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by Dr Jill Bradshaw, George Watts, Dr Clare Melvin,
Lizzie Gale and Krysia Emily Waldock

Autistic people have different ways of processing information which results in differences in thinking and behaving. Non-autistic people like to think that the world they have created makes sense but does it? Non-autistic people rarely say what they mean and yet expect other people to be able to interpret what they say. Non-autistic people make social rules and then don’t actually stick to them – what you are allowed to do in one context is very different from what you are allowed to do in another.

What is the first thing that you think of when you hear the word autism? How many people do you know who are autistic? Are all the autistic people you know exactly the same? Or are they all quite different? What do they share in common which has led to the diagnosis of autism? These are all questions we explore in our online course, Understanding Autism.

We know that at least one in every 100 people are autistic and it may be even more common. There are autistic children, adults, parents, siblings, spouses and grandparents. There are autistic people in every walk of life, from architects to zoologists. Although we used to think of autistic people as being more likely to be male, many females are also autistic. Some autistic people also have an intellectual disability.

Autistic people will have difficulties with elements of social communication, with understanding the ‘hidden’ conventions which guide interactions with other people (such as when to make eye contact and when it is acceptable to interrupt a conversation). Autistic ways of communicating are not always easily understood by non-autistic people. This can lead to misunderstandings.

Non-autistic people need to take care when making assumptions about autistic people. For example an autistic child may not make eye contact but still be listening really carefully or a child may not look like they are seeking social interaction but may still want to socialise. An autistic child may not appear to show empathy but may well be overwhelmed by the emotions of others. Autistic people are likely to have a spiky ability profile. We tend to assume that if people are quite good at one skill (like reading) then they will also be quite good in other areas of development (like daily living skills). Autistic people might be very good at one skill but find another skill much harder.

Autistic people are also likely to have sensory differences. They might find some everyday sensory experiences completely overwhelming. Alternatively, they might actively seek and delight in other sensory experiences. Many autistic people might experience both. Autistic people might have intense interests which they hyperfocus on, or do things in a repetitive way such as only eating certain foods or moving in a particular way. Autistic people may also have great strengths such as being able to pay attention to minute detail or developing extensive knowledge about an interest.

Generally, autistic people are likely to experience high levels of anxiety. Autistic people might find it hard to make sense of the world and to predict what other people are going to do and how they might react. Imagine you are in a foreign land where you do not speak the language or understand the culture and somehow everything you do appears to be the wrong thing. Imagine if the rules kept changing. How might you feel? What might you do, or not do?

What do you need to know if you are parent of an autistic child?
• You know your child better than anyone else.
• Even people who are supposed to know about autism will probably say and do things that are really unhelpful at times.
• You might have to fight for what you and your child need.
• Other people might think that everything your child does or does not do is because they are autistic. They might not look for other explanations like medical needs.
• Other autistic people and parents of autistic children will have very useful information about what it is like to be autistic and what might help.
• Create autism-friendly environments. What sensory experiences are helpful and unhelpful? How can you make things as predictable as possible?
• What is your child good at? How can you make the most of their strengths?
• How does your child communicate and what can you do to support their communication and adapt your own, and that of others around them, so it is more effective?
• How is your child’s mental health being supported? Are there people recognising the distress that is often caused by trying to navigate a non-autistic world?
• Check your assumptions. Remember that every autistic child is different.
• Look after yourself. Parenting is hard! Parenting a child who thinks differently can be even harder. Be kind to yourself and ask for support when you need it.

Jill is a senior lecturer in intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Tizard Centre, University of Kent. George, Lizzie and Krysia are all postgraduate students in the department. Clare recently completed her PhD at the Tizard Centre and is now a lecturer in psychology at the University of East Anglia. Together they have developed (with others) the FutureLearn course on Understanding Autism. George and Krysia are autistic.