Autism is not a condition which can be easily categorised – it affects people in diverse ways.
Autism affects people from every community, a fact which seems obvious enough but isn’t always appreciated. There is not neat box to shoehorn autistic people into; they come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. Here, I discuss the lack of awareness around ethnic minorities, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and adults and older people with autism, unveiling issues which few associate with the condition but which are real, pressing concerns.
- Autism is “not an issue” in ethnic minority communities
The lack of visible autistic BME (black and minority ethnic) people have in the media – barring a few exceptions, such as artist Stephen Wiltshire – can lead many to assume, absurd as it sounds, that autism is less of an issue in these communities. Indeed, diagnosis rates are lower among BME people; but this is because their lower socio-economic position means they are less likely to obtain a diagnosis, either for themselves or their children, meaning more go undiagnosed and unaided. Many also report schools being less likely to pick up autism in BME children, with children experiencing more social ‘shame’ for their behaviour.
Of those who are diagnosed, help is often similarly less available – 31% of BME autism families reported quality of teaching in schools 10% lower than White British counterparts, with 28% feeling unable to access speech therapy for their children which would help them. Many also feel affected by “dual discrimination” on account of both their race and their disability.
- Autism only affects middle-class people
This myth seems ridiculous at first glance (and it is!) – people don’t have different genes based on class, after all – but among people who view SEN diagnoses as an “excuse for poor parenting”, it’s common for them to erroneously describe autism as “a middle-class name for/version of ADHD”, implying that both are interchangeable labels used to “excuse naughtiness”. Though autism and ADHD have some traits in common, this ignores the numerous differences between the two.
And it ignores the fact that, while people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to be diagnosed with autism, they are no less likely to have autism, and often receive inadequate services. Even among those who reject this myth, the myth that people with autism are all massively successful geniuses can also create the impression than no one with autism can live in financial hardship – or that, if they do, it’s their own fault for not using their “innate genius talent” to escape it. This view, too, is inaccurate and dangerous.
In a similar vein, some studies have appeared to suggest autism to be more prevalent among upper-middle-class families; this has been a long-held view, as studies from the 70s discussed this too and Dr Leo Kanner, the “founder” of autism, believed it (in fact, it’s where the myth of the refrigerator mother comes from). But it is far more likely that it only appears this way due to higher diagnostic rates among upper-middle-class families – due to higher educated parents being able to spot autism easier.
- Autism is solely a children’s issue – adults either don’t have autism, or “grow out of it”
The increased rate of autism diagnoses, largely among children, and media focus on children with the condition mean that the issues of adults with autism are largely ignored. It is assumed that, when adults, these children will “grow out of it” – meaning they will develop perfect coping mechanisms, though there’s rarely any mention of how to do so. The lives and difficulties of existing autistic adults – many of whom will have gone diagnosed, particularity elderly people who were children long before autism was properly understood – are likewise marginalised. This isn’t to say there are no resources – the Department of Health operates an Adult Autism Program Board, and several groups are run across the country – but certainly in terms of media focus and government intervention, adult issues are less visible.
And these, of course, are only some of the difficulties faced by these groups – there are many others. There are many other groups affected by autism too – indeed, I can guarantee than within every sub-group of people, there’ll be someone with autism. But better understanding of autism’s nuances can mean these issues are tackled more effectively, and help alleviate some of these issues.
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