Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. Autism is not an illness or disease; it is a lifelong condition that means your brain works differently from other people’s. About 2% of Canadian children and adolescents are autistic, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. This rate has continued to increase over time. Autism has no racial, socio-economic, or political boundaries. Autism touches every region, class, and culture in Canada.
Autism is a spectrum
“When you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.” This quote from Dr. Stephen Shore is one of the most famous quotes about Autism. It highlights that everybody with Autism is different. There are certain cardinal features of an autism diagnosis, mainly difficulties with social interactions, communication, restricted and repetitive behaviour and sensory challenges.
However, Autism is a Spectrum, a range of conditions characterized by a person’s brain processing information and stimuli. The symptoms and traits of Autism can present themselves in various combinations, including differences in communication, social interaction, sensory receptivity, and highly focused interests. For example, some people in the autistic community have an excellent vocabulary but limited conversational and social skills and restricted interests. Others may be nonverbal.
Beyond the autism spectrum
Because of the spectrum upon which relies the definition of Autism, members of the autistic community are so diverse that it is relatively impossible to predict what individuals might need or not need. In addition, Autism as a disability intersects with the person’s other identities, such as race, ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status, gender, and sexuality. This intersectionality creates an additional layer of diversity in experiences and needs among the autistic community. Intersectionality is a term that describes how an individual can experience a variety of identities.
It means that Autism cannot be viewed in isolation, and neither should the other identities of a person. Clear examples of intersectionality include gender and disability, with a large portion of the Autistic community identified as members of the LGBTQ2+ community. In addition, persons from the autistic community who identify as being from visible minority groups experience compounded disadvantages compared to others with and without Autism. Research shows they might not be diagnosed as quickly as those in non-marginalized communities. Research has brought that people from visible minority groups with classic Autism’ traits’ might be diagnosed with behavioural or mental health disorders rather than Autism.
Dealing with the doubled Layered diversity of Autism
Today, we have a greater awareness of Autism than ever before. However, we still encounter people, including researchers, who see Autism as a one-size-fits-all, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ho many times have you heard “What do people with autism think?” or “What do people with autism face?” When we view people with Autism as a homogenous group, we may whitewash the ethnocultural and other identity-related experiences that intersect with their disability-related needs. All research findings and efforts toward including persons with Autism may be less impactful in this case.
A way forward is adopting an intersectionality approach to including people from the autistic community. We must think more about racial, gender, and sexual minority group experiences within the autistic community. Conceptualizing discrimination based on a single attribute (disability) in isolation hinders our ability to respond effectively. Last and not least, we have to remember that we cannot see Autism. You may not know that someone has Autism unless you are told. There is no way to be sure at-a-glance that actions or responses you are seeing are connected to Autism. Every behavioural cue associated with Autism can also be related to something else entirely.
In addition, some people from the Autistic community often try to mask, hide, or camouflage their autistic traits. Many have been taught to do this to “fit in.”. This is mainly observed within women who are on the spectrum. With this invisibility and the diversity in behaviours and needs that characterize Autism, a possible way forward is to avoid making assumptions. People with Autism are so diverse that it is impossible to predict what individuals might need or not need. You have to rely on each individual to understand what they need. You have to treat them how they want to be treated, not how you wish to treat them or would like others to treat you. This is the basis of better inclusion of persons with Autism by showing them dignity and respect.
Happy Autism Acceptance Month to all Canadians from the autistic community and their allies.
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS) (2022). Autism in Canada: Considerations for future public policy development. Summary Report. Retrieved from: https://cahs-acss.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/CAHS-Summary-Report_EN.pdf
Neff, M. (2022). Barriers to Recognition: The Third and Inter-Neuro Communication Breakdown. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 41(3), 208.
Sassu, K. A., & Volkmar, F. R. (2023). Autism and intersectionality: Considerations for school‐based practitioners. Psychology in the Schools, 60(2), 408-418.
Statistics Canada. (2021). Census of Population. Retrieved from: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/index-eng.cfm