April is officially known as Autism Awareness Month. It is a time where people come together to try and raise as much awareness about Autistic individuals as possible. However, the autistic community are trying to lean away from the term ‘awareness’ and move towards acceptance. There is a quote ‘You can be aware of something, but not accept it’. At AP Cymru, we believe in raising awareness and promoting acceptance for all.
As our physical fundraising has come to a halt due to Covid 19, for this years Autism Acceptance Month we are taking part in a sponsored walk called ‘Steps to Acceptance’. Approximately 700,000 people in the UK are autistic, therefore this is how many steps we aimed to reach. The support AP Cymru has had towards reaching this goal has been phenomenal and our goal is now a whopping 10 million steps and we are only £200 away from reaching our fundraising goal of £2000.
As Team AP and our incredible families and supporters are taking physical steps to raise awareness, I thought I would compile a list of 7 things that I feel contribute to Autism Acceptance rather than simply just awareness. My seven steps to autism acceptance are:
1.Validate Sensory Experiences
Autistic individuals often have different sensory experiences to Neurotypicals. For example, some Autistics may have Hyperacusis, which means that sounds are perceived differently and the person may be more sensitive to sounds such as loud noises, fireworks and everyday sounds such as alarms and telephones. Another example may be that due to interoception the person doesn’t experience temperature regulation in the same way, they may not feel the cold or the heat, so prefer to wear clothes that match how they’re feeling rather than the weather. A final example may be eating, whether it’s taste or texture we may only like a limited number of foods or we may like to eat in a specific way. When someone invalidates our sensory experiences it can feel frustrating, because we can’t control what our sensory needs are. By validating these things it can make us feel more comfortable and free to be ourselves.
2. Allow Us To Communicate Our Way
People can communicate in a variety of ways. For Autistic people communication can be affected in different ways. Autistic individuals may be pre-verbal and use tools such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) or Makaton. We may have difficulty developing language and need Speech and Language therapy. For example, we may be Echolalia and like to repeat phrases and sounds. Some autistics may be Hyperlexic which is where a person has the ability to read above their years and has a fascination with words or numbers. Selective Mutism can also effect autistic individuals and this is characterised by the inability to speak and communicate in certain social settings. Allowing Autistics to communicate in a way that best suits their needs, rather than what is easiest for others to understand is key to Autism Acceptance.
3. Please Don’t Force Eye Contact
As a Chameleon in Childhood I was always told – ‘Look at me while i’m speaking to you’ or ‘Cerys you are not listening to me, look to show you are listening’. It is understandable that in communication eye contact shows you are engaged in the conversation with the other person. However, a common misconception about Autistic people is that we are not listening when we are ‘avoiding’ eye contact. The reasons we may avoid eye contact are – it makes us feel uncomfortable, we may need more time to process your facial expressions, tone of voice and we need extra time to process language and auditory processing. These factors can then distract us from the conversation. We may either not look at you or we may look at the bridge of your nose or centre of your forehead to create the illusion that we are looking at you. This is more common in those with disguised presentation. When we are not looking or if we are pretending to look, we are more often than not listening to you, but trying to grasp the social interaction.
4. Meltdowns Are Not Temper Tantrums
When I was younger, my brother found it difficult going to supermarkets due to all of the external stimuli such as bright lights and loud noises. This would often cause him to have meltdowns because sensory overwhelm can be painful and I can vividly remember others staring at him and tutting under their breaths. Believing that this was simply a ‘naughty child having a temper tantrum’. However, meltdowns are far from temper tantrums. I like to explain meltdowns like volcanoes that are ready to erupt. The anxiety and sensory stimuli we experience build up and like magma they rise to the surface. Eventually, we will erupt and like lava it takes a while to cool down. Like a volcano our reaction is not a choice, it is a natural reaction to an environment that is too much!
5. Special Interests
One of the traits that is often mentioned during an Autism Assessment is ‘Does the person have limited, intense and obsessive interests?’ I would prefer to label this as ‘Expert-level, passionate and heartfelt interests’. Autistic individuals can be extremely passionate about a topic or series of topics and this is something we refer to as our special interests. In disguised presentation we may hide the intensity of our interests as a masking tool to fit in. However, we may do the opposite which in the autistic community we like to call ‘info-dumping’, in this instance we will not stop talking about our interests. Although this may be frustrating for you at times, please understand that this is our way of communicating with you through a topic that we find easy to discuss and it creates extreme joy for us. These special interests can even lead us to have great careers.
6. We Are Empathetic
A MASSIVE misconception about Autistic People is that we lack empathy. I, and many others believe that we do not lack empathy, we simply may have a different empathetic response and we express this and many other emotions differently. We may have difficulties with theory of mind, but this doesn’t mean that we are not empathetic. For example, you may be telling an autistic person a story about something that has happened to you. Instead of saying something like ‘I’m sorry that happened to you, is there any way I can help’, we may say ‘Oh yes, something similar happened to me…’ and then explain what happened to us. This is our way of showing you we relate and we care, it’s not a ploy to take the spotlight from you.
7. We Want To Be Loved And Supported
Finally, although we express our emotions differently, all we want is to be loved, supported, accepted and to BELONG. As our Charity Founder Karen states – ‘If I can accept you for you, then please accept me for me.’
Those are my seven steps to acceptance. Team AP and supporters are now at a total of 6,355,591 Steps to Acceptance which is absolutely incredible and the team couldn’t be prouder.
If you would like to sponsor us you can donate here: justgiving.com/Walk4AP .
The money we raise directly supports Autistic Individuals and their families and will be put towards our Family Summer Activity Programme.
I will be updating the final step count to my Chameleon pages which you can find here:
Or on Instagram – @thechameleonprogrammeap
Thank you so much for reading!
Cerys the Chameleon.