Autism: Out of the Box
Source: Photo Sociology
It’s impossible in a short essay to cover autism in a manner that will be representative of everyone’s experience of autism. In this essay, autism is used as a single term to provide linguistic consistency, rather than using the terms autistic spectrum disorders, Aspergers, pervasive developmental disorder, or another diagnosis that fall within the autistic spectrum.
The medical terminology that defines autism as a “disorder” is unhelpful and many autistics would consider autism to be a neurodevelopmental disability or a neurological difference. Although diagnostic language can be offensive to some autistic people, being diagnosed can bring around an inner understanding, and enable additional support with education, personal care, mobility, housing, employment or finances. It is also recognised that the earlier a person is diagnosed and receives additional support, the more quickly they will develop, and the higher their quality of living will be.
Autism affects each person differently, and the intensity of symptoms can change depending upon current circumstances. However, autism is a neurodevelopmental disability which affects communication, thinking and imagination, social interaction, and sensory experiences.
Some autistics may be non-speaking or may have impaired intellect, whilst others may be authors, creatives, entrepreneurs, post-grads, students or employed. This is reflective of the non-autistic community. However, for those with autism, too much information, ambiguous and indirect presentation of information, and literal thinking, can make it difficult to gather, understand, process and respond to what’s being communicated. It’s as if the rest of the world has a secret code, and this confusion then creates misunderstanding which can lead to isolation. (1)
When discussing social imagination Monique Botha says “I don’t mean that we lack in any way forms of imagination, because we’re writers, we’re poets, we’re scientists. We have these absolutely incredible minds, and we do wonderful things with them. It means that in a conversation, I genuinely don’t know what’s coming next… I won’t see it coming and part of that is because I struggle to read body language. Your faces all look the same to me, no offense. Which means you could be standing there getting aggressive, you could be getting really really angry with me and I’ll be like ‘oh yeah, hi’ which means that when you punch me I did not see that coming.” (2)
Something that bothers me is how society tries to force autistics to fit into “our” interpretation of the world. We may think people are unusual if they don’t respond to our attempt at communication if they wear noise-reducing headphones in the office if they decline an invitation to a social event in a busy environment. Others may try to force eye contact. Why should autistics try to fit into our mental framework? Wouldn’t it be better if we tried to meet an autistic person on their terms?
When discussing eye contact Monique Botha explains “with me, if I’m comfortable with someone I’ll look them in the eye, and it will be as intimate as kissing them on the cheek” (2). Imagine a colleague trying to kiss you on the cheek without your consent, how would that make you feel? Non-autistics may often be trying to build a bond or foster friendship by trying to force eye contact or communication. However, there are other, non-invasive ways to so. Drop an email, explain a bit about yourself, you know – do the conversation/introduction stuff but without pressure, and if you do not get a reply don’t take it personally. Accept that the other person cannot communicate with you in that way today. Say hello another day, in passing, and don’t expect to get a reply. It’s not rudeness, the autistic person is having difficulty communicating, don’t judge, don’t make it into a big deal, because it isn’t. If someone is unable to communicate with you on your terms, don’t assume that they do not understand you. They do. If you’re genuine and sincere and don’t try to pressure them, given time and familiarity they may probably approach you.
Hyper and hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli can overload autistic people, conversely, they can also be super developed career skills that are needed in the fields of quality assurance, IT, product testing, data analysis, and engineering. On the negative side, an autistic child, on a hot sunny day, hungry, just before lunch, the whole class is shouting, the label in her jumper is scratching, someone drags their chair on the floor. Sensory overload. The child rocks on the floor counts out loud and picks her skin until it bleeds. This is where diagnosis may be vital. A diagnosis may lead to a statement of special educational needs, and additional support in the classroom. This support means that the child is then calmed and soothed by a teaching assistant whilst the teacher carries on. Without this, autistic children can be labeled, excluded, and expelled. Expelled for being failed by the school and the state. It happens.
On the positive side, there are companies that seek out autistic people because of their hypersensitivity and how this is valued in the workforce. As Noah Britton says “Luckily this hypersensitivity can be very useful. We have an incredible bird of prey like the ability to detect differences in the visual environment very very quickly…There’s actually, a company called Aspiritech that hires autistic people only, because of this hypersensitivity, to do product testing, and figure out what differences there are between their website and the website they actually want” (3)
Aspiritech, Auticon and Goldman Sachs are a few of the businesses with a positive approach to autism, and which understand the benefits of having a neurodiverse workforce. A few years ago, Jonathan Young began a part term internship with Goldman Sachs. Because of his skills, talent and determination, he has turned a part-time position into a full-time post, and he has had regular promotions. When discussing his career as a business analyst at Goldman Sachs, Jonathon says, “I’m the company’s global go-to guy for all the information used in every single one of our internal and external presentations…I’m moving up the ladder every year in terms of responsibility or promotion. My ambition is to maintain this momentum. In 10 years, I want to be someone fairly big.” (4)
However, this is far from the norm. In the UK only 16% of autistic adults are in employment. Forty-three percent of autistic adults that have found employment will be sacked because they don’t fit in socially, despite their productivity and performance being more than adequate. They can do the job and yet nearly half of them will find themselves sacked. Of those that do remain in employment, only 10% will have support to ensure they can fit in to the working environment. We are more than letting autistic people down, we are causing harm either by our actions or lack of them. “in the UK, just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment, according to the National Autistic Society. And yet research has shown autistic traits can be associated with high numbers of unusual responses on divergent thinking tasks; a mark of creativity, which is sought after by ambitious start-ups. Meanwhile, research from University of Montreal suggests that people with autism are up to 40% better at problem-solving” (5)
The research also shows that when companies do employ autistic people then their organisation and employees benefit from it. Autistic people have a whole array of skills that are required in a healthy thriving, working environment. They are especially good at problem solving, because they have a unique perspective on the world, and can see things that their neurotypical colleagues overlook. Some recent research into the costs/benefits of having autistic employees found that the “Overall, the impact of having an employee with ASD in the workplace was overwhelmingly positive …particularly in regard to increasing awareness of ASD, and in promoting a culture of inclusion. Employees with ASD also contributed new creative and different skills to the work environment and positively impacted on workplace morale.” (6)
Marcelle Ciampi is one of the contributors and co-author of this blog. She is the recruitment consultant, and she recruits people to be software testers from home. 70% of the workforce are autistic. Being able to work from home is a relief for many autistics as it means there is no social pressure to interfere with you work. Marcelle works for ultra testing, it a large organisation and has many varied opportunities for work.
Now here’s the negative side of diagnosis. When talking about Societies need to label people with mental illness and disorders Jon Ronson says “We seem to love nothing more than to declare other people insane. We love to reduce people to their outermost aspects, to the aspects of their personalities that might be labelled mental disorders. All this is creating a more conservative, conformist age…. when we reduce people to their flaws. Look we’re saying, we’re normal, this is the average, we are defining the boundaries of normality by labelling those on the outside of it” (7)
This is where we need to take autism out of the box. Autistic people are not a set of symptoms and diagnosis. “Autistic people are sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, co-workers and employees, students and teachers, friends and relatives, neighbours and community members. You probably know an autistic person. Autistic people have different abilities, different needs, different interests, and different personalities.” (8)
When we as are society label people as “others” we de-humanise them and we open the floodgates of discrimination. Do we discriminate against autistic people? Is it as bad as this really?
According to the United Nations “Discrimination against autistic person’s, [is] the rule rather than the exception”. (9)
The discrimination against autistic people is severe. On a societal level, the discrimination means that we are being deprived of the presence, skills, talents, colleagues, and friendships of autistic people. That’s a huge loss. On a personal level, the stress of discrimination is tragic. Anxiety and depression are more prevalent in the autistic community than the non-autistic community. 1 in 4 non-autistics will experience depression in their lifetime. If you’re autistic that statistic goes up to nearly 3 in 4 people, 75%. As awful as this is, when it comes to suicidality it gets worse. 64% of autistic people live with suicidal thoughts. Now let’s be clear about this. Anxiety, depression, and suicidality are not diagnostic symptoms of autism. These experiences are as a direct result of the discrimination and stresses that are common in minority groups. These statistics come from the research of Monique Botha. An autistic scholar who is applying the Minority Stress Model to autism, as part of her Ph.D. (2)
She goes on to explain that scientists have now found a way to reverse the autistic genes in mice. She questions why do we try and find cures and fund drugs instead of accepting and accommodating the strength and colour of diversity.
Will we put up with this? I think not. I hope not. With between 1% and 2% of the population being autistic then the chances are that you know someone with autism. Why does society find it easier to try and cure or medicate people, rather than accept them for being who they are?
Why do we need to accept autism?
Because autistic people are your friends, family members, children, partners, co-workers, fellow-citizens, customers, and neighbours.
Because autism is a natural part of the human experience.
Because autistic rights are human rights.
Because autistic people can speak for ourselves, and we want you to listen to us.
Because we aren’t going anywhere.
Because this is our world too.
Because there are all kinds of minds, and this world is big enough for all of us.” (10)
Additional Thanks to Judy from Actually Autistic Blogs List
1 – Autism Initiatives; Symptoms of Autism; Online at: (http://www.autisminitiatives.org/about-autism/what-is-autism/symptoms-of-autism.aspx)
2 – Botha, M; 2016; A Quick Trip To My Home Planet; Surrey University; TEDx; Online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCAErePScO0
3 – Britton, N; 2015; Autism: give me a chance and I will change everything; New England College; TEDx; Online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkD9d8qzB-g
4 – Hill, A; 2013; Autism doesn’t hold me back. I’m moving up the career ladder; Online at:
5 – Davis, H; 2017; Forget stereotypes … how to recruit talented, neurodiverse employees; Online at: https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/aug/31/forget-stereotypes-talented-neurodiverse-recruitment-entrepreneurs
6 – Scott, M, et al; 2017; Employers’ perception of the costs and the benefits of hiring individuals with autism spectrum disorder in open employment in Australia; Online at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0177607#sec008
7 – Ronson, J; 2014; Declaring Other People Insane: Marthas Vineyard; TEDx; Online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnGAjiALurI
8 – The Autistic Self Advocacy Network; Autism Acceptance Month: Acceptance is an action; Online at: http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/what-is-autism/
9 – United Nations Human Rights. Office of the High Commissioner; 2015; World Autism Awareness Day – Thursday 2 April 2015; Online at
10 – The Autistic Self Advocacy Network; Autism Acceptance Month: Acceptance is an action; Online at: http://www.autismacceptancemonth.com/about
11 – Ultra Testing; Online at: http://ultratesting.us/
Others articles by Richard Keys can be found below: