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Understanding Autism

Learn all about autism, coping strategies that other autistic young people use, and how to support autistic family and friends.

Teen stimming by flapping her hands

This article was written in consultation with and reviewed by autistic people. At their request, we have used identity-first language (‘autistic person’) rather than person-first language (‘person with autism’).

What is autism?

Autism is a condition that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment.

Autistic people are 'neurodivergent', which means that their brains are wired a little differently than 'neurotypicals'. (Neurotypical people have the most common type of brain). Some people like to think of this as a different operating system, like Apple technology products compared to Android.

Autistic people are born autistic and are autistic for their whole lives.

Autism is diagnosed as ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD), with the word ‘spectrum’ referring to the wide range of experiences and traits in the autistic community. This spectrum isn’t a straight line and autistic people are all individuals who can experience autism differently, and have different support needs.

Regardless of these different experiences and needs, all autistic people deserve respect and support.

Autistic traits

Remember, autistic people are all individuals with different strengths and experiences. 

Autistic people can experience differences with:

Socialising. For example, some autistic people might dislike eye contact. Other people might have a different sense of humour. Others might be very direct and clear in how they say things, or use an AAC (Augmentative and Alternate Communication) to communicate.

Sensations. Autistic people can experience sensations differently, such as noticing things others don’t or having strong positive or negative responses to certain stimuli e.g. being overwhelmed by crowds, getting distressed by loud noises, or feeling content and joyful when noticing different textures of plants while walking.

Emotions. Autistic people can experience emotions such as fear or happiness very intensely and can also display emotions in many different ways. For example, autistic people may use their body or vocal noises rather than facial expression or tone of voice to display how they feel, while others may internalise their feelings rather than openly demonstrating them. These differences can also make it confusing for some autistic people to interpret the emotions they experience or see in others.

Behaviours. Some autistic people like routine and dislike change, or might have a really strong interest (hyperfixation) in a particular topic. Autistic people may also move their hands and bodies in different repetitive ways, such as waving their hands, tapping their fingers or rocking their bodies. At times autistic people can use their voice in a similar repetitive way, making different sounds or repeating the same noise over and over. These types of behaviours are called 'stimming' - short for 'self-stimulating'. Stimming can be both calming and enjoyable for autistic people.

"This is my story about facing and overcoming living with autism."

What are some of the challenges faced by autistic people?

Navigating a world designed for neurotypical people can sometimes be challenging and overwhelming for autistic people, because of their different experiences.

Autistic people are more likely than neurotypicals to experience bullying, abuse, unemployment or under employment, homelessness or housing instability, and mental illness.

Autistic people also have a greater likelihood of experiencing other conditions such as epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues, and being neurodivergent in other ways such as ADHD, which can each involve additional challenges.

A lack of respect, support and understanding, however, can pose some of the most difficult issues autistic people face.

Coping strategies

We asked you on Insta how you cope with autism. Here’s what you said!

Autism coping strategies - as told by you
Tell people you trust, but don't feel pressured to tell people
My go to is video games or being alone to calm down
There were so many strategies to share!
Stim! Painting, listening to music.
Squishy ball thing, distraction, meditation

FAQs

Answers to commonly asked questions!

What is Asperger’s syndrome? In the past, ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ was one of the diagnoses for ASD. Some people still use this term or might describe themselves as ‘being aspie’ when talking about their own experiences of autism. 

What is a special interest? Autistic people often have narrower but deeper areas of interest than neurotypical people. Often autistic people will have a small number of topics which they are deeply passionate about, and which bring them great joy to learn about, talk about, or experience. These are called special interests.

What is masking? Masking is when an autistic person changes their behaviour, either consciously or subconsciously, to match neurotypical behaviours. It is often a result of being treated badly if they show their autistic traits. While in some settings it is safer for an autistic person to mask, it takes a huge amount of energy and can be very draining.

What is autistic burnout? When autistic people are pushed too hard (for example, not given the right supports, masking for too long) they can fall victim to autistic burnout. Autistic burnout usually lasts a few months, with reduced tolerance to stimulus (which may become a permanent issue), chronic exhaustion and loss of function.

What is stimming? ‘Stimming’, is a term that means ‘self-stimulating’ and refers to different behaviours that can help regulate or express emotions, process information, communicate, soothe and stimulate. Everyone stims sometimes, but autistic people stim a lot more often than neurotypicals, and are really good at it. These vary from person to person. 

What is hyperfixation? Autistic brains are often really good at focusing deeply on one thing at a time; they may struggle to split attention between topics. ‘Hyperfixation’ is being completely immersed in something to the exclusion of everything else. It's more common in autistic people and can be a great asset. In this state a great deal of learning, productivity and appreciation can take place. When hyperfixating it’s important to take time to look after your basic needs, and it can be difficult when other people or responsibilities seek your attention. 

Myths & facts about Autism

MYTH 1: Autistic people don’t feel emotions or empathy towards others.

FACT: Autistic people can be extremely caring. They may show their emotions and empathy in different ways, however autistic people do experience empathy and feel emotions intensely. 

MYTH 2: Autistic people have an intellectual impairment.

FACT: Autism does not impact a person’s intelligence. 

MYTH 3: You can tell someone is autistic by looking at them.

FACT: Autistic people come in all different appearances and from all different cultures. Autism does not define how a person looks. 

MYTH 4: Autistic people are always male.

FACT: Autistic people can be male, female or gender diverse.

MYTH 5: Autistic people always prefer to be alone and do not want friends.

FACT: Autistic people can be introverts (gain energy from being alone), extroverts (gain energy from being around others) or ambiverts (a bit of both). Autistic people may need time alone to recharge and can enjoy doing activities quietly on their own, just like many other people. However, this doesn't mean they don't want friendships or relationships. Humans are social creatures, and autistic people experience a strong desire for social connection and can experience deep feelings of loneliness when this isn’t met. Autistic people can make amazing friends and partners.

A neurotypical's guide to supporting autistic people

Here are some things you can do to be a great support: 

  • Treat them the same as any other person – with respect. 
  • Embrace differences. Everyone wants to be accepted for who they are and a great way to do this is to celebrate differences. 
  • Communicate openly. Have empathy, be curious and if in doubt – ask questions! There might be miscommunications sometimes (these are a normal part of being human). When these happen, don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions, instead chat them through together. 
  • Educate yourself about autism.
  • Seek to understand autistic individuals. It’s ok to ask autistic people about their experiences. Most people are happy to answer questions about themselves – and if they aren’t comfortable or in the mood, they will let you know (‘no’ is always an acceptable answer). 
  • Be an ally/advocate. Autistic people can experience societal barriers, have difficulties accessing supports and services, and can experience discrimination.  
  • Support them. If your friend/family member starts to become triggered or overwhelmed, help them find somewhere private where they feel safe to give them a chance to calm down. 

Getting support

It can be really challenging being an autistic person or caring for an autistic person in a non-autistic world. In addition to your own coping strategies and personal support network, there are a number of options for professional support, depending on your or your loved one’s needs and goals:

  • Occupational Therapy. If you want help overcoming barriers to do things you want to do. O.T.’s can be a valuable source of information about calming strategies, emotional regulation, sensory devices and many other skill building tools.
  • Speech therapy. If you want to become more comfortable or gain more skills with speaking and communication. Speech therapists can also help with sensory issues related to diet and certain foods.
  • Counselling. If you are struggling and want to be able to talk it through.
  • Psychology and psychiatry. Can offer support and treatment if you are struggling with mental illness, or seeking a diagnosis.
  • Support workers. If you need practical or emotional help at times in your everyday life. Support workers can offer a wide variety of support from helping with activities of daily living to enhancing opportunities for social engagement.
  • GPs. Can be a good starting point to identify and access supports that could be helpful for you.
  • The National Insurance Disability Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS can provide information and help connect autistic people with services in their community.  Through the NDIS, autistic people may also be eligible for financial support to pay for resources such as sensory tools and services (such as those listed above). More information can be found at ndis.gov.au
  • Organisations. There are a range of different organisations that support autistic people, their family and their friends. These organisations can hold differing views on autism, so it’s important to find the organisation/s that best fit with your values and resonates with your experiences.

Look for professionals who listen to and help you address your needs and goals, and who treat you with respect. If they don’t or you find something just isn’t helping, tell your support people so they can help you find help that is a better fit.

Because personal experiences vary so widely, there can be views on autism that sometimes clash or contradict, which can be quite emotive or cause conflict between different people/communities. At Kids Helpline, we see all young people as being experts in their own lives and value all experiences. If you would like to discuss anything you see in this article, or give any feedback, please get in touch with us!

If you or someone you care about are autistic, we are here to support you.

You can connect with a professional, like a GP, who can refer you to specialist support in your area.

You can also chat with Kids Helpline. Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 11/06/2021

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