April is Autism Awareness Month. Personally I am fed up with ‘awareness’. Everybody should be ‘aware’ that autism exists by now especially within the police – what we should be aiming for is better understanding.
The National Autistic Society says that: Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.
But what does that really mean? What’s it like to be autistic?
Well I can help because I have autism spectrum condition. You may hear people describe it as autism spectrum disorder, but I won’t use that because there is nothing wrong with me. While my autism presents me with daily challenges fitting in with you lot, it does mean that I’m very good at other things. So here are a few interesting things about me and autism.
1. Many people think that autistic people are weird. For me you are weird, I’m the one who is completely normal. I’m not just saying that, that’s genuinely how it feels.
2. You definitely know a few autistic people. Maybe you don’t know it, but you do. Maybe they don’t know it either. We’re at least 1% of the general population, which is higher than it sounds. That means that even just statistically there are more than 60 people in our organisation overall, most of whom are undiagnosed people who are struggling their way through a world that doesn’t make sense to them. Many more are parents or carers of children who all have specific and sometimes complex needs.
3. Autistic people aren’t always similar to one another, for exactly the same reason that non-autistic people aren’t either. Some people with autism are the nicest, most kind-hearted people you’ll ever meet. Other autistic people are… well the opposite, you know, because we’re people.
4. I’m at the awkward midpoint of being ‘normal enough’ for people to expect the same from me as everyone else, but ‘autistic enough’ to not always reach those expectations.
5. I’ve told hardly anyone at work. That’s because I’m worried that it will be career limiting if I do, but it’s also because a lot of people don’t know what autism is (or have clichéd ideas), and because they don’t know me very well I’m worried people will see me as a walking syndrome and treat me differently.
6. I find it difficult to read people and I know people find me difficult to read as well. Also don’t drop hints, they don’t work. If someone drops an extremely subtle hint, it will more than likely go over my head. Strange idea but say what you mean.
7. Speaking of saying what you mean, the ‘taking things literally’ thing is real. Obviously I know it’s not really raining cats and dogs, but if somebody says something that’s not an idiom I’ll assume that they mean it.
8. Not all of us have the memory thing. Also please don’t assume after reading this that everyone with autism is a geek, or a maths wizard, or can play chess brilliantly. And don’t even get me started on Rain Man.
9. Don’t take it personally if you think I’m ignoring you when you talk to me. I can only focus for lengths of time on things I find genuinely interesting. I’m not deliberately being rude – I may truly care about you as a person, but not always about the subject at hand. I just can’t fake interest as convincingly as everyone else. This makes me rude, rather than the people who pull it off and successfully trick you.
10. Those who are further along the spectrum than me can often be extremely blunt or rude, act up and some can even be aggressive. This is not necessarily because they’re nasty – it’s a standard response when the world makes you really anxious and you haven’t yet developed the social skills or coping strategies to deal with it. Counting to ten only works if you’re not so anxious you can’t count at all.
11. Autism has not stopped me from earning a degree, joining the police, getting married and having a family. I am quirky, I am different, but I am not less.
At least 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. That means that every day, you’ll come into contact with autistic people, whether that’s members of the public or your friends and colleagues. We each have a responsibility to ensure that we know a little more about autism. The National Autistic Society campaigns using the strapline ‘until everyone understands’.
Why not let that start with you?
This article originally appeared on the Avon & Somerset Constabulary website.