Autism and Neurodiversity
Getting a formal diagnosis of Autism is the start of a new level of understanding for many parents and families alike. Yes, it can be a lot to process at first, so give yourself some time. With the help of neurodiversity-affirming allied health professionals and supporters by your side, you can really make this journey about celebrating your loved one and helping them to thrive now and into the future.
In this article, we’d like to help you gain a deeper understanding of Autism – as well as some of the misconceptions you may come across along the way. We’ll also explore the neurodiversity movement, and what neurodiversity-affirming care and approaches are all about.
So, grab a cuppa and take some time to read through this helpful article. By the end of this, our aim is for you to have a clearer understanding of Autism, neurodiversity, and what this diagnosis means for you and your family.
What is Autism?
We’ve explored the Autism Spectrum Disorder in quite a lot of depth here on the SpeechEase Speech Therapy blog. From how Autism can present differently in girls to non-speaking Autism. As you might be able to guess from this already, Autism occurs on a spectrum and varies greatly depending on the Autistic individual!
Each Autistic person experiences the world around them and engages with others differently to the next Autistic individual. Meeting one autistic person is literally meeting one autistic person – it doesn’t mean the next person with autism that you meet will be the same! This is often referred to as neurodiversity, and it’s important to acknowledge how unique each Autistic person is.
The fact is, Autism is a developmental condition that results in neurological (brain structure and function) changes that create differences in the way an individual interacts with others, thinks, feels, and experiences the environment around them. Just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
What causes Autism?
After receiving a diagnosis of Autism, the first thing you may want to know is what causes it. The curiosity to know the cause of any diagnosis is natural, however the answer to this one is largely unknown. While there is no exact proven cause of Autism (ASD), research does suggest that these neurological differences are a result of a combination of developmental, genetic, and environmental factors.
Autistic people can have a great quality of life and when supported by their family and community, their strengths and personality can really shine through. Speech Pathologists play an important role in supporting Autistic children, teenagers and adults in advocating for themselves and building their confidence in self-expression.
In what ways do Autistic brains experience the world differently?
Because Autism is the result of differences in brain structure and function, Autistic brains experience the world differently. These differences influence the way an Autistic person interacts with others, thinks, feels, and experiences the environment around them.
Previously, when there was less known about Autism and neurodiversity as a whole, these differences were referred to as ‘symptoms’ or ‘red flags’. The language we use now is person-centred and strengths-based, because at the end of the day, just because someone has a different brain structure of function, this doesn’t mean that these differences should be labelled negatively.
Let’s explore some of the ways Autistic brains experience the world differently:
Autistic people can experience sensory differences when interacting with and exploring the world around them. When we say ‘sensory’ we’re talking about (you guessed it) the five commonly known senses, and additional two less known senses! Autistic people experience diverse sensory differences that can impact how they react to sights, sounds, touch, taste and more! Their experience of different senses can also be influenced by whether they are underactive or overactive in this area (which can change minute-to-minute, day-to-day and situation-to-situation) – this can result in behaviours that others may find surprising, because they aren’t experiencing that stimulus (temperature, smell, sound) the same way.
For example, an Autistic person with overactive sound input may find it difficult to concentrate on a conversation they’re having with someone in a busy café with loud music. They may get so overwhelmed that they need to leave, and they may not initially express why they had to get out of there so fast. For a child that hasn’t started talking yet, this might look like running out of a room and sitting down – they may even start rocking to soothe themselves.
There are many different ways sensory differences can impact Autistic individuals – and the way they respond to these situations also varies! Self-soothing behaviours (often referred to as ‘stimming’) are a common response when an Autistic person needs to regulate their nervous system and ‘recover’ from situations or interactions that they may find overwhelming or overstimulating.
Examples of stimming include:
- flapping hands or flicking or snapping fingers
- bouncing, jumping, or twirling
- climbing, running around or squeezing into tight spaces
- pacing or walking on tiptoes
- pulling hair
- repeating words or phrases
- rubbing the skin or scratching
- repetitive blinking
- staring at lights or rotating objects such as ceiling fans
- licking, rubbing, or stroking particular types of objects
- sniffing at people or objects
- rearranging objects
Social Communication Differences
One of the common misunderstandings about Autism is the way that it impacts an individual’s ability to communicate and engage with others around them. The general misconception is that Autistic people don’t enjoy having conversations with others, or would prefer to be on their own. This is a harmful stereotype and one that doesn’t ring true! Autistic people, much like anyone else, enjoy connecting with others and forming friendships and relationships. However, there are differences in the way that some Autistic people may prefer to engage in conversations that may go against the unwritten social conventions or rules – for example, making minimal or no eye contact.
Social communication differences like these can make it difficult for Autistic people to engage in conversations with neurotypical people – particularly when others are not aware of their differences or do not accommodate and accept those different ways of engaging.
There are group therapy programs run by Speech Pathologists to support Autistic kids and teens to strengthen their social communication skills, encourage them to advocate for themselves and build their confidence so they can thrive in school and beyond. However, it’s important to note that social communication differences are just that – differences. They aren’t necessarily things we need to (or can) change.
Because Autism occurs on a spectrum, it is worthwhile noting that there are Autistic individuals who communicate without the use of their voice or verbal speech. They may use speech sounds to articulate their thoughts sometimes and not at other times, or they may be completely non-speaking. You can learn more about non-speaking / non-verbal Autism over here.
Executive Functioning Differences
Another area of difference that influences the way Autistic brains experience and interact with the world is Executive Functioning. Executive functioning or executive functions are the brain processes that enable us to plan, carry out and complete everyday tasks. Executive functioning is often linked to our ability to make decisions, set and work towards goals, follow routines, and hold information in our short term or ‘working’ memory.
Differences in executive functioning are common across the Autism spectrum and can result in different behavioural responses from person to person. One of the ways an Autistic person may interpret a situation differently because of their Executive Functioning differences could show up when plans or an activity suddenly changes. This sudden change of plan or routine can be distressing for an Autistic individual with executive functioning differences, and they may need extra time or supports to process this.
Other executive functions that may operate differently for Autistic individuals include things like regulating emotions, task initiation, and maintaining focus. It’s important to note here that there are many different executive functions and each Autistic person will experience their own levels and types of differences in this area. For example, they may not experience any differences in the areas of working memory or decision making but may experience greater difficulties with sudden changes to routines or plans.
Explore executive functioning in more depth with this helpful webinar from Positive Partnerships.
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity is a concept that acknowledges the natural variation in human brains that result in differences in how we think and behave. This term incorporates the idea of diverse neurotypes – differences in someone’s brain structure or function. While the concept of neurodiversity and the social movement around it is often linked to Autism, there are other neurologically based conditions that are included such as ADHD, Tourette’s, and Dyslexia.
Below is a helpful video that explains Neurodiversity and where it has come from in more depth:
What is Neurodiversity-Affirming Practice?
For a long time, Autism Spectrum Disorder was seen as something that needed to be ‘cured’. Behaviours like stimming were treated as things that needed to be stopped, and therapy interventions focused largely on trying to make the Autistic individual ‘fit in better’ with the world around them. This perspective resulted in harmful interventions that ultimately led to lower self-confidence and poor long-term mental health outcomes for the Autistic individual.
Neurodiversity-Affirming practice is a newer, more holistic approach that can be used when supporting Autistic people and their families in a clinical setting. It is a collaborative, strengths-based approach that celebrates neurodiversity and focuses on goals that are neurodiversity-affirming and supportive to what the Autistic person needs to thrive in their life.
Below is a helpful video from Jessie Ginsburg, an American Speech Pathologist who has a special interest in supporting Autistic kids and their families. While this video is meant mostly for Speech Pathologists and other allied health professionals, we think you’ll find it helpful when you’re looking for a neurodiversity-affirming multi-disciplinary team for your loved one.
That sure was a lot to cover, wasn’t it? We hope you’ve found the information shared in this article helpful as you begin to explore the world of Autism and neurodiversity. If you are curious to learn more about the different health professionals who can support you in creating a neurodiversity-affirming support team for your loved one, look at our guide to Allied Health professionals.
Just getting started with Speech Therapy and looking for a clinician? If you’re in Australia, take a look at the Speech Pathology Australia directory to find a Speech Pathologist near you. If you happen to be based in Mackay, Townsville, or Brisbane, we can help too! Our team of passionate clinicians have a lot of experience supporting Autistic kids and their families and you can register for our services here.