Do you know any autistic people? What are they like?

This is of course a trick question. Try to answer the question ‘What is a non-autistic person like?’ and you will see the problem. How can anyone possibly generalise about so many people in a simplistic way? And yet, this is what happens all the time.

People say ‘If he’s at mainstream school, he can’t be very autistic’, or ‘He is performing/running/acting/swimming, he must be high-functioning, that’s not too bad’, or ‘At least he is verbal’.

To make this out to be some sort of a disability competition is patronising to the individual and undermines their struggles and experiences. It is not a competition to see who is ‘more autistic’ than someone else. The autistic spectrum is correctly termed a spectrum, in that it covers a massive range of abilities, presentations and experiences.

The saying goes ‘If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person’.

If a child or young person attends mainstream school and is not significantly behind in academic work, then technically he may be termed ‘high-functioning’. No-one would expect a non-autistic person to be good at baking and swimming and maths and piano just because they are non-autistic. Similarly, an autistic person may get through the school day having enjoyed maths and ICT (subjects of special interest), but not coped with music (too loud) or PE (too chaotic) or lunch (smelly and busy), and there is always, always a price to be paid at the end of the school day for having coped with six or more hours in a stressful environment.

Many autistic children are very good at masking, ie picking up behaviours from those around them, to appear to fit in better than is actually the case. Their face may look calm or impassive, but inside there is a tsunami of feeling going on. These children spend so much effort in trying to fit in and not stand out or commit some sort of social faux pas all day that, once home, the parent or younger sibling tends to bear the brunt of the day’s stress. The release of tension comes usually sharp and loud, can be physical or verbal, and although obviously hurtful to the family it is directed at, is usually not deliberately intended to hurt. Home is the safe place where emotions don’t have to be smothered.

The analogy often used to illustrate this is that of a fizzy bottle, being shaken up ever so slightly every time something causes stress, so that by the end of the day, there is no other option than for the bottle to reach capacity and explode.