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'The 4 most common misconceptions I face as an autistic woman.'

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I’ve been an autistic woman all my life (diagnosed in 2018, at the age of 42, but I can assure you that I have had this neurodiverse brain for the entirety of my life). I also have two children who are autistic, and over the years, we’ve heard some doozies from people who just don’t really understand autism.

Let me break it down for you.

But first, watch Kathy Lette discuss why we should change the way we view autism. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

Misconception 1: Autistic people don’t have empathy.

Ahh yes, that old chestnut. I think perhaps the confusion around this stems from the fact that many autistic people struggle with processing emotion, in a way that’s socially acceptable. Scans of autistic brains have shown that signals from one part of the brain to another can get blurred, or be slower. We need more time to process what emotion we are feeling. We often feel strong, intense emotion, but are completely baffled as to what emotion this is, or what’s driving it.

For example, during lockdown, I asked my 14-year-old son to go for a walk with me. He didn’t want to that day, but came out the next morning and said, "Hey mum! I want to go for a walk with you today." I thought I responded appropriately, but I was busy getting breakfast for everyone and washing dishes. 

Later, I reflected. Had I responded appropriately?  

I went back and checked in with him. "Hey, did I seem happy that you were going to come for a walk with me today? Did I respond appropriately?"  He rolled his eyes and said, "No! You just said ‘ok’ and I didn’t even know if you’d heard me". 

I was able to assure him that I was glad that we were going on a walk together and that I was sorry I hadn’t reacted appropriately at the time, because I love spending time with him and want him to feel that.

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Related: "Sensory needs, overwhelm, fear, anger and love." What it's like in an all-autistic family.

Misconception 2: Autistic people don’t feel emotions or are "cold".

Dude, I wish! We feel all the feels. My daughter and I like to say we have "big feelings". Because I often get hit over the head with a feeling, and I have no idea what it is. Sometimes it may be a reaction - my brain may recognise a song lyric or a movie line, or something might make me need to stim, out of joy or because something gets set off in my brain and needs me to complete an action, and if I don’t, my brain IS NOT HAPPY.  

I can seem unnecessarily fixated on details, but this is because my brain is like a computer, and I need the lines of code to be correct before I can continue. If anyone mentions a "drive-in" to me, I am compelled to sing the lyric from Grease. "Stranded at the drive-in, branded a fool, what will they say, Monday at school."

If someone texts me, and they have a grammatical error in their text, because I paid so much attention to the rules of grammar as a child, it can be really hard for me to not get a "WRONG! WRONG!" warning from my brain. 

Likewise, if someone says something that isn’t correct, even though it might be in the midst of a compliment, then I will get a "WARNING!" from my brain that this contains incorrect information.  

As we get older, we become aware that it’s not socially appropriate to point out other people’s mistakes, but it’s hard! Our brain is flashing red and we’re meant to ignore that and carry on with the conversation? 

Related: "I was a successful psychologist when I was diagnosed with autism at 58."

We tend to be detail-oriented and can interrupt conversations if we feel that it’s important. We learn the social rules and conventions around this, but often the "WARNING!" in our brain is stronger, and we risk looking unemotional and fixated on details. But, I assure you, that this is not the case. Conversation, and in particular, reciprocity, can be hard, as I’m receiving so many messages from my brain as to what the facts are, what the person is wearing, their eye colour, that pimple on their face, whether their eyes look tired or happy or if they seem like they’re "elsewhere". 

And, in one heck of a segue, that brings me to one of the myths that autistic people dislike most of all...

Misconception 3: Autistic people can’t make eye contact.

Right before I was diagnosed with autism, a GP said to me, "why are you pursuing this diagnosis? It won’t change anything. And besides, you make eye contact".

Well, dude, imma eye roll you at that. Yes, I can make eye contact. But it is often painful. If I maintain eye contact with someone I don’t know very well, it is too much. I not only receive information about your eyes, I receive information about how you are "really" doing, your energy, your motivations, all the things. But, it’s often too intense. Or I focus too much on getting the appropriate ratio of eye contact/looking away, and can’t pay attention to the actual conversation.  

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Often, my brain is only able to process one task at a time, and asking for eye contact can interrupt other processes. It’s not that we can’t make eye contact, it’s just that it is intense and stressful for us. So a lot of us have invented workarounds to societal demands for eye contact.  

I personally favour a combination of focus between someone’s eyeballs, the eyes, the mouth, back to the eyes, and repeat manually for the duration of the conversation. I can make eye contact because it’s been drilled into me that it is "polite" and "good behaviour" to make eye contact. But, depending on how I’m feeling, or how high my level is of sensory overload, it can be painful and taxing for me. 

Society’s insistence that our kids make eye contact in order to show that they’re "just like normal kids" walks a fine line between complying to fit in, and completely changing yourself in order to be accepted.

Listen to Mamamia's parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess. In this episode, co-hosts Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo speak to Fiona Higgins about neurodiversity. Post continues after audio.

Misconception 4: All autistic people are like Rain Man, and we all have expertise in one area.

Nope. These autistic people are called "savants" and make up a very small percentage of actually autistic people. I have lost count of the amount of times in conversation that I’ve mentioned that I or my kids are autistic, and some bright spark remarks that, "Wow! I bet they are really talented at something else, even though they’re autistic." 

This shows such a lack of understanding of what autism really is, that I don’t even bother setting those people straight. I simply say, "mmm".

Sorry to burst your bubble, but we aren’t all super good at something else, we can’t all do sums in our head and win big at the casino. Most of us autistic people have a "special interest", which is a subject that we love learning about, and either doing, collecting, or gaining knowledge about, and brings us great joy and calm.  

In Atypical Sam has an encyclopaedic knowledge of penguins. This is true to an extent - a lot of people on the spectrum collect facts about a special interest. However, our special interests may be rapidly fluctuating. My son was OBSESSED with Ned Kelly when he was seven, but after months and months of learning about ole Ned and his gang, his special interest changed to WWE and John Cena, leaving me to think, "Hey, what about Ned!?" 

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We amass reams of knowledge and spend hours of time on a particular subject or hobby, but can then become totally over that subject and never think about it or play it again. My son became one of the top-ranked Fortnite players in Australia in 2018, then got over it, and never played it again. I, too, have special interests, ranging from Russell Brand to the perfect way to do winged liner, attachment theory, Tinder and Clementine Ford.

A lot of autistic people also like to play the same song over and over again, because it evokes a certain feeling in us. I personally play songs over and over again, until I reach a point of "nope", where I may never listen to that song again. Or I play it over and again, just enough, that I am able to play it again sometimes. 

My brain runs code like a computer, and to a certain degree, I need to follow that code. Special interests are soothing to me, and finding out more about them helps me make sense of a world and a brain that can be confusing and bewildering at times.

Feature image: Supplied.

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