Many don’t realise that autism often affects people with other conditions and disabilities, and is viewed differently in different cultures.
It’s no secret that the autism spectrum is incredibly diverse – as the saying goes, “when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. But this diversity isn’t just down to individual differences – autistic people also come from various sub-sections of society, and while some of these – women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, different social classes and age groups – might spring easily to mind, others, such as those with co-morbid conditions and those diagnosed under different systems, are more often overlooked. Yet their autism is no less real, and often brings with it added challenges, below are a number of myths about these groups which don’t stand up to scrutiny.
- People with autism only have autism – they cannot have another disability
The logic of this myth is obviously flawed, since many people have multiple disabilities, yet it still persists. But this is even less true of autism – there is a very high co-morbidity rate of autism and conditions such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and OCD, among others. It’s also quite possible for someone with autism to have a visible/physical disability; too often this is overlooked, and the visible disability is used to define their personality.
Those with multiple disabilities are also at an added risk of danger, including from domestic violence and abuse at the hands of carers, which is even more so the case for autistic people if, like many, they have been taught compliance from a young age. And far less people with multiple disabilities are represented in positions of power, allowing their lives and issues to go ignored.
- All countries assess autism the same – what a person from one country sees as autism is identical to how people from all countries see it
Autism diagnostic criteria is now radically different depending on which manual is used – the DSM-V, used heavily in the USA and sometimes in Europe, diagnoses people as ‘ASD Level 1-3’ and places more weight on sensory issues. The ICD-10, used widely in the rest of the world outside the USA, diagnoses as ‘Autism’, ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ and ‘PDD-NOS’, with different criteria for each.
Moreover, there is far less awareness of autism, and far lower diagnostic rates, in developing countries, with some countries’ cultural views of hidden disabilities making diagnosis complicated and dangerous – in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, autism is often mistaken for witchcraft (also a growing trend in some immigrant communities in the UK). This is an issue even in some developed countries such as France, where autism is so underdiagnosed and misunderstood that 17 times less (diagnosed) autistic students reach higher education than in the UK, and there is a widespread belief that high-functioning autism/Asperger’s “doesn’t exist”.
It should not assumed that people from a variety of diverse backgrounds enter the workplace with a clear, unified idea of what autism is – nor that people with autism from different countries will have been diagnosed under the same criteria. While a UK national might self-define as “having Asperger’s”, having been diagnosed under this term, a US national, where psychologists do no use the term, might call themselves “autistic” instead, for example.
- All women with autism are the same, all LGBT people with autism are the same, all BME autistic people are the same, etc.
When looking at how autism affects communities differently, it can be incredibly easy to generalise, but it’s important to remember that in all communities, people with autism are still individuals, and general rules about their differences are not absolute. Some autistic women do fit male diagnostic criteria, and some autistic men have more feminine traits, like special interests that are more socially acceptable, less intense, or “jump around”; while not all traits a person has can be ascribed to autism, especially when they have multiple disabilities, some obviously can; and no two LGBT people will experience autism in identical ways. When remembering differences between groups, it is important to remember differences between every person too.
So, as you can see, it really is the case that “when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism” – the diversity of the spectrum is so broad, and in a myriad of ways that never crosses many peoples’ minds. I hope, though, that this article – and my previous on autism and diversity – has helped others to better understand these differences. While no one person can ever entirely understand all facets of autism, the more knowledge is spread, the more progress can be made.
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