Autism Awareness by Jennifer Graham, Wimbledon High School

April – what does that remind you of? Spring, Easter, new beginnings? Did you know that April is also Autism Awareness Month? As someone who has an autistic sibling myself, I think April is a great opportunity for people to understand autism in order to support people with autism and their families and friends.

Although autism is very different for each person, I asked Rebecca, a year 12 autistic student at Wimbledon High School, if she would be willing to answer a few questions to give some insight into what is to be autistic.

To introduce Rebecca, I posed the question “When did you find out you had autism?” She first said it was important for people to understand “I’ve always had autism and always will be and I just want people to know that rather than a specific age,” before continuing her story of diagnosis: “I always knew I was different. I had a lot of problems in primary school: I had very ‘physical’ crises, I hid under desks and I didn’t speak much. However, this was all attributed to my dad being/working in a different country I had someone (a teaching assistant/senco) supporting me at school and going with me if I had to leave However, it wasn’t until I was 15 and had a severe asthma attack that required me to be hospitalized for a few days that someone put a word (autism) on my behaviors and my difficulties The health care professionals who followed me to the hospital noticed that I had many autistic traits and therefore referred for assessment. When I looked at autism, it all made sense and felt so “me”. When I was diagnosed about 8 months later, I felt immense relief and had an explanation for why I was different. Since then, it’s been an ongoing process of unmasking myself, accepting myself, and finding strategies to help me cope in a neurotypical world. I am proud to be autistic.

‘What do you find most difficult about being autistic? – ‘The fact that others don’t always accept me as I am. Loud, noisy and crowded environments are difficult for me.

Since people often focus on the negative impacts of autism, I asked, “Do you find there are benefits/benefits to being autistic?” Rebecca replied: ‘The fact that I can spend a lot of time doing things that I love. For example, when other people get bored doing lots of math questions, I can spend hours doing them, often having fun. Thinking differently is also often necessary to solve problems. I also like having special interests because I can spend a lot of time focusing on them and having fun (mine are pandas and cricket).

When asked, “How is it to be autistic in a school with neurotypical children?” Rebecca replied: “It’s hard – I’m not going to lie. Most people are usually quite ok with knowing more, but there are some who forget or still have outdated and negative opinions about the autism. I think when I accepted myself for who I am and stopped comparing myself to others and working in a way that works for me, I could finally be different. Some days are harder than others. others (particularly when there is noisy construction) but overall I’ve never experienced a difference and that’s just my life.

“Some of the difficulties with autism are social communication and social interaction, do you have any difficulties in these areas and if so, do you have any coping strategies?” – ‘I do it. When I need to talk to someone, I ask to do so outside of noisy environments to reduce the “stress” I feel at the time. I don’t force myself to make eye contact and often stimulate freely. If necessary, I will ask to continue the conversation by e-mail. I’ve also prepared flashcards if I need to explain my conditions or what’s going on (eg I’m overwhelmed because it’s very loud, I can’t make eye contact, etc.).

Especially during Autism Awareness Month, it’s important to not only understand autism, but also what people can do to help people with autism. So I asked the question, “What can others do to help people with autism?” “. ‘Suggest having conversations outside of noisy environments. Don’t judge us when we stimulate (self-stimulating behavior such as rocking, chewing, clapping, etc.). As you get to know us you will probably know when we are ‘happy stimming’ and when stimming is a method of trying to cope with the environment and we actually prefer to leave. Kindness and patience go a long way. Ask the autistic person how best to support them and what they would like you to do in certain situations (as you get to know them).

Finally, I ended with the question: “If you wanted people to know one thing about autism, what would it be?” – ‘That people with autism are human and we deserve that respect. We are no less different.

As Rebecca alluded to being able to spend a lot of time doing things she loves, I see that in my brother too. His passion for the things he loves is unmatched. Take a movie – if I watch a movie with my brother, I guarantee he’ll know everything about it, from specific production dates through the process to actors and concepts. Or reading – books, comics, magazines and even recreating some of his own – his creativity is something I admire.

Having an autistic brother has certainly opened my eyes. As Rebecca mentions, loud and busy places are overwhelming for him and communicating how he feels about a situation can be intimidating. However, knowing him well, it is now easier for me to tell when he finds a difficult environment and the importance of just being patient and calm. I think it’s just vital to remember that every person is important and we all need to live harmoniously together, everyone is ultimately different, no less.