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What is autism?

Autism is a subject surrounded by numerous myths and misconceptions, which can lead to misunderstanding and isolation for those within the autistic community. At its core, autism is a neurological identity, a way in which a person's brain and nervous system function differently from what is considered typical.

One of the most pervasive myths is that autism is a ‘disorder’ or a condition that denotes a deficit, but this narrative is outdated and inaccurate. Autism should be regarded as an identity, similar to ethnicity or gender, and is a part of the broader neurodiversity spectrum. Autistic individuals, or those who are neurodivergent, experience the world uniquely, with their neurological make-up shaping their senses, communication, social interactions, and executive functioning.

Neurology, simply put, is the functioning of the brain and its connections to the nervous system and sensory systems. Thus, autistic people process sensory information differently. They may be hypersensitive (sensory avoidance) and/or hyposensitive (sensory seeking) to stimuli, which will affect how autistics perceive and interact with their environment. Furthermore, autistics may have differences in executive functioning, impacting their ability to plan and cope with unexpected changes in routine, which can be a significant source of anxiety.

Social communication and interaction are other areas where autistic people may differ. Autistic individuals may communicate in ways that are not typical, and they may require more time to process and respond to conversations. This is not indicative of a lack of interest or ability to form relationships but is a reflection of their unique neurological make-up. Communication isn't solely about speech; it's also about the understanding and use of non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language.

Addressing another myth, autism is not associated with a lack of empathy. In fact, many autistic people exhibit deep empathy, often feeling the emotions of others intensely, a trait known as ‘hyper-empathy’. Additionally, autism is not a learning disability, though it can co-exist with one. It is also not a mental health condition, although the stigma and discrimination autistic people face can lead to mental health challenges.

Autism is not exclusive to any gender, ethnicity or age group. It is not more prevalent in males, nor is it something that only exists among children. Autistic children grow into autistic adults, and the societal expectation that individuals will 'outgrow' autism is a damaging misconception.

Lastly, the belief that autistic people prefer isolation and do not desire the company of others is false. While some may need time alone to recharge, this should not be confused with loneliness. Autistic individuals, like anyone else, can enjoy social interaction and seek meaningful connections, especially in environments where they feel understood and accepted.

To foster a more inclusive society, it's crucial to dispel these myths and embrace the diversity that autistic individuals bring to our world. Emphasising understanding and acceptance rather than perpetuating misconceptions can lead to a richer, more empathetic community for all.

Dr Chris Papadopoulos, James Gordon, Ellie Kolatsi& Sophia Christophi

London Autism Group Charity

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