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Myths and legends on World Autism Day

By Rowena Mahmud

Some thoughts for those who are wondering about the autistic experience for their child, young person, or themselves.

As soon as the word ‘autism’ is spoken, we enter a minefield of opinions. 

Opinions presented as fact… Beliefs masquerading as ‘truth’… Long-held traditions that turn out to have no basis in reality, or a very tenuous one. 

Myths and legends, and everything in between. 

Perhaps you have heard some of the following statements:

Autistic people have no empathy.

Autistic people cannot understand other minds.

You can’t be autistic, you’re too messy/a girl/don’t flap your hands/can hold eye contact.

You don’t look autistic though!

Autism is such a widely misunderstood neurotype.

But those with lived experience are out there. Autistic advocates such as David Gray-Hammond, Kieran Rose and Dr Chloe Farahar speak and write beautifully on the autistic experience, exploring fundamental concepts such as masking, monotropism, the sensory experience and autistic identity. 

An understanding of the neurodiversity paradigm can be crucial in shifting attitudes away from the ‘autism as tragedy’ narrative that has traditionally been held.

This ‘tragedy’ narrative holds that ‘autism’ is an affliction; an ‘add on’ to a person rather than being integral to their very being. For example, by describing someone as ‘a person with autism’ then, surely, they can be ‘without’ it? 

Due to the medical model being deeply ingrained in mainstream discourse, pathological language commonly encircles autistic experience. The narrative can centre around ‘treatment,’ and neurotypical children can be described as ‘normal’. This language is written even on websites purporting to support autists. The process of ‘othering’ is relentless.

And it’s hard to avoid tokenism, including on social media. It may be that something is marketed as celebrating neurodiversity, but is in fact mired in a pathological narrative with little understanding of what being neurodivergent actually means. 

It’s the ‘neurodiversity lite’ brigade again.

How can this be navigated? Autistic humans and those around them can face a bewildering array of often conflicting advice.

What can be lost is the fundamental task of a human seeking connection, perhaps searching through the resources and hopefully finding somewhere, someone, a reflection of themselves which is neither pathologized nor sanitised, but true to their own experience.

By following what is true to you and your child, and using your own feelings as a compass, you may find out just where you need to be. 

This searching on the outside can mirror an internal journey. As we confront the internalised ableism in ourselves we can recognise it more clearly in the environment we live in. The internal work of sifting through our own beliefs and prejudices is not an easy one, but may prove crucial in understanding ourselves and our loved ones with compassion.

We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started 

And know the place for the first time. 

T.S. Eliot, from ‘Little Gidding,’ Four Quartets (Gardners Books; Main edition, April 30, 2001) Originally published 1943.

Autistic Realms


The Autistic Advocate

Emergent Divergence

Autistic and Living the Dream

This blog is an expression of individual experience and opinion. We fully honour the rights of each individual to identify as they choose. 

If you have a professional interest in neurodiversity don’t miss our clinical conference on Psychotherapy with Neurodivergent Minds on Saturday 13th May. You can attend in-person, in Bristol, or virtually – see our Events page for more details.

If you need emergency support right now or feel a crisis building please remember you are not alone. You can find more helpful resources below.
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