Our understanding of Autism has changed considerably over the course of its history, but often new information is not circulated well enough. This is why we need Autism awareness/acceptance month. A lack of wide-reaching science communication, paired with the limited representation of autistic individuals in the media, and society, leads to frequent misunderstandings regarding what it means to be autistic.
For example, some individuals believe there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism; there isn’t. This myth came about because of a paper which suggested a link but was retracted from the journal for falsifying data, removing data, ethical violations and not reporting conflicts of interest (financial incentives for finding a link). The results have never been duplicated, for example, a meta-analysis of MMR vaccine and autism studies with data equating to 1.2 million children was conducted and found no relationship between the two variables (Taylor et al. 2014). If you want more debunking information have a look at the vaccine knowledge project undertaken by Oxford University.
Another myth surrounding autism is that autistic individuals do not have empathy. Empathy is in fact different across autistic people, much like it is across allistic (non-autistic) people, with some having lower levels, some having hyper-empathy and others having the average amount.
Damian Milton has suggested the “double empathy theory” within his work arguing that people who experience the world differently may not have a mutual understanding of what empathy is and what it looks like (Milton et al. 2019). Double empathy theory suggests that maybe it’s a miscommunication between neurotypes, with autistic people understanding each other’s empathy, and neurotypicals understanding each other’s empathy, but a lack of understanding of difference across these two groups, rather than a complete lack of empathy in the first place. In addition, another paper argues there are two types of empathy, with affective empathy, the ability to feel and share an emotional experience, to feel distress and compassion for others, not being any different between autistics and those who are neurotypical (Rogers et al. 2006).
Autism research participants were historically white, straight, cisgender boys and men. This has led to the development of male-biased diagnostic criteria and diagnostic tools. Because of this, professionals are more likely to consider autism as a diagnosis for individuals which meet these characteristics. Media representations of autistic characters have often portrayed a reduced idea of “what autism looks like” which reinforces this bias, for example: Sheldon Cooper in the TV programme The Big Bang Theory, Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, and Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. There is very little research on intersectionality within autism.
Autism Acceptance Month (April) is a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness and acceptance of autism. I will be doing just that by partnering with Osprey Charging, one of the UK’s leading networks of rapid electric vehicle (EV) charging points. Osprey invited be to create a piece of unique artwork that celebrates neurodiversity so that they could include it on a selection of their chargers across the UK.
I created ‘The Acceptance Journey’. The image represents the steps we are taking to reach autism acceptance and awareness. The books represent learning with key messages and themes written on their spines. I wanted the piece to be colourful and positive as we work together as a community to reduce stigma, embrace neurodiversity and increase understanding.
‘The Acceptance Journey’ by artist Rebecca Ellis that will appear on Osprey’s EV chargers across the UK to celebrate Autism Acceptance Week
About the author: Rebecca Ellis (31) is a researcher, artist, science communicator, and advocate for the neurodivergent community