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We Need to Talk about Autism – Dr Alison Lennox

 

Photograph of a group of diverse individuals including autism

There are five truths I’d love to share about autism from my clinical practice. It’s a privilege meeting autistic people and helping explore and make sense of their experiences. I do recognise people and organisations often feel a bit daunted about understanding autism since the concept has changed. You might understandably worry about getting this wrong.

If you relax and think about it, you’ve already met hundreds of people with autism. You probably met your first autistic person in a sandpit at nursery, then through our schooling, our workplaces, our friendship networks and our families. You’re a pro. However, these five truths might help build your confidence around the subject and when you interact with autistic people.

 

Graphic showing 3 different people, all with own differences including autism

Truth 1: We’re not all “on the spectrum”
The manuals we use to make diagnoses describe autism as a spectrum, which gives the impression of a line of severity from “normal” through “bit autistic” to “very autistic” where an individual could be plotted against with a neat cross. It’s just not the case. In the community it’s better to conceptualise autism like a starburst of different features, so everyone is a different, spiky shape. No two person’s profile looks alike. It’s also important to view autism in this way because people’s support needs vary at different times.

Truth 2: Language matters
The community would want you to try to use neuro-affirmative language (1). Most autistic people prefer “autism” not “autism spectrum disorder” and “autistic person” not “person with autism (which sounds like an affliction rather than part of one’s identity). It doesn’t help that the diagnostic manuals refer to autism as a “disorder”. Most individuals prefer to think of autism as a difference or condition, and some as a disability. Disorder tends to be used for mental illness, which autism cannot be.

Truth 3: Autism affects women too
Historically many more boys and men were diagnosed than girls and women. Fortunately, our understanding of autism has improved. We now confidently recognise autism is apparent in many females. Sometimes women have special interests which are less unusual (e.g. Taylor swift, collecting stationary, ponies). We also believe autistic females are better able to “mask” their differences (be this consciously or subconsciously). However, doing so might let someone fly under the radar but it’s exhausting and can lead to meltdowns.

Truth 4: Autistic people don’t lack empathy
Research by the University of Cambridge from the eighties onwards has examined empathy in autistic people and found some people have differences in “Theory of Mind” (recognising what someone else is thinking or feeling) (2). However, this has been misinterpreted that autistic people lack empathy. Worse, the public know lack of empathy is associated with psychopathy. I can assure you I would not enjoy my work if my clients were psychopaths! Moreover, many autistic people are extremely curious about other people’s thoughts and experiences, as well as being kind-hearted, loyal and supportive. Often it is the “neurotypical” people who fail to display empathy towards autistic people.

Truth 5: Autistic employees are talented
JP Morgan did research which showed their autistic employees were 48% more productive than other employees after six months (3). Read that again. However, in the UK fewer than 3 in 10 autistic people are in work (4). That’s overlooking some serious talent. Autistic people really benefit from “reasonable adjustments” in the workplace e.g. wearing headphones, mentoring, no fluorescent lighting.

Make inclusive, high functioning teams to support autistic people to have optimum wellbeing and perform well.

Dr Alison Lennox, Consultant Psychiatrist in Adult Autism at Cognacity

References:
1. “What does it mean to be neurodiversity affirmative?”, British Psychological Society, 2nd Jan 2024. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/what-does-it-mean-be-neurodiversity-affirmative 
2. “The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences”, Baron-Cohen et al, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2004
3. “Smarter Faster: Autism at Work”, JP Morgan Chase and Co. https://www.jpmorganchase.com/news-stories/smarter-faster-autism-at-work
4. “New review to boost employment prospects of autistic people”, UK Government, 2nd April 2023. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-review-to-boost-employment-prospects-of-autistic-people

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