Nicola Heath, Psychology Subject Advisor
Autistic Pride Day is celebrated across the world annually on 18 June. To mark the occasion, I interviewed a Year 13 student called Frey about what autism is, what it’s like to be an autistic student, and what students and teachers should know.
I’m Frey. I’m a Year 13 student; I take English Literature, English Language, and Psychology. I was diagnosed with autism in year 9, and since year 11 I’ve been trying to speak out about autism in school and in the wider world. Within school, I’ve done lots of assemblies for students about autism awareness and acceptance, and I’ve also been involved in running teacher training about supporting autistic students within school.
Autism is a lifelong condition and disability that affects the way you see the world and the way you think. People who are autistic often have differences in communication, sensory processing, and social interaction, and they may have highly specific or very intense interests. Even if two people are both autistic, they are still likely to be very different: this is because autism is a spectrum and can vary greatly between individuals.
Neurodiversity is the range of differences in the way that human brains work. Neurodivergence is the state of having a brain that differs in some way from the norm, which can be due to brain injuries, mental illnesses, learning disabilities, or developmental conditions like autism or ADHD. Instead of viewing these as a deficit, neurodiversity would simply view them as a difference, and state that no one way of thinking or existing was more “correct” than the other.
I think it’s important that when people talk about autism, they actually use the word autism, not just ‘unique challenges’ or ‘that thing that you struggle with’. Autism isn’t a bad word, and people shouldn’t use euphemisms or hedge around it. Most autistic people prefer to be called ‘autistic person’ rather than ‘a person with autism’, but this differs between people, so it’s always best to ask them.
In the past, when I’ve done assemblies about autism, I’ve often placed a lot of emphasis on what, or what not, to say. Now, though, I’m not sure I agree with that. There’s lots of autism-related terminology that’s very useful to learn, but, often, people use this as a performative measure: someone could know all the most up-to-date autism terminology but still not be willing to do anything else to help autistic people. Conversely, someone might not know every single term, but still be accepting regardless. Mostly, I think that while language is important, acceptance doesn’t stop there, and intent is also important.
A lot of autistic people struggle with things in school like loud noises, a busy environment, or bright canteen lights – but you could find out that from a Google search. It’s quite well known that autistic people might have difficulty with social skills and sensory sensitivities, and, when I see advice for how to accommodate autistic people, it often seems like a checklist of what you can do to be accessible. I don’t agree with that. Every autistic person is different and will have different needs, so I think the best thing you can do is get to know people as individuals and to have flexibility. Don’t just have one way of doing things for every autistic person, or accessibility plans that are copied and pasted from one pupil to the next.
Also, a lot of the barriers that autistic people might face aren’t always caused solely by their autism, but the way that it intersects with other aspects of their identity, or, alternatively, the stigma that is attached to being autistic, rather than just autism itself. Consequently, accommodating autistic people can mean letting them wear noise-cancelling headphones, but it also means having a Pride group or resources relating to sexuality and gender identity, because autistic people are statistically more likely to be LGBTQ+. Likewise, accommodating autistic people can mean modified PE lessons, but it also means having zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, because autistic people are more likely to be bullied. So, all those things need to be taken into consideration as well.
I’d like other autistic students to know that they aren’t broken, and that there is nothing deficient or wrong about them. Also, that they aren’t the only one, and that even if they’re struggling right now, whatever they are going through won’t last forever, and does not define them. Most of all, they don’t need to change themselves to fit in or for other people. They are fine the way they are.
I think that students should be taught about neurodiversity from the perspective of it being a difference rather than a deficit. As an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent student, it is incredibly disheartening to sit in a classroom and listen to people define your existence by everything you’re not good at. You wouldn’t do that to a neurotypical child, so you shouldn’t do it to a neurodivergent one. Instead, I think it’s best to treat it like any other kind of diversity and talk about it as a natural variation in human minds.
Students should be able to have open conversations about neurodiversity and share their thoughts. It shouldn’t be seen as a topic where people must use hedging language or euphemism; instead, people should be able to talk about things like ADHD or autism and ask questions about them. Time should be given for people to have these discussions – neurodiversity shouldn’t be something that’s mentioned once a year during Autism Month to tick off a ‘diversity’ box, or, even worse, not mentioned at all. Instead, by having conversations about it, we can make it less of a taboo.
Partly: I think my generation has made lots of progress in terms of acceptance of neurodiversity, but I think we’ve still got a long way to go. A lot of people are more informed about neurodiversity than they may have been in the past because of more access to information via social media and the internet.
However, just because people are more aware does not necessarily mean that there is no longer any stigma around being autistic. Some parts of the autism spectrum are still definitely more talked about than others (for example, those with higher support needs are often less included in conversations around autism than those with lower support needs) and I think that a lot of positive change will come from including those people and making sure that everyone on the autism spectrum is represented and can have their voices heard.
I think social media will always have its benefits as well as its downsides. Online communities have meant that a lot of people who may not have otherwise been able to be open about autism have found a safe place to do so, as well as creating a way for people to connect with others. Alongside this, social media has empowered people to speak from their own perspective.
Before, a lot of the conversation around autism came from doctors, or parents of autistic people, who can look at autism from an outside point of view but who don’t know what it’s like. Now, autistic people themselves can have much more of a platform. But at the same time, it can be a bit of a double-edged sword as many people now think that autism is just an ‘online thing,’ that it’s ‘trendy’ or that everyone’s autistic these days because of TikTok. This isn’t the case. Social media just means that people have more access to information about autism than they might have done previously.
I feel that, while depictions of autism have historically been quite limited, they have been getting better recently. A lot of people have misconceptions about autism – such as the incredibly annoying stereotype that all autistic people love maths, which I can say from personal experience is not at all true! People often have a certain image in their head of what autism ‘looks’ like, and that image is highly influenced by stereotypes that have been perpetuated in the media. This can be very harmful, as it can be a barrier to diagnosis for people whose autism does not present itself in that way.
Historically, autistic girls have been underrepresented in the media, but recently, shows such as the wonderful A Kind Of Spark, or books like The Nowhere Girls or Show Us Who You Are have been shining more light on different presentations of autism. So, I think that while there is still a long way to go, things have been getting better.
Autism is frequently framed as being a deficit; something that is wrong with you, that needs to be hidden as much as possible. Autistic Pride is the antithesis to that idea. Instead, it views autism as a natural part of you, that is to be accepted rather than suppressed. It tells autistic people that they can be unapologetically who they are, without having to mask their autism for other people. It allows a space for celebrating uniqueness and difference while highlighting the ways in which we are connected to each other, and the community we have. Overall, Autistic Pride Day is about knowing that autism is not to be ashamed of. It is to be celebrated.
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Nicola joined OCR in 2022 as the Subject Advisor for Psychology. Prior to joining OCR, she taught Psychology for over 10 years and had various other responsibilities in that time including being Head of Year. SENDCo and Subject Leader for PSHE. Nicola has a personal interest in mental health and wellbeing and enjoys reading, baking and spending time outdoors to relax.