I used to go to a church group. They were mostly very friendly and non-judgemental but one thing used to make me cringe. There was little boy who was four and I’m not sure if he had a diagnosis but I am fairly certain he was autistic. He was easily the most enthusiastic member of the congregation and would happily suggest hymns and offer his thoughts on the service. He was a lovely child but every time he said something, many of the adults would tell him to stop talking. It seemed odd that the same adults wanted the kids to be more involved in the service but this little person was extremely keen to be involved but this wasn’t OK for whatever reason. How the boy was treated broke why heart but also made me quite angry. I talked to a few people but sadly few of them ‘got it.’ What seemed to be happening was that a child’s enthusiasm was seen as a problem because it didn’t fit with the expectations of behaviour. The little kid was extremely gracious and I didn’t once see him respond angrily when a roomful of adults were shutting him down. This got me to thinking about places where autistic people have a lot to offer but may be attacked and criticised for it rather than it being seen as the strength that it is.
Passionate interests are an important part of this. Autistic people usually have at least one thing that we love more than anything else and are focussed on. Passions (sometimes known as ‘special interests’) can be a conduit for learning and wisdom. Many academics who are the world’s foremost expert on a topic are autistic and following their passion. Passions really can change the world. There are many famous autistic people whose passion has had a huge positive impact, from science to entertainment to inventing Pokemon! Yet so often our passions are termed ‘obsessions.’ This seems particularly to be the case for autistic children. I have parents telling me how worried they are that their child spends so much time on an ‘obsession.’ For autistic people our passion often represents the most rewarding and enjoyable thing in our life. Having that taken away is a cruel thing and usually unnecessary. Certainly on occasion some autistic people have a passion which is negative or damaging but most of the time our passions are a great thing. I would recommend that people see beyond the ‘obsession’ to what it actually means – a strong engagement and interest in something which gives pleasure and engages and energises us.
Our different take on life and the world and all that is in it is often seems as strange or ‘weird.’ We approach problems differently, often using logic. This is actually something which can be really useful. In the workplace, innovation is considered important and autistics often have innovation in spades! The approach to life that is so often criticised can in fact be an enormous positive. We can be amazing problem solvers.
We are often criticised for focussing on the small things, the details. In fact this ability to notice errors and see the smaller things can be a big plus in a range of settings, such as at work, where our skill as proofreaders and reviewers comes into its own. I am public servant and my skills at spotting errors in long documents has always been prized by managers.
There are many areas where autistic people face criticism but where our approach is actually a positive. We can have skills that others are incapable of. Instead of judging us and shutting us down it would be far preferable for people to recognise our skills and attributes for the positive that they are. This goes directly to ideas of neurodiversity and ‘different not less.’ If you view autism as being a negative thing, an affliction or curse then attitudes are likely to focus on the perceived negatives. However, if you approach autism from the perspective of strengths and respecting difference then the kind of positive attributes we often have are viewed as something valuable.
Seeing autistic people as we are and knowing and respecting us is better for everyone. What can be viewed as a deficit may actually be a huge strength. To see our approach and divergent take on life as a strength really only requires a relatively small shift in attitude for most people. If only the church congregation in the story at the start of this article had seen things differently and embraced the young boy’s great attitude and enthusiasm. Instead of shushing and tutting they would have seen what the child who evidently loved church had to offer rather than being irritated.