Why Is It So Difficult to Understand Autism?

“For as soon as an unexpected fact appears, we try to fit it in the framework of the common places of acquired knowledge and we are indignant that anyone should dare experiment further.”

– Paramhansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi

Yogananda’s quote regards the human approach to science and the nature of the universe, but when I apply it to the neurotypical understanding of autism, it seems to fit just right.

Autism is often unexpected by families. It is also commonly explained as a deficiency that needs lots of therapy and remediation, rather than a neutral neurological processing difference compared to the neurotypical processing. Our introduction to autism is usually one cloaked in words like “reg flags”, “symptoms”, and “disorders”. Because of this negative introduction, unwitting parents and caregivers are on defense for anything related autism.

Parents especially fear autism, yet understand their child is also perfect the way they are. Often they’re perplexed because they note the growth, intelligence and creativity of a child, but observed they’re markedly different than typical peers. This duality of understanding is the source of so much anguish and frustration. It doesn’t need to be this way.

This may also be due not just to negative explanations of autism, but also because people conflate autism with a form of intellectual disability. These two things are not mutual, though autistic people (and neurotypical people) can also have intellectual disabilities.

Here’s the entire quote from Yogananda, and just for fun, let’s pretend that this it is about the understanding of neurological processing differences:

“The truths- those surprising, amazing, unforeseen truths which our descendants will discover are even now around us, staring us in the eyes, so to speak. And yet we do not see them. But it is not enough to say we do not see them. We do not wish to see them. For as soon as an unexpected fact appears, we try to fit it in the framework of the common places of acquired knowledge and we are indignant that anyone should dare experiment further.”

– Paramhansa Yogananda, from Autobiography of a Yogi

If an autistic person’s behavior does not make sense to you please consider doing the following:

  1. Observe the behavior without judgment. This will be nearly impossible, so here’s an easier way: every time you witness the behavior, check your thoughts to see when you are deeming something socially appropriate or inappropriate.  Observe how you feel when you witness this. Consider your emotions as you observe. Are you uncomfortable? Angry? Embarrassed? Curious?

Once you’ve understood through which lens you are witnessing the behavior, be aware this is impacting your ability to “see” the behavior for what it is.

Behavior is a form of communication and for many autistic people, their bodies are important means to communicate when they are unable to verbally articulate their needs. 

  1. Ask the autistic person when they’re in a rested state what their behavior means. Often, they will tell you. If you interrupt to tell them why it is bad/wrong/unacceptable, remember that they will likely stop telling you in the future or find deep shame in trying to meet their own needs. 

If the person is too young to explain or unable to articulate what/why, consider searching the web for autistic voices who can explain things. Do not ask when they’re overstimulated, as answering may be impossible in that moment.

A group that substantially changed my understanding of autism was the closed Facebook Group “Autism Inclusivity”. This is an educational group where parents and caregivers of autistic kids can ask autistic adults about behaviors and intentions.

Caution: read the rules and observe first. Learn about etiquette in safe spaces for autistic people. Ableism and sympathy for neurotypical people will not be present here; this is because most other every place in the world favors the neurotypical. Go there to learn and be amazed. Also, on my Instagram page, I repost daily tips from #actuallyautistic people and neurodiversity affirming clinicians and researchers. My handle is @sensationalstims.

If you want to understand autism, learn from autistic people!

3. Do you understand sensory differences? I didn’t. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I thought we all kind of had the same sensory experiences. Autistic people usually have heightened senses that, unless supported, are often overwhelming and can cause anxiety, fatigue, burnout, and meltdowns. Learn what your child’s sensory needs are.

I urge us to all remember how we were initially instructed about autism: we were trained to believe autism is a deficiency that needs adjustment, instead of a processing difference that needs support, especially for those of us struggling to understand an autistic family member, friend, student, or client.

Fill out this form to get a free resource to understand sensory differences and stimming!

Or buy my book The Case of Sensational Stims to learn what stimming is and why it’s so important. Available online on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Wal-Mart. 

Thank you for being here. Getting curious is the first step to creating an inclusive, safe world for everyone, especially autistic people!

Difficult Behaviors, Autism, and Trauma

If your child is struggling at home or at school in significant ways that are impeding their personal growth, I hope you read this post. 

Many autistic people’s behaviors are misunderstood. I hope this post helps us understand what we are looking at! We do not need to fear autism, we need to learn how to support autistic people.

Typical trauma responses to situations perceived as dangerous are: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

When the fear center of the brain is activated, higher level thoughts are unable to be accessed. 

The purpose of this post is to help anyone who works with an autsitic person understand how to support a person whose fear center is activated and a trauma response is happening.

Every human has a genetic predisposition to one of these four responses. Here’s what this means for autistic people:

Autistic people process situations differently, compared to neurotypical people (that’s why they’re diagnosed as autistic!). They process things so differently that it is disabling. 

Autistic people are frequently placed in situations perceived as dangerous because of their unique processing system.

Prolonged time in stressful environments becomes dangerous; the autistic person knows it means pain. 

For example, autistic people usually have a unique sensory profile that makes a typical situation extremely stressful. Often things like lights/temperature/sound can be so overstimulating that it registers as pain or discomfort. 

Trauma responses will be triggered in these situations, and we are all hardwired to react in one of four ways. 

Fawn=trying to please someone who causes discomfort as a means of trying to avoid conflict.

Flight= trying to escape/elope to avoid the perceived danger.

Freeze= the inability to move when danger is present.

Fight= facing the perceived threat aggressively.

Autistic children in school who have a fawn or freeze response generally are perceived as “good kids” and will be described by their teachers as “wonderful students. I can’t imagine why they fall apart at home!”

Autistic children who have a flight response are often considered liabilities, and efforts are made to keep them close to the location they’re trying to flee. Yes, even though that location is determined to be dangerous by the autistic person.

Autistic children who fight are considered dangerous and threatening. These are the ones who are often scolded and chided. They are either placed in a separate area so as not to harm others, rather than taught how to regulate and work through situations that are perceived as dangerous. These children are frequently misunderstood and consequently perpetually frustrated. 

This creates a dangerous cycle for both the child and all those who work with him/her. The child learns that the way they respond to danger is “incorrect”, which means that their entire life they will either try to figure out what is wrong with them, or will find everyone else to misunderstand their needs, causing shame, anger, and guilt. 

To avoid these unfortunate, traumatizing situations, we need to understand what fear responses are, and how to help unpack the situation, rather than to just get the child to behave the way we want in the moment.

Frequent exposure to painful situations means danger will be detected.This is true for any human. 

If your child is struggling with one of these trauma responses, you’ll need to determine what their perceived danger is. It is likely something with their senses, and because autistic people, especially young ones, tend to struggle with communication, you will need to look and listen closely to determine the trigger. 

Just because it isn’t triggering to you or the teacher means the situation isn’t for the autistic person. 

Once you do that, you can help your child work through the pain. Provide sensory tools that can help them cope. For example, if it’s very bright, offer them sunglasses. If it’s loud, offer noise canceling headphones. If needed, leave the situation with the child. 

I know some of you are saying, “this is not realistic! I cannot leave every time my child is overwhelmed!” But maybe not every time. Just for right now. Demonstrate to your child you see that they’re in need. Then give them what they need. They will begin to trust you, rather than distrust people who frequently put them in situations perceived as dangerous.

If you find the approach of meeting a child’s needs especially triggering, it would be wise to consider why that is. If your parents taught you that meeting a child’s needs was not “good parenting”, working with a therapist can help you unpack that.

The truth is helping a child, especially a child with sensory processing and communication issues feel validated and understood, creates a happy, healthy adult. 

We do not need to fear autism, we need to learn how to support autistic people!

Thank you for being here. If you found this helpful, please follow this page. If there’s any other things you could use support with, please message me and I can provide resources!