There are around 700,000 people with autism in the UK in one form or another.
A neurodevelopmental disorder, autism will be present in the individual from birth but may not manifest until years later – often in childhood.
The disorder is often characterised by difficulties with social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, repetitive behaviours, restricted behaviours and sensory processing.
However this is a broad generalisation in order to categorise the condition. No two people with autism will think and behave the same way and so it’s really important not to treat them as such.
Of course there is a behavioural commonality but that also discounts personality, personal experience and other socio-environmental factors that will partially dictate how the individual responds to situations and stimuli.
But what does Autism feel like?
It’s all but impossible to answer that definitely because it’s no different than asking how people who don’t have autism feel.
Even people without autism may struggle to describe how they feel – especially with regard to a wider community.
Individuals who experience depression and anxiety may feel lonely or out of place, which is a common description by people with autism too. But this doesn’t mean all people with autism have depression and not all people with depression have autism.
The point is it’s as unhelpful to define how a person or group of people feel as it is to lump them together under a label and call them the same.
However, there are documented commonalities:
Feeling out of place or isolated is a commonly reported ‘symptom’ or a general sense of not fitting in with others.
Sensory perceptions can be heightened in some way and can often bring with it pain. Being tickled, for example, can cause such a sensory overload that it can hurt. Or the surprise so overwhelming that it provokes a panic attack.
But this isn’t necessarily true for everyone who lives with autism.
This short video is based on an excerpt from Carly’s Voice: Breaking through Autism, written by Carly Fleischmann and her father. It gives you some idea of what her experiences with autism are like. But, again, they are purely the experiences of just one individual.
How Can I Help?
As you might expect, there is no hard and fast answer to that.
Everyone is different whether they have autism or not so the best way to support anyone – regardless of their challenges – is to ask them how.
Depending on how severe the challenges are they may not know how to answer so phrasing the questions in the right way is important. Make the questions as easy to answer as possible.
Equally give them the opportunity to make suggestions if you believe they are likely to.
Some individuals will have a very clear idea of what they are most comfortable with; others may feel overwhelmed just by thinking about it.
Accept that there will be an element of trial and error with whatever ideas you come up with.
An individual who is particularly prone to anxiety then giving them the means to either communicate that they’re struggling or to extract themselves to a safe place can make a huge difference.
Equally if you know the individual struggles with loud noises then giving them ear plugs before venturing into busy city centre could make all the difference.
Many with audio sensitivity are unable to filter out background noise so experience everyday sound as a single overwhelming cacophony. Needless to say living with that is enough to make anyone feel anxious.
Ultimately if you want to understand what living with autism is like, the best course of action is to ask the people you know how they live with autism. However you need to be prepared for their answer.
Putting the individual at the centre of all of your efforts whether you are learning or supporting allows you to do both far more effectively.
Autism is a lifelong disorder that can – without support – cause a number of associated challenges. Supporting the individual in the right way can mean they have an incredibly happy life.