Commonly asked questions about autism

If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.

Each and every individual experiences the world in a way that’s completely unique to them. However, here are some common questions often asked about autistic people, answered by autists themselves.

This misconception comes from the belief that many/all autistic people are savants, which is not true. Just like non-autistic people, some autistic people score highly in an IQ test and others do not. In any walk of life people can be gifted in a specialist area, and it’s true that for some autistic people they can have a specialist interest in which they develop an extreme wealth of knowledge.

Just like the rest of society, autistic people can have careers in many different industries in Scotland and beyond, and excel in those roles. From caring roles to retail, from science and technology to the arts and everything in between. However, many autistic people can struggle to get into work and, unfortunately, they often face discrimination, which can make it much harder for autistic people to have a career.

A high proportion of autistic people have sensory processing issues which refers to a heightened sensitivity of the senses.

However, the senses of one individual, autistic or not, are different to those of another. For example, an autistic person may love going to a gig, with the loud music being a joy to the senses. Whilst that same person may not be able to tolerate the sensory overload of a shopping centre, the bright lights, the echo of the large space, the sound of footsteps, the chatter of so many people, the music playing from every shop. All of those sounds at the same level may feel like an attack on the senses and hard to filter out.

Some sensory sensations make you happy, others make you distressed or anxious. Whilst a non-autistic person may not even hear a certain noise or be aware of a specific smell, due to heightened sensitivity of many autistic people, these are very real and can be distressing.

It all comes down to the individual.

No. Autism is a neurological difference that you are born with. The misconception that autism can be cured is damaging to many autistic people, as it assumes that autism is wrong, something is broken, and we should look for a way to ‘fix it’. Autism is an inherent part of who someone is—it brings challenges and it brings joy—just like life.

No. People develop (sometimes with support) strategies to cope with challenges, but you cannot cure it.

Talking about curing autism or finding a cure is a damaging narrative for autistic people. Autism brings diversity of thought and benefits to society, so why would we cure it? We should be looking to embrace and understand more about autism—how seeing and experiencing the world differently can help shape the way we do things, for the better.

No. Although the issues an autistic person faces as a child will likely be different to those they face when they are an adult (the same way it would be for a non-autistic person). As an autistic person ages, they may develop coping mechanisms (or have learned to ‘mask’) in uncomfortable situations. This doesn’t mean that they don’t experience the same levels of anxiety, discomfort, and stress they did as a child—sometimes it’s harder, as adult life brings more stresses and pressures—rather, they internalise their emotions until they’re in an understanding/safe environment.

It should be noted that masking/camouflaging can be really harmful for autistic people. This constant internalisation of emotions can take its toll on mental health, and is done, a lot of the time, for fear of judgement by others. This all stems back to the misunderstanding around autism and the need for us all to learn more and be accepting and open to difference. Read more about masking.

While there is a genetic element to autism, it’s a very complex process involving potentially hundreds of genes. We don’t fully understand the genetics of autism yet. However, what we see is that autistic people often have someone else who is autistic in their family​, or who have a higher number of autistic characteristics.

In fact, lots of adults find out they are autistic when their child is going through the diagnosis process and they recognise autistic characteristics in themselves. ​On the other hand, autism can sometimes appear without any clear family history of autistic traits. Just because one child is autistic this does not mean their siblings will also be autistic.

The term ‘stimming’ is short for self-stimulating behaviour and refers to the repetitive movements or sounds made by a person to express themselves (most often when happy, stressed, or unhappy). The most common stims are hand flapping, rocking, or repeating a word. It can be a useful tool by an individual to identify emotions. Many of us stim to some degree, autistic and non-autistics—some people twirl their hair, some bite their nails, others twist their necklace.

Yes. This misconception comes from the perception that many autistic people can be seen as robotic. Some mayreact differently to what you may think is the ‘standard’ response to an emotion or situation, but their reaction doesn’t mean they feel an emotion any differently to a non-autistic person. Some autists may not show their reaction to a situation/emotion until much later on. And some may show empathy, understanding, and compassion of a particular situation by relaying something that has happened to them.

Often autistic people can feel emotions more powerfully and intensely than non-autistic people, so what may seem like a blip or just a part of everyday life can be incredibly distressing.

These are terms that many people may be familiar with when describing autism, but it conjures up a misplaced vision of:

High functioning = high IQ and low support needs;
Low functioning = low IQ and high support needs.

This is not accurate. You can have a successful career, be a fantastic parent, and need a lot of support from your partner when it comes to daily tasks in life—bills/shopping, etc. Or you may struggle to secure a job because of communication skills or the ability to manage the sensory overload that comes with an office environment, yet excel at working at home on complex projects in a familiar environment.

High and low functioning should not be equated to an individual’s IQ—it may refer to someone’s level of support needs.

Some people experience autism as a disability—each individual autistic person will have their own view on this.

Autism is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act and therefore autistic people are legally entitled to support to ensure they have the same opportunities as their peers. Some autistic people would describe themselves as being disabled by their autism. Others would say that trying to live in a society not fully understanding of autism is what disables them—once they have sufficient support, they no longer feel disabled by it.

We should treat everyone with respect and understanding regardless of whether we know if they are autistic or not. If they are autistic, it’s important to remember that their identity is theirs to share as and when they choose.

If someone tells you that they are autistic, please remember to discard all the myths and misconceptions you may have about autism. Be open to understanding more about that individual and what it means to them. Importantly, listen to them.

We should all try to ask each other on a regular basis both professionally and personally—how can I support you? How are you getting on?

If you are asking yourself this question because you’d like to find out if you or your child is autistic, then you should contact your GP/school in the first instance, or speak to some of the autistic-led support organisations. Find out more about support available.