Written by Tasha Oswald PhD, and Erica Lee PsyD.
Happy April! As you may already know, it’s Autism Awareness Month. As autism therapists, there are so many things we want you to know about autism and neurodiversity. Yet, what really sticks out is that autism and neurodiversity are often misunderstood. These misconceptions can make life challenging for someone on the spectrum. So today, we want to take a moment and dispel common misconceptions and share with you the things we truly wish you understood about autism.
Understanding the term autism spectrum disorder
One of the most important things we want you to know about autism is that no two people with autism are alike. They’re human. And, just like everyone else, they are unique. Autism is a spectrum disorder. This means, that individuals on the autism spectrum present with a wide variety of autistic traits and cognitive abilities. Autism can look really different from person to person depending on a variety of factors. These factors include sex, occupation, age, developmental abilities, cognitive abilities, and upbringing. Even two people with similar backgrounds, abilities, and lifestyles may experience autism differently.
It Is Not Always Easy to Tell If Someone Has Autism
Individuals with autism, especially those who are “high-functioning” are often very good at masking their autism. This means they often go to great lengths to blend in with their neurotypical peers. And, they mimic the behavior they see around them. They may appear to fit in on the outside. But, most individuals with autism report feeling like an alien or have always felt different from their friends.
This is what makes diagnosing high-functioning autism so challenging, especially in women. And, it’s often what leads well-meaning but untrained professionals to miss this crucial piece of the puzzle. But, when they did finally get a diagnosis, they have shared that it feels like a weight has been lifted and the struggles they have experienced throughout their life finally make sense.
Autism in Women is More Common Than You May Think
In the past, it was believed that autism was a disorder that only affected boys and men. So, women with undiagnosed. In fact, most research on autism was done on boys. This is why many mental health professionals struggle to spot autism in their female clients. Furthermore, we also know that rates of depression and anxiety in women are higher than their neurotypical peers which can overshadow less overt autistic traits.
But, we know women can also be on the autism spectrum. They experience similar behavioral and communication challenges as their neurodiverse male peers. These struggles may just look a little different. Women with autism often excel at masking, so it’s often not until they have an autistic meltdown or episode of autistic burnout that their autistic traits become discernable. Some common signs of autism in women include social challenges, poor communication, special interests, trouble with change or transitions, rigid or inflexible thoughts, social anxiety, and more. But, as we mentioned, autism looks different from person to person. So, in our opinion, one of the most important signs of autism in women is feeling like they never fit in or think differently than everyone else.
People with Autism Are Not Social
This misconception is really hard for us as autism therapists to hear. Frequently, it is one of the first things that parents worry about when their child, teen, or adult child receives their diagnosis. But, many individuals with autism often want very much to connect with others. They just connect differently.
Individuals with autism often hate small talk. And, they can’t make sense of neurotypical social behavior and experience very high anxiety when meeting new people. They may not make eye contact and they might talk very little or stick to certain topics. But, this does not mean they aren’t interested in being social. It’s just that the social process of understanding what to say when, how to say it, what not to say, and the pressure of possibly doing it all wrong can all be a little taxing.
They often can’t process things as quickly as others, particularly when taking in a lot of information at once. For example, when social conversations move too quickly and they may find themselves standing on the sidelines. They are left thinking of a response after the topic has moved on. Or they may have difficulty discerning what topics are off-limits and become confused and embarrassed. Especially when a conversation doesn’t go the way they anticipated.
Individuals with Autism Experience Social Anxiety
In addition to trying to keep up with the complex rules of a high-speed social game, there is the anxiety of whether their autism identity will be accepted by others. They might have different interests, spend their time differently, view things from a different perspective than most people. Do they risk being totally honest and open about who they are, although that might be different from the norm? Or, do they put forth the enormous amount of energy it takes to fit in with everyone else. This forced them to pretend to be someone they are not? So, it’s not a surprise that they often avoid social situations even if they want to be with people.
But you can make this experience more comfortable for them and ease the process of connecting. Slow down, give them time to think. Then, talk about what they are comfortable talking about. Be honest and straightforward, and recognize they may be nervous. Ultimately, accept them for who they are.
Communication and Small Talk Can Be Really Draining for a Neurodiverse Individual
Neurodiverse people may be able to comfortably engage with close friends or relatives on a surface level. But, serious conversations can sometimes be a draining process. Words don’t always come quickly or easily to them. So, it can take a lot of energy to share what they are thinking and feeling.
Differences in communication styles:
Consider the steps involved and emotional energy required to carry on a conversation when you’re neurotypical. First, they have to process what the other person is saying and sort out their own thoughts and feelings. Then, they have to think about rather they should communicate their thoughts and feelings. They have to analyze how their opinion will be received and if there’s a point in sharing it. After this, they have to formulate their thoughts and feelings into words and shift their attention outward. In other words, they need to convey these words to others. Then, after all this energy, they have to remain ready so they can respond if necessary. Basically, they have to prepare to do it all over again.
On the other hand, for neurodiverse people, communicating about topics they are passionate about comes easily. They also are often interested in sharing fascinating little-known facts or their own interesting perspective on something. They can have a great sense of humor and may love to engage by playing games together.
So, if you want to encourage communication with your autistic loved one, get to know who they are. Meet them where they are comfortable. For example, don’t make everything verbal, do activities and have fun together and be patient when having serious conversations. Recognize the energy involved when communicating. Connecting with your autistic loved ones is definitely something that can be done. Your neurodiverse loved ones want to connect too. But, there is often much more going on within them than meets the eye. A little flexibility, understanding, and acceptance from the neurotypical people in their life can go a long way!
Individuals with Autism can Absolutely be Successful- Both Romantically and Professionally
Many of our clients have wonderful careers and have experienced professional success. They may face some difficulties in their workplace due to misunderstandings and lots of sensory stimulation. But, with the right support, these challenges can be managed. It is, however, critical that they learn to self-advocate and speak up to get their needs met.
Furthermore, many individuals with autism go on to get married and even have children. As we said above, many individuals with autism crave connection and emotional intimacy. So, many go on to date and get married. Yet, dating and relationships can be extremely challenging. Especially, if their partner does not understand their autistic identity. And, just like a relationship between neurotypicals, their relationships may experience times of struggle and drama. But, these challenges can be dealt with through understanding, communication, and the help of a therapist.
Are You Looking for Autism Therapy and Support?
At our autism therapy clinic in California, we offer a wide variety of autism therapy services to help you or your autistic loved one. Our therapists are autism experts and truly understand the challenges individuals with autistic traits experience as a result of their neurodiversity. Right now, we are offering all our therapy services via online therapy to individuals living in the state of California.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California
If you’re ready to begin autism therapy services, we would love to discuss the ways we can help. Please contact us to speak with our expert care coordinator. She will help you determine if our services are a good fit for your needs. To begin autism therapy or online autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consultation using this link. You will meet with our client care coordinator.
- Like us on Facebook. On our page, we post useful information about our practice
- Sign up to receive our newsletter.
Other Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our autism therapy clinic located in the South Bay Area serves teens and adults on the spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed ASD traits, and their families.
Right now, we are providing all our autism counseling services online. Our autism therapists offer a variety of counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact our therapy office for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Authors
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also is the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.
Dr. Erica Lee is a skilled marriage and family therapist licensed in the state of California. Dr. Lee specializes in helping individuals with autism overcome emotional issues and the challenges they face which are related to their autism. Erica works with teens, adults, individuals, parents, families. She also facilitates group therapy.