Like many of you, autism has been a part of my life since the day I was born. My older brother has autism, so this is a world that I have grown up in. Truthfully, I don’t know any difference. I wouldn’t want to know anything different. Due to my (our) immense knowledge, experience and compassion for the world of autism, it can be difficult to have a conversation with someone who has not been immersed in our world. I’m sure we have all been there – a dear friend asks about autism, asks about our lives, etc. I’m sure we have overheard not-so-pleasant conversations about the negative stereotypes of autism – “crazy, erratic, socially ‘weird,’” or those stereotypes that attempt to be positive, helpful, or encouraging – intelligent, special, inspirational, etc. Some of us may have even heard the infamous “R” word associated with autism.
Exactly how do we respond to all of this? How do you talk to someone about autism, when it is such a broad spectrum and they have little to no idea what it really is? How do we respond to those negative stereotypes that revolve around autism? How do we respond to the incorrect stereotypes that exist? The truth is there is no road-map to follow on how to carry out these conversations. There is no how-to-guide. There is nothing that can prepare us for the conversations we are likely to have.
However, it is important that we have these conversations with those outside our world. It is important that we share the truth. What truth, you might ask? YOUR truth. We all have different experiences with autism, we all have different perspectives on how it impacts our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Explain that. Tell them YOUR perspective, but also tell them your perspective is not the end-all-be-all. Explain that autism is a spectrum and its effects differ from person-to-person.
Why can’t I just ignore these questions or conversations that I hear? Why can’t I just keep the peace, since I don’t like awkward situations? As an individual immersed in the autism community, I believe that it is our duty to correct the stereotypes so that we can provide an inclusive environment for our loved ones. If we don’t have these difficult conversations, who else is going too? Who else is going to correct these statements that we hear? Who else is going to tell the truth about your autism story? The answer is no one. Therefore, I encourage you to take it upon yourself to advocate for each and every individual that has autism.
While I admit that there is no easy way to correct someone who misspeaks about autism, I encourage you to practice some common communication strategies that will you may find helpful. Here are some do’s and don’ts about starting conversations about ASD.
- Use personal stories. We are all immersed in this world in some way, shape or form. I encourage you to use your experiences to fully explain your truth.
- Listen. Then respond. Make a valiant effort to listen to everything the other person has to say. Use non-verbal signals to prove that you are listening and hearing what they are saying. Once they are finished, it is your turn to respond.
- Sugar-coat it. This does zero justice for you or your loved ones. Tell them the whole truth, even if that means including the ugly truth.
- Get frustrated. This is a lot easier said than done. But, if we respond to a conversation with hostility and anger, we will only lose an opportunity to expand someone’s knowledge. Nobody wants to feel attacked or embarrassed.
- Speak negatively. The goal here is to share the truth about what autism really is. And the truth is, it is nothing negative. This is a common misconception about ASD. If you speak negatively about ASD, as someone who is knowledgeable about ASD, others will believe that it is negative and OK to speak negatively about it.
About the Author
Hello, my name is Hayley Overman and I am 22 years young. I am a current graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte studying Communication studies as well as working towards obtaining a graduate certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder. My older brother, Brian, has autism. He has taught me so much, and it is because of him that I intend to make it my mission in life to advocate for individuals like my brother!