A student with autism once confided in me that she no longer told anyone at the university that she had autism, because she’d noticed that people immediately associated it with Raymond from the film Rainman.
She was tired of constantly having to correct this stereotypic image of autism – and often she wasn’t even given the chance to explain…
Listening to autism
People with autism often feel misunderstood by the people around them (Balfe & Tantam, 2011; Haertl et al., 2013). Many third-level students with autism do not tell people about their diagnosis because they wonder whether there’s any point. If they run into any problems they usually try to solve them themselves, without involving anyone else. And on the whole this is a pretty good approach, because in a lot of situations people with autism can cope perfectly well. At the same time, however, they do sometimes run into problems, often with matters such as planning, organization, switching between different assignments, or processing stimuli.
The theme of the Dutch Autism Association (NVA)’s autism week this year is ‘listening to autism’ – and this also applies to people who have the condition. The idea is that if you know yourself better – and are aware of your own stronger and weaker characteristics – your life can be richer and more pleasant.
But how do you put questions to a student with autism?
If a student tells you they have autism, or if you have a strong suspicion that this is the case, the most important thing, first and foremost, is not to make assumptions. Don’t go on the basis of that film you once saw, or that person with autism you know, but ask questions to help you to get to know and/or help this individual person better. Moreover, it’s important to bear in mind that the student may have a problem processing information, so give them time and space to think about your question and formulate an answer.
Questions you could put to a student with autism:
- How does autism affect you?
- What are you good at?
- What do you find difficult?
- What can I do to support you?
- What support are you already receiving?
I hope the student I referred to at the start of this piece has got to know herself well and is aware of where her talents and potential weak spots lie. It’s up to her to decide who to tell about her autism diagnosis, or whether to keep this information to herself. Maybe in the meantime she’s found people who can reflect with her about this difficult decision.
Autism week 2018 - 31 March to 7 April
This year is the ninth edition of the Dutch Autism Association (Nederlandse Vereniging voor Autism, NVA)’s Autism Week, which coincides with World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April. This year’s theme is Listening to autism.