What is Autism? A Guest Blog by Nell Brown | Autism Awareness Week 2017

For World Autism Awareness Week I wrote this post for our staff blog at work, but thought it might be helpful to share it more widely (thanks, Lizzie, for hosting it!) – Nell Brown

There are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 100. Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.

It’s a spectrum

There’s a popular saying that goes: ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’. There’s no one way to be autistic: while there are commonalties between autistic people (related to behaviour, communication and perception) everyone is affected in a different way.

Despite this, there is a very narrow cultural idea of autism (so a fair few autistic people hear the phrase ‘but you don’t look/seem  autistic!’) That’s why it’s important to hear varied accounts and personal experiences – a good place to start is reading blogs by autistic people (I especially like Musing of an Aspie’s essential reading list).

And it’s not a linear spectrum ranging from ‘very autistic’ to ‘hardly autistic’. A comic by artist Rebecca Burgess does a great job in explaining a different way to understand the spectrum.

An epidemic?

In the 1990s, as more people were diagnosed with autism, there was a panic about an ‘autism epidemic’. Not only is it not true but it’s likely that some autistic people are being missed entirely.

It’s still more common for men and boys to receive a diagnosis of autism. But it is increasingly believed that autistic women and girls are being overlooked, because they mask their symptoms or because the diagnostic criteria reflect the behavioural characteristics of boys and men.

Other factors can affect the likelihood of assessment and diagnosis too – like race, location and wealth.

In the workplace

Last year the National Autistic Society (NAS) highlighted the fact that only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment; the situation hasn’t improved in almost a decade.

Small adjustments can make a difference – for example, ensuring the recruitment process  and interviews aren’t overwhelming or confusing.

Similarly, there are ways to make a work environment less stressful – for example, not expecting eye contact or making changes without preparing someone. The NAS also has resources to help if you’re managing an autistic person.

Paid work isn’t an option for everyone at every point of their lives, and being in or able to work isn’t a sign of worth. But employers need to shift practices and culture to ensure they aren’t blocking or excluding autistic people.

Find out more about autism on the NAS website

Nell Brown – @theneliad

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