Debunking autistic mythsPhoto by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

You may have various ideas about what autism is; from books you’ve read, anecdotes from friends or the media more generally. A lot of this is skewed, factually incorrect – or more so, missing the point that autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that everyone presents differently, with their own strengths and challenges. The saying goes: if you’re met one autistic person... you’ve met one autistic person!

If you’re due to manage an autistic employee, then this blog is designed to test some of the preconceptions you may have picked up and to readdress these

This blog isn’t perfect, as you may find that someone displays some of these traits, or none. But hopefully you’ll come from a more considered ‘individual difference’ standpoint, as opposed to a ‘it’s because this person is autistic’ mindset.

Autism is a mental illness

Autism on its own is not a mental health condition or illness, it’s a developmental difference. However, many autistic people may experience a comorbidity with disorders such as anxiety and depression, and we’re certainly more susceptible to these conditions compared with the general population. Autistic people may also struggle due to being overwhelmed which can come from issues around sensory sensitivity or difficulties in social interactions. This may lead to meltdowns and stress, which can then affect how someone is doing and feeling mentally. It all interplays and has knock-on effects, which illustrates some of the wider issues that autistic people come up against day-to-day.

We are all geniuses

We are most certainly not! Yes, there will be some autistic people who have an insatiable appetite for reciting the phone book or other such amazing memory feats – but this really isn’t the norm. We may have our specific strengths, be it the ability to problem-solve, to be hyper-focused, or to think outside the box. We have a unique perspective that sets us apart, so to speak, and we see and perceive the world differently. Yet we can also struggle to understand the world around us and what’s going on in it.

It’s important to not put false expectations on the autistic person or to put them on a pedestal. This will only cause unnecessary stress and pressure, as well as singling someone out. None of which is fair or helpful.

We can’t make eye contact

I used to be terrible at this as a kid (I used to stare non-stop at people), but have learned over time to minimise this and to alternate between making eye contact, and not. I’d say I’m pretty good at it now. This has come through practise and mimicking: copying from those around me and from TV. A lot of women tend to be better at eye contact than men. But my point is that being autistic doesn’t mean you can’t make good eye contact – nor should it be a sign that someone is not autistic/less affected because they can maintain eye contact! I’d also like to add that despite the fact that I and other autistic people have learned the protocol and etiquette of making eye contact, it is still something that I’m conscious of doing and maintaining (particularly with new people), and this does add to my exhaustion levels, regardless.

We lack empathy and don’t feel emotion

Now this is an area that I feel particularly passionately about, as the media often portrays us to be these cold-hearted, non-emotional beings who can’t empathise or connect with others. This could not be further from the truth, and like myself, I’ve met many empaths on the spectrum who feel an overwhelming degree of emotion and compassion for others. Sometimes to the detriment of ourselves in that we take on all of the emotion of others. This is where keeping an eye on boundaries and detachment can come in handy.

I think what we struggle with is conveying our feelings into language or behaviour that is appropriate. But sometimes there are no words available to us. And it can be hard to make the appropriate social cues to convey our empathy. But it by no means indicates that we don’t feel empathy or emotions more generally. So please don’t judge us.

We wish to be socially isolated

We may need support with communicating or with our social skills more generally, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t wish to connect with others and to pursue friendships

We can present our social challenges in different ways, for instance through being quiet or shy, speaking too much and not allowing others to talk, or by avoiding social situations altogether. Consequently, this can make it hard to get on at work and form those crucial bonds that are needed to work with others, and to progress. I’d say continue to make that effort and really get to know us. Be patient, and you’ll find we slowly reach out and reciprocate.

Autism can be cured

I’m always amazed to still hear this myth. First of all, what is there to ‘cure’ as such? Yes, we may experience obstacles and challenges, but at the same time we have our assets and a great deal to offer to the world. ‘Curing’ is such an odd phenomenon and notion. I appreciate it may be meant in the sense of minimising symptoms, such as anxiety, but that’s focusing on an illness, which anyone in the general population would wish to reduce.

In terms of minimising or eliminating behaviours – a lot of this, I feel, is simply society’s problem and not ours

Autism is a complex condition – something that affects us all very differently and individually. And finally, most importantly: being autistic is who I am - it’s a core and integral part of my identity and being – and certainly not something I would wish to change or have taken away from me.

We aren’t creative

We are all IT people who are geniuses at coding and other technical skills. We’re really not! I’m an artist, for starters. And I’ve met many other creatives who are autistic – in fact, normally a 50/50 split. Not that that’s a true representation of how the autistic population presents itself. My point being that there are many actors, musicians and painters. But also marketers, media types and those that work in creative industries more generally. You may also find that those who work in IT have a creative approach to problem-solving by seeing solutions from a different or unique perspective. And those that are more creative may have a very structured and pragmatic approach to their work. There’s no stereotype, so to speak. And that’s the beauty of the autistic spectrum.

It’s a male condition

More men seem to be diagnosed with autism, in comparison to women, and there are various reasons for this, with masking being the key one.

Masking is when you are camouflaging your autistic behaviour by minimising it – and essentially emphasising the behaviour of neurotypicals around you by mimicking their behaviour

Women are known to do this more than men and are shown to be more successful at this too. This may enable women to ‘mask’ their condition and fit in better, however it can be hugely detrimental to one’s mental health and sense of self. Firstly, this may prevent you from being diagnosed in the first instance. Like myself, and other autistic women, we’ve had a previous misdiagnosis before later being diagnosed with autism. But also, the exhaustion of masking in itself is hugely challenging and confusing at times. It’s all-consuming and can lead to anxiety and other non-helpful behaviours. However, autism is by no means a male condition – it’s suspected that just as many women are known to be autistic as men, though the numbers aren’t equal yet.

There are sadly many myths and misconceptions that exist around autism – far more than the eight that I have covered in this blog. I hope that this is a starting point though in challenging any preconceptions you may have around autism, and to show you more than anything that everyone presents differently on the autistic spectrum.

It really is a case of getting to know your autistic employees and working out who they are as people – in the same way you would with anyone. This mindset and approach will certainly help you get the best from your employees.

Mahlia Amatina

August 2021