Understanding Autism

Understanding Autism and Celebrating Difference

April is known by some as ‘Autism Month’ and as we are fortunate to work in an industry that supports autistic children and their families, you might be wondering why A Growing Understanding has not posted or shared any of our thoughts on Autism Acceptance and / or Awareness. To be really honest, the reason for us not sharing anything is that it is A LOT to process and consider! It is a lot to process as a mother, as a speech pathologist, as a business owner and a member of the general community.

But to help me address the ‘elephant in the room’, I thought I could reflect on the work we do at A Growing Understanding, touch on my own insights as a mum to an autistic child, and use this blog to unpack the conundrum and build a bit of understanding about autism.

What is Autism Month About?

If you talk to a young person about ‘Autism Month’, I’d hazard a guess that they would mostly ask: Why do we have a month about autism? You see, ‘Autism Month’ isn’t marked on many (if any) school calendars, and it isn’t something that is overly recognised within the general adult community either. It could be easily missed by those who may benefit from it most. All of this got me thinking about three things:

  • What is Autism month actually about?
  • What do we actually want people to know about Autism?
  • If we are talking about awareness, who should actually be aware?

Within my own household and workplace, I like to acknowledge the month of April as a chance to increase our community’s awareness and understanding about what autism is and what it is not. I like to ensure (and this isn’t just in April) that the families we work with have access to the services they need to support their autistic children, grow their understanding of autism, and encourage their children to celebrate being autistic.

Perhaps that is the most pertinent point when it comes to understanding what Autism month should be about. Maybe it should be about ‘being autistic’ and that ‘lived’ experience. As neurotypical adults, I wonder, do we have the right to be commenting on what we should and shouldn’t be understanding and spruiking about autism? Shouldn’t we instead be asking our neurodivergent population what they would like to share about being autistic?

And so, I went about conducting my own research on what young members of our community would like people to know about being autistic. In general, the responses boiled down to one simple concept – Yes, autistic children can think differently to how other people think and that ‘different’ is not bad, but something to be understood and celebrated. Furthermore, they encouraged the need for kindness and respect, regardless of the way people think and how they do things.

Cue lightbulb moment… Maybe April, ‘Autism Month’, is about growing our understanding, appreciation, and respect for everybody, including those who are autistic. Afterall, difference is exactly that – it is different. It is not bad, it is not scary, but something we can embrace, benefit from, and celebrate. And when we grow our understanding, we can paint a more colourful picture of the world that represents the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of so many.

The Journey to Understanding

Ok, so I will accept that growing an understanding of difference and the experiences of autistic individuals perhaps falls into that good ol’ category of ‘easier said than done’. However, understanding comes from shared experiences, and I hope a little insight into my experience can help us embark on that journey together…

As a business owner and mum of two, I am all too familiar with the ‘juggle’. We mums undertake a lot. We are the personal chefs, chauffers, calendar controllers and more. For me, my day-to-day responsibilities also include considering the therapies we need to access, balancing these with appropriate academic and social supports, ensuring the special interests are acknowledged and can be explored and expanded on (for those in the know, you too would be acutely aware that one day, these special interests may turn into an occupation), as well as all the other bits in between.

But in amongst all of this, I know that the ‘juggle’ is not a burden (although it can sometimes feel like it), but an opportunity for our family to grow our collective understanding of autism.

An autism diagnosis is a lot for both parents and kids to process. My family has been on a big journey of learning and discovery when it comes to navigating autism and what it means to us. There are questions of how and when you talk about it, who you talk about it with, where to find the right kind of information, how to access support, what the impact will be on other members of the family, and then, of course, come the ‘shoulds’ (i.e. what should we be doing?) But answers do present themselves and our family has been lucky enough to access support that has helped us all grow our understanding.

I think we’ve all heard the saying that if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person! In my line of work, I see the diversity of autism every day. And when you hear someone say: “But he doesn’t look autistic”, it makes that sense of diversity even more profound. If we can encourage our children to embrace their difference and actively portray their strengths, acknowledge their weaknesses, and demonstrate that difference is just different, maybe we can start a new dialogue.

The more we share individual experiences, rather than just talking at a diagnosis level, we can start painting that colourful picture I spoke about previously.

Where to From Here?

The journey to awareness, understanding and acceptance is not an easy or clear one, but I honestly believe that the more we share our ‘lived’ experiences and embrace the voices and stories of those who are autistic; we are better positioned to grow our understanding (which could lead to acceptance).

As a speech pathologist who is lucky enough to have a business that supports autistic individuals and their families, I feel that I have a responsibility to share our thoughts on ‘Autism Month’. But it is not easy. There is a lot that can be said about autism, and I am aware that families who are just starting out on their journey will feel that same sense of overwhelm that I once did. We need to work together to support each other, no matter what the journey looks like, and respect the way that people think and how they do things.

So, where to from here? I believe it is about growing understanding. There is a lot of talk during April about what we should be saying and what we should be doing for autism awareness / acceptance, but for me, it is about understanding. Understanding from an individual ‘lived’ perspective. Understanding how families are navigating autism. Understanding how you can support autistic individuals. Understanding how to access services that can help children and families better navigate their daily life. Instead of focusing on ‘awareness’, Autism Month could perhaps encourage understanding, appreciation, and inclusion so that we, as a society, can support autistic individuals and celebrate difference.

Very humbly, I recognise that I don’t have all the answers. But, hopefully by sharing some of my thoughts (and ramblings), I can start a conversation that, if nothing else, embraces the simple sentiment of being kind to others.

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