Amy and Autism

Amy and Autism

Amy arrived at the shoot with an escort to check we were legitimate, which is incredibly sensible and something I had totally forgotten to tell people they should think about doing.  I've been doing this so long, I'm used to working surrounded by women, we all know each other, and have done for decades in some cases. Even the men who help us with transport get told to vanish while we work!

However, the world of fashion and photography is rife with "Guys With Cameras" and worse. So, yes, if you're following up an invite from someone you don't know to meet in a bar and take your clothes off - please, take someone with you.

Dear lord that's an unfortunate still for it to have chosen. We're talking about waist to hip ratios!

I suspect that Amy had put more thought into this than the rest of us because, like most people who have autistic spectrum disorders, she can't rely on intuition or gut feeling about social stuff, and she finds unknown social situations anxiety provoking. She says she mostly feels shy and awkward. Not being able to do social stuff on auto-pilot isn't always a bad thing, but it certainly makes social situations much more draining, because you have to consciously think your way through it all. 

Amy was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome as an adult.

I'm editing this in July 2021 to say that this diagnostic label is fraught. It isn't used in the USA, but it still used in the UK and other places, and for people who have been using it, like Amy, it is still the term they use for various reasons. However, it transpires that "Asperger" is the name of someone involved in Nazi eugenics, and many people would prefer to use another term instead. Autistic Spectrum Disorder can be a useful alternative as it indicates the wide range of issues and how it can vary between people.

ASD is classified as a developmental disorder, which means it's something we believe affects you from birth (maybe before), and exists on a multidimensional spectrum. Now, the exact labels and terms are a bit fought over, but be aware that when I say 'it's on a spectrum' that doesn't mean some people are mildly affected and some severely and everything in between. Spectrum in this context means there's a number of abilities that are affected by the disorder and everyone will have a different combination of those.

As a general rule people with Asperger's struggle with social and relationship issues, but don't have the language, speech and cognitive or learning disordered elements that autism itself tends to include. Severe autism can mean a child never really develops much in the way of communication.

Autism and Asperger's Syndrome tend to get diagnosed later in women - probably due to the way we socialise girls differently to boys. This causes some issues, as you can imagine - if you're wandering around in a world full of "neurotypical" people who just pick up non-verbal cues, unconscious social rituals and doublespeak (when you say one thing and mean another), but you're very literal and have to slowly unpick all of that consciously - life is difficult. What do you think it would be like if you had to consider whether the amount of eye-contact you were making was appropriate all the time, rather than just doing it

It's a challenge, and tiring, especially if you don't realise that you and most of the world communicate in completely different ways, and unsurprisingly, many people develop depression and anxiety as symptoms as well.

People on the spectrum may also find that everything is much more intense - sounds, smells, colours, lights, touch, etc - for them than for most people. It's easy to become overwhelmed, wildly overstimulated, senses-wise.

Perhaps relatedly, often people might have strong preferences for certain textures or noises, an almost phobic-level avoidance of change, and a strong liking for routine and repetitive activities.

People with autism sometimes have "meltdowns" as a result of these combinations of issues and frustrations. These are NOT temper tantrums; they're just an intense physical reaction to being overwhelmed.  The appropriate response is to clear some space, try and make a safe physical environment, reduce the intensity of as many things as you can, and calmly wait it out until they can let you know what they need.

Autism is viewed very differently in different countries; in the UK you might hear people refer to being "neurodiverse" and valuing some of the traits involved. Certainly, with some understanding and the right environment, a love of repetition, structure and attention to detail can be an amazingly useful thing. But in the US it's largely regarded as a debilitating condition, best to be avoided at all costs. 

Personally, I think if you want to be helpful, take the former approach. A different way of doing things isn't always worse, though there's no denying that the most serious end of the spectrum is very hard on both the child and family.

If you'd like to know more about Autism, Aspergers and related issues, the UK's National Autism Society has a very good website. You can help them push for better understanding and earlier diagnosis, but mostly, the more you know about it, the easier it is to imagine how the world is for someone who sees it a different way, and the more you can bridge that gap. If you're around people that struggle with this stuff, it's useful to explain body language and facial expressions,  think about and communicate any unwritten social rules or rituals, and avoid anything that relies on context to make sense.  Oh . . . and keep the environment quiet and don't touch people you don't know, please! But that works for almost everyone.

Most of the discussion about this happened over on facebook; you can read it here, including some very polite arguments about whether any of the above is acceptable language, and someone recommended this youtube channel - Ask An Autistic.