By Nicole Beaver
Every year since my diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, when April rolls around, I cringe at the ads that are published by Autism Speaks which promote the wearing of blue for Autism Awareness. First of all, I want to make it clear that a lot of individuals (not all though), myself included, think of Autism Speaks as a hate group. Perhaps it is unintentional, but when you run ads that say autism is worse than cancer and AIDS, you’re not going to be our hero. As a counter movement, we’ve created a group called ASAN that does Red Instead. People may know about this, but they don’t know all the details. I’ve been a student here for the past academic year, and some of you reading may have gotten to know me. Others may have seen me in class via my signature Gothic look, social hostility, and unusually monotonous voice. Even others may have just seen me around campus, never really talking to people and only associating me with those whom I share a dorm with or have talked to one way or another. Let’s break down what makes me stand apart from the rest, shall we?
Autism, as I have explained before, is a neurodevelopmental disorder, which is a big ol’ diagnosis which basically means that when I was developing in my mother’s womb, something went wrong. Nobody really knows what causes it. In summary, my brain structure is wonky. In the brain you have neural pathways, which are brain cells that release an electrochemical impulse based on stimuli. When my brain tries to process it, boom. It doesn’t work that fast, and sometimes it can even work too fast! Some parts will have too many neural pathways, others not so much. That’s why autism is so varied between people. Many have different parts of the brain affected, but many symptoms stay the same. These include the inability to recognize social situations in some way, echolalia (repeating words or phrases), exaggerated speech or movements, self-stimulatory behaviour (like rocking or tapping), taking things very literally, a specific interest, and one or more accompanying mental or physical health issues. Sensory Processing Disorder is a common part of the diagnosis.
I want to talk about stereotypes now. Let’s start off by saying that Hollywood does not represent the disorder accurately. According to Hollywood, autism does not pop up in white males, especially those who are scientists, doctors, or mathematicians (I’m looking at you, Sheldon Cooper). This is obviously wrong. Another misconception is that those affected by autism are rude; the truth is, they are not cold, narcissistic, or insufferable on purpose. In fact, due to the symptom of not being able to recognize social situations in varying degrees, we often come across that way, even if we don’t mean to. Another thing is that autism is both colourless and genderless. I mean, it’s a cranial disability, for crying out loud! A person who is transgendered, of colour, or old can have it. It’s just never represented in Hollywood media. As well, autism is a biased disorder; men are far more likely to be diagnosed than women due to misinformation and the system of diagnosis having not been fully caught up yet. I am very lucky to have mine as I fought for it dearly, and a lot of us ladies have no choice but to self-diagnose. The reason why is that autism presents itself very differently in women, and many are able to blend in with other girls. Comparatively, guys have more of a problem blending in. This behaviour is learned, but the symptoms change.
Lastly, autism is not a thermometer between “high functioning” and “low functioning.” Both are very basic labels that only give an outline to a kaleidoscope of abilities and disabilities. They’re honestly kind of offensive. For every person who excels in math, there is someone else who’s recreated famous paintings or written a book. For the ones who are able to socialize normally, they can still have issues recognizing a good or bad situation. And for every white guy who’s an astrophysicist, there’s a gothic girl whose only talent is writing and who’s interested in Invader Zim. Think of us as frozen yogurt. You get the base and then you load it with different toppings. Think of the base as a person, and the various toppings as a symptom or skill. Makes sense?
As a side note, some of us don’t like to be touched suddenly without knowing what’s coming. We also don’t always appreciate loud, booming, bassy, vibrating music–but some do! If you don’t know, just ask and respect boundaries. This is only a small summary of what autism is, the stereotypes, and the truths behind them. As well, I want to encourage you all to do “Red Instead,” because my disorder is not worse than cancer or AIDS and neither is any other form of autism. AIDS and cancer lead to death; I just eat too much sugar, interrupt people on accident, and get hostile when I’m cranky. Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a disease, nor should it necessarily be “cured.” Our issues and gifts are embedded into our brains and have impacted what we have learned and who we are as individuals. If you take that away, you murder the person affected by it. If I were to be “cured,” the Nicole my family and friends all know would be gone forever.
As Autism Acceptance Week rolls around, don’t wear blue. The world is already aware we exist! Instead, just wear something red to show that you accept us for who we are.