Autism and the Neurodiversity Paradigm (or, how to not harm your autistic clients)

If you work in holistic health, this post is for you. There’s ridiculous misinformation on this topic and the easy fix is to learn about autism from autistics, like this essay I quote below, “I’m not “less autistic” when I am healthier“.

Public understanding tends to see autism as a collection of behaviors and reactions to neurological stress, but that’s just because we don’t recognize autistics when they’re not displaying those stereotypical behaviors, or when their lives are less stressed and healthier.

Autism is a lifelong, natural-born form of human diversity with a lot of beauty, that has always been part of humankind – our nervous systems and brains are hyper-connected, making for different perception, attention, communication and movement. This creates an intense world, intense enough to be disabling in the societies we’ve built. So with that extra vivid sensory wiring we experience trauma, stress and pain from things non-autistics don’t recognize as painful (and beauty and pleasure and curiosity from things non-autistics don’t experience as gorgeous too). In an increasingly fast-paced capitalist society, it can’t be unexpected that diagnoses are going up as more autistic people are disabled by structures and assumptions built for a narrow definition of normalcy.

The public points at the reactive behaviors, the attempts to cope with trauma, and calls them autism, sometimes even interpreting them as the onset of it. Not at all so. Throughout our lives, stress will make our reactions look ‘more autistic’ in stereotypical ways as other coping skills falter – it suddenly becomes apparent to others. Understanding of the inner experience of autism has been shifting from pathology-based to neurodiversity-based, with the advances in communication technology that allow nonspeaking and speaking autistics to share their voices. There will never be a ‘cure’ for autism, it’s impossible to remove something so integral to a person, most of us would never want it anyway, and trying to change our wiring kills us young. A spruce will never become a pine, no matter the setting and care.

From the essay ——–

“”Homosexuality” used to be in the DSM but we have evolved socially since then.

Health and wellness communities have become terrible places where ableist people congregate and spout hate that is masquerading as being about health. They have become places I cannot bear to be in, and there have been former friends who are no longer so because I could no longer reconcile their unapologetic ableism in the guise of ‘wellness’’ or ‘facts about health’.

It has become expected in the current social climate to see an autistic person doing better as a result of a more healthful life (in whatever way that means for them), interpreted as a “reduction” in being autistic, with “going up the spectrum” or “changing functioning level”, or even that now this person is “not autistic anymore”, or never really was. There is also the belief that autistic people don’t exist as such (but that autism is simply a bunch of physical symptoms that point to illness) and that we can cause the illusion of being autistic to disappear by healthful changes to peoples’ lives.

It is common for society generally, to lack an understanding of what being autistic means. That suggests that we are ill equipped to evaluate what autism is and isn’t. If we are going to speak about some of the ways we show hatred for autistic people and the ways this manifests even when we think we are helping; what being autistic actually means seems like a good place to begin. Most people do not know how to separate being autistic and the lived experiences of autistic people, from the list of deficits and symptoms currently used to diagnose autism. Many of you reading this, are probably considering this for the first time. But yes, autism is much more than a list of symptoms in the DSM! This is something that autistic people can show us, through their rich, complex, difficult, wonderful lives. We cannot hope to understand this from medical professionals, therapists, researchers, or by reading the things that come up when you Google “autism”.

Example: Child is identified as autistic and has problems with sleeping that there is no obvious reason for. The parents seek medical advice and realise that their child is intolerant to milk protein. After a period of time of trialling eating without milk protein, their child begins sleeping better. This has flow on effects into other areas of this child’s life. They become less irritable, are less prone to crying over small matters, and have more energy for playing. This child still acts like an autistic child, but because their parent is not very informed about autism (has not spoken to or read the work of autistic people) they think their child has become “like a new child”, and falsely link this back to their child being autistic.

Parent: Maybe my child isn’t autistic at all. Misdiagnosis is such a big problem! Don’t you dare label my child with anything!

So, how should we look at autistic kids who benefit from things like not eating food they are intolerant or allergic to, spending lots of time with supportive people, having meaningful friendships, receiving medical support that helps them, connecting with others with their disability, having calming bedtime routines that help them and their families sleep better and more soundly, or any other thing that helps them to do well in their lives? We could look at these things the same way we look at the same things in non autistic children – as evidence that all people can thrive in the right environments. If we meet the needs of our autistic community members, they can thrive and become the best versions of themselves. We do not need to be ableist while discussing these things.”

Go read the rest of this great piece, “I’m not “less autistic” when I am healthier” at Suburban Autistics

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