So, someone just told you they're autistic. What next?
Updated: Apr 15, 2022
You're hearing much more about autism these days because of TikTok and Instagram, but not for the reasons you may think.
TikTok and Instagram are social media platforms which autistic people are using to spread their stories and lived experience, and people are relating to the way it is expressed. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - 5th edition (fondly referred to as DSM-V) outlines Autism Spectrum Disorder in an entirely deficit-based way that the public has used to form their opinions of autism.
So what we used to think of autism was...
Poor social skills
No eye contact
This view makes sense when someone tells us they're autistic and they don't meet this criteria, so we might be tempted to retort "But you don't look autistic!"
Note: Please don't.
Autism is an invisible disability and there is no one 'look'. I mean, due to neuronal wiring our heads are a teensy bit bigger than the average neurotypical, but unless you're whipping out the measuring tape, there is no one look.
What social media platforms have allowed us to do is to connect in our entirety and truly listen to individuals from a wider spectrum of experiences and has given us a framework for celebrating who we are, our way of processing information and allowed a lot more self-compassion for times in which we reach overload and may meltdown or shut down. As a clinician, we are learning more about the inner experience of autistics this way, rather than what we simply observed to be thus and cast judgements over behaviour with a neurotypical lens. What is happening now is a revolution in our understanding. We are much more confident in our autistic identity now than ever before, and that is a beautiful thing. In fact, the DSM-V has recently revised its criterion slightly to include masking.
What we now know autism to be like:
Different set of social skills - may be more direct communicators and take things literally
Eye contact can be made but it is just painful for most autistics (not all!)
Empathy spectrum, and capable of deep empathy as well
Sensory processing can lead to overload, but an autistic person may 'hold on' until they are in a quiet place away from everyone to meltdown or shutdown.
Masking is a skill that autistics learn to blend in, where they perform neurotypical social skills but it takes a lot of energy to constantly process 'what to do' rather than just be.
Excellent pattern thinkers
Females particularly can be more internalising in their presentation and higher maskers, but males can be internalising too.
When the next person has the courage to shed their previous ableist views on autism to share their diagnosis with the family, congratulate them. It is truly freeing for this not to be a secret and they have felt safe enough to share this with you. They're looking to connect and be free in their identity; support them to do so.
Here are a few scripts that might help you:
"Congratulations! When did you find out?"
"Oh wow, I never would have picked it but I guess I don't know enough. Can you tell me more about it? I'd love to learn"
"Thank you for sharing that with me. How are you feeling about it?"
"Great. I mean, we're still friends so nothing has changed but if there's anything I can do to support you and do things differently, let me know!"
Enjoy the learning journey and embrace learning about a new way of being and processing in the world.
If you ever want to learn more about it, I run an 8-week course on Raising an Autistic Child Authentically that parents usually join, but is more than welcome to anyone wanting to do a deep dive into what it really means to support an autistic child and is found under the Workshops section of this website.