What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability. It is not a mental health condition. It is not a learning disability. Although these can, and frequently do, occur alongside. Autism is a type of neurodivergence, meaning:

  • differences in learning & thinking

  • differences in feeling

  • differences in speech, language, and communication needs

  • diversity of the human mind

  • neurological differences

  • differences in sensory processing

The top of a child's head who is lying on a wooden floor with their hands on a red heart

LANGUAGE: Shifting away from the Medical Model

Language is powerful. It shapes people's views and beliefs, and influences how society views autism. Labels such as these continue to stigmatise autistic people. This approach is in-line with The medical model of disability which views autism as something that needs to be fixed or treated. Historically autism has always been viewed through a medical model whereby professionals treat it, fix it, correct it (just with health conditions). 

The Neurodiversity Model has its roots in a Social Model of disability and is radically different to a medical model. Sure, autistic people are neurologically different to neurotypical people and have significant challenges, but it's actually the environment that disables people and worsens their difficulties. The social / neurodiversity model focuses on removing barriers in society that exclude and oppress neurodivergent people.

  • impairments / deficits

  • autism levels e.g. 1-3

  • severe / mild autism

  • functioning labels (high, low)

  • symptoms

  • person with autism

  • attention seeking

  • challenging behaviour

A hand with a stop sign across it
  • challenges / difficulties

  • autistic person

  • characteristics

  • traits

  • strengths / needs

  • disabled / disability

Multi coloured autism infinity symbol
 

LANGUAGE: autistic person? Person with autism?

"Person with autism" - person-first language

"Autistic person" - identity-first language

The majority of autistic people prefer identity-first language: so "autistic person". But why? Identity-first language makes it clear that being autistic is an inherent part of that person's identity. It's about empowerment, in the same way you would say "Chinese person" or "gay person" - not "person with Chinese" or "person with gayness".

 

It is imperative professionals use the language that autistic people prefer and listen to autistic people. 

A young child has their back to the camera standing on a road that is painted as a rainbow - red, orange, yellow, blue, violet

LANGUAGE: Diagnostics

For the purposes of giving the information you'll most likely read if you do a Google search of autism, or if you speak to a professional in the medical community, here is the current diagnostic criteria.
 

  1. Social communication / interaction difficulties e.g. "deficits in social reciprocity, abnormal speech, abnormalities in eye-contact, lack of facial expressions, absence of interest in peers". 
     

  2. Fixated interests and repetitive behaviours e.g. "adverse response to specific sounds or textures, fixated interests, preoccupation with unusual objects"

A stethoscope, notebook, medication, thermometer