Autism Acceptance: A New Understanding of Neurodivergence

Neurodiversity Autism Acceptance: A New Understanding of Neurodivergence Be neurodiversity affirming. Accept people as they are and support them. Posted April 26, 2024 | Reviewed by Davia Sills Key points The public’s general understanding of autism is changing for the better. More people are embracing the concept of neurodiversity and how some brains work differently. Education and awareness are an important part of understanding and accepting neurodiverse individuals. April is Autism Acceptance Month. Autism, which is one type of neurodivergence, has received a lot of attention from the press and social media in the last several years. There are many people who speak and write about autism, including autistic individuals. If you are autistic or know someone who is or might be, it’s important to recognize that our understanding of autism is evolving. I hope this blog post contributes to improving awareness of the current conception of what it means to be autistic and the implications of this new knowledge. The following are some facts about autism that are often unfamiliar to people but that are important to acknowledge as we move forward in helping autistic people thrive. 1. You can be autistic your whole life and not realize it until you’re an adult. There has been a sharp increase in the number of individuals seeking an assessment to clearly determine if they are autistic in my practice. Many people would not have “met the criteria” according to previous standards and sometimes even the current ones in the DSM-5 ( The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition ). This is why many autistic people prefer to use the term neurodivergent. This term explains that their brain is different but that it doesn’t necessarily fit into the traditional definition of autism. 2. Autistic people can acquire neurotypical social skills, but this does not mean they are no longer autistic. The behavior they learn by observing others never feels right to them, but they often do it in an attempt to fit in. This is called masking. This doesn’t mean that they are comfortable behaving like their peers or that they find social relationships with their neurotypical peers enjoyable. When autistic people can relax and be themselves without the expectations of typical social exchanges, they can enjoy being with people. For example, the expectation to ask personal questions of a new acquaintance might make them uncomfortable interacting, and that’s not how they typically connect with new people. 3. Autistic people can have empathy. Sometimes, they have quite a bit of empathy, and their emotions can be very intense. They can feel the pain of others tremendously, and it impacts them more deeply than the average person. So, it is not the case that every autistic person lacks empathy and can’t relate to others’ pain. It is often the case that they cannot relate to their peers or to situations that bother or hurt others. 4. Many experiences that do not bother neurotypical people feel traumatizing for autistic people. The level of trauma and the type of experience varies, but living in a world designed for brains that are different from theirs can lead to feelings of overwhelm. The school gymnasium, with its bad acoustics and loud voices, a grocery store full of people going in all directions and a large amount of merchandise, or going to an outdoor sporting event that is crowded, such as a stadium where people are loudly cheering and giving each other high-fives, are a few examples of how overstimulation and sensory experiences can negatively affect autistic people. They might not be able to tolerate the situation and might flee physically or withdraw into themselves. 5. The expectation that autistics can learn to be like everyone else and learn to adjust to certain environments and that it’s better for them that they do so is not affirming or in their best interest. Expecting neurodivergent individuals to just deal with the challenges of a neurotypical world is an outdated viewpoint that can be harmful and result in withdrawal and avoidance due to the level of stress it causes. We should let autistic people respond to these situations in the ways that they need to rather than forcing them to conform to neurotypical behaviors. Our developing understanding of autism is the reason why Autism Awareness Month recently became Autism Acceptance Month. The focus has shifted from teaching autistic people how to be neurotypical to educating neurotypical individuals about neurodivergence. This shift is driven by autistic voices, which includes how to support autistic people as they find ways to engage with the world. This approach does not attempt to correct autism. Instead, neurodiversity-affirming care means accepting who they are, supporting them, and finding ways to help them become resilient and live a meaningful life.

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