage. THIS is the scientific reason behind the saying,
“If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person”.
And no, that saying is not just a cliché. It is therefore important for all of us, especially health and mental health practitioners, to recognise the different faces of autism. Not fitting the stereotypical autism profile does not make a person any less autistic. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with having a more widely known ASD profile (e.g., Sheldon Cooper, Rain Man), but that it is harmful to the autistic community to only think of those profiles as ‘fitting the bill’. It dismisses struggles and denies the very existence and identity of autistic people who do not present with profiles typically known. On that note, if you ever feel tempted to say to an autistic person, “You don’t look autistic” (most likely intended as a compliment), please think again.
To me, the diversity of it all is what gives colour to our world. I sincerely hope that we, as a society, will not just be ‘aware’ of neurodivergence, but also embrace and celebrate it.
**Disclaimer: The above is a very short/simple discussion of epigenetics. It is in NO way implying/suggesting that there’s anything that individuals and parents/families could do/not do to ‘cause’ autism. There’s no single factor that causes autism - that’s the whole point. I find the subject matter of epigenetics incredibly fascinating, but has refrained from launching into it in what’s meant to be a 3-minute read.