…and even thee’s a little odd

…and even thee’s a little odd

All the world’s strange, save thee and me…

and even thee’s a little odd.

Robert Owen
(slighlty paraphrased)

Neurodiversity vs disability

Have you ever felt like you were at odds with the world or been to an event where everyone else seems to know what is going on, how to behave, where to go, etc, except for you?  You, the odd one out are somehow out of step, out of the loop with everyone else with their secret yet shared understanding of how to behave?  It’s happened to most of us at some time or other – the first time we went to a new school, started our first job, or otherwise found ourselves doing something new for the first time.  The feeling is disorienting and fitting in can be quite tiring until you have learned the ropes and understand how to fit in.

This is pretty much how most autistic people feel most of the time.  Confronted with unwritten and nonsensical social rules and conventions, surrounded by people who don’t say directly what they really mean but use metaphor, hyperbole, and who seem to delight in being immersed in chaos. 

“People say things they don’t mean, miss out things they do mean, do all sorts of strange things with their faces which apparently change the meaning of their words – and they say austistic people are odd!” 

Luke Jackson

While some physical conditions, such as paraplegia (being confined to a wheelchair) conform both to the medical model of disability, that a person lacks an ability most people possess, and the social model of disability, in that society disables them by arbitrarily building stairs and lips that limit easy wheelchair access.  Many autistic people in contrast are of at least average intelligence and only struggle to find paid employment, feel accepted and enjoy good mental wellbeing because businesses and government services are prejudiced and stubbornly refuse to adjust to meet individual needs. In a world where we have all normalised a one size fits nobody solution for every situation, autistic people suffer because they have to adapt that much more in order to fit in. 

What is autism?

So, what is different about people who we describe as being “austistic”?  Well, it’s complicated.  You did expect me to say that, didn’t you?  Life is rarely straightforward and neurodivergence is a wicked weave indeed.  Autistic people have brains that are wired slightly differently to ‘neurotypical’ people.  Historically confused with mental illness and disability, autism is simply a cluster of cognitive differences that emerge as a person grows up that may make it more difficult for them to fit easily into our rigid society.  Neurotypical people are characterised by fitting into the society into which they find themselves born, in a similar way that able-bodied people find there are no intrinsic obstacles placed in their way as they make their way around the urban environment.  Society is designed around such people.  As such, society impedes the lives of those who are in any way physically or cognitively different.  According to the social model of disability, individuals are not disabled, rather it is the inflexibility of the way we live that disables them.  As a result, autistic people often feel overwhelmed and stressed and at any one time 15% of them will suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Autistic people, in particular, are neurodivergent individuals who score more highly than neurotypical people against one or more of five traits:

  • Highly focused traits – some autistic people have a deep fascination with certain topics, studying them in obsessive detail.  This can make them formidable subject experts.
  • Sensory sensitivity – some autistic people cannot tolerate bright lights, sounds, and smells.  Unexpected touch might be painful, while the noise of a book returns alarm going off next to them can send them into shock, effectively wiping their short-term memory and leaving them disoriented, unsure where they are, etc.  Still others might be hyposensitive to certain stimuli, such as touch, and need to wear heavy clothes at all times to satisfy their sensory needs.  Many find that the typical indoor environment bombards their senses with an overload of sensory stimuli, causing them to become distressed or withdrawn. In autistic children, this often results in a breakdown that resembles a temper tantrum; in adults, withdrawal.
  • Repetitive behaviours/routines – most people are creatures of habit but predictability is particularly important to many autistic people; unexpected disruption to routines causes them greater distress than the rest of us.
  • Social communication – many autistic people find the subtle array of nonverbal cues most people use to communicate difficult to recognise and comprehend; they often talk in quite literal terms and find it difficult to grasp idioms, allusion and metaphor.
  • Social interaction – a reduced ability to read nonverbal cues may make autistic people appear aloof or withdrawn, strange or rude, or domineering.

People who are autistic might encounter different types and severities of challenges in their daily lives associated with some or more of these traits, making autism a complex and varied condition.  Some autistic people are nonverbal and find it almost impossible to function in society, while others are highly sociable and with a few minor adjustments are capable of living well.

Autistic people at work

That less than 16% of autistic adults are in any kind of paid employment and those who are report great difficulties guaranteeing the reasonable adjustments to make their working environment more comfortable for them.

Autistic people benefit from an environment that is adapted to their individual needs – this is neither complicated nor expensive but requires their manager to sit down with them and ask them what they need to work comfortably.  They often benefit from advanced notice about change and the opportunity to answer questions, so they can get used to the idea. 

Communicating with autistic people

If you suspect you are communicating with an autistic person and they are having difficulty communicating with you, try being patient, slowing down, give them six seconds to process what you have said before saying something new, and if you are going to repeat something, repeat it using exactly the same words, pacing, cadence and intonation as before.  Direct repetition aids cognitive processing, whereas asking another question or rephrasing it gives the person another cognitive task to do when they have not yet finished the first! 

Is anything described here familiar?

Most neurodivergent people, including most autistic people, spend most if not all of their lives undiagnosed. Not that everyone wants to be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Being diagnosed can open up avenues for support but disclosure of any difference can invite prejudice. Still, many people find a diagnosis makes sense of their life experience and validates them as being valuably different, rather than simply ‘odd’. If you are wondering whether you might be on the autistic spectrum, read further using the links below.

Support is available

The library webpage Avoiding busy spaces offers guidance on making best use of the services and facilities available to avoid crowded and noisy spaces when using the library and its services.

If you feel you might benefit from additional support, please make an appointment to chat with someone in ASDAC, who will be able to advise on what support might be available.

If you are experiencing anxiety, distress or any other unwanted feelings, including feelings brought on by reading this blog post, get in touch with the Student Wellbeing team.

Further reading

National Autistic Society

Autism Speaks

Harvard Health Publishing on Neurodiversity

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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