How you can help child specialists shatter the stigma around autism
Updated: Jul 14
One of the biggest challenges for individuals and families with autism is the stigma attached to the disorder. Negative beliefs are damaging, but through awareness, understanding stigma, and embracing neurodivergence, we can make sure the 160,000 Australian men, women and children with autism feel respected and included.
Stigmas arise because a lot of people have heard of autism, but far fewer have first-hand experience with autism spectrum disorder. With limited knowledge, people often make assumptions based around one experience, anecdote or media representation.
The reality is, autism is not a mental health disorder or intellectual disability: it is a variation of the way the brain develops. Child psychologists and paediatric psychiatrists can’t change the conversation alone. Here are three steps we can all take to shatter the stigma around autism.
STEP ONE: AUTISM AWARENESS
Stigmas often arise out of fear of the unknown, which is why understanding autism is a necessary first step towards bringing the stigma to an end.
What is autism?
Autism is a developmental disorder where the brain works differently to the majority, affecting the way people interpret and understand the world around them. Those with autism often struggle with social interactions and communication, and classic signs include repetitive behaviours, restricted interests, and difficulty processing sensory information.
Understanding of the disorder has evolved since it was first identified in 1943, and these days, psychologists and psychiatrists talk about autism as a spectrum commonly called Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism is not absolute: it’s not yes or no, on or off. It’s a hugely varied disorder where someone on the severe end of the spectrum may need lifelong care, while someone on the mild end can live independently and have a loving family and fulfilling career.
Asperger’s Syndrome and modern child psychology
Mild forms of autism used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association dropped this subcategory, instead recognising those with Asperger’s Syndrome as being on the mild or “high functioning” end of the autism spectrum. This terminology change had a ripple effect around the world and the diagnosis is largely viewed as outdated, including amongst child psychologists and psychiatrists here in Sydney.
What you need to know about autism in Australia:
In Australia, about 1 in 150 people are on the autism spectrum, with boys outnumbering girls four to one.
Though often present in infancy, symptoms of autism are not often noticed until a child is two or three years old – or older
Autism has nothing to do with mental health or intelligence: the brain simply develops differently than it does in the majority of people.
Early diagnosis and treatment, including child counselling and family therapy, gives children with autism the best chance at developing skills that will enable them to live life to its fullest potential.
STEP TWO: ADDRESSING STIGMA IN CHILD PSYCHOLOGY
Stigma is when people hold negative beliefs towards a certain characteristic in others. There are stigmas attached to many life experiences, from physical disabilities to mental illness, single parenthood to sexual orientation, ethnicity to religion.
By stereotyping the diverse group of people on the autism spectrum, we are taking away their individuality and reducing the entire group to a set of discriminatory judgements. It creates a taboo even around the word ‘autism’, which has detrimental effects to anyone who fits into this broad category.
Child psychiatrists and psychologists see the effect of stigma on children every day
Stigma makes it difficult for children with autism to be included in social groups at school, preventing them from developing and practicing social skills. This can make autistic children feel isolated and rejected, leading to anxiety and depression.
Stigma can make parents reluctant to seek out autism assessments because they fear what a formal diagnosis might mean for their family. And stigma can limit children’s opportunities, causing them to miss out on educational and health prospects.
On the flip side, when we remove stigma from autism, we return respect, inclusion, and value to people on the spectrum, giving them the chance to enjoy life to the fullest.
Cultural stigmas can get in the way of autism assessment and treatment
It’s important to acknowledge the role culture plays in the acceptance of a diagnosis like autism. Different cultures and ethnicities have particular taboos or stigmas, with some being particularly wary of anything seen as a disability; physical or intellectual. This leads to a world where autism can be treated very differently depending on where you live.
Acknowledging the extra layer of complexity culture introduces is not to put blame on any particular ethnicity, but rather to work within cultural context to find a way forward.
STEP THREE: EMBRACING NEURODIVERGENCE
There’s a well-known quote among autism communities: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
It’s a natural psychological phenomenon to want to group people in order to understand them better, but it’s important to recognise that each and every person on the autism spectrum is an individual. They are not their diagnosis: they are unique people with their own interests and hobbies, personalities, and talents.
What is neurodivergence? It’s the concept that all our brains work slightly differently and it views atypical neurology as a variation, not a disability. Truly shattering the stigma around autism relies on not just accepting but embracing neurodivergence.
Diversity in school and at work
If neurodivergence is more widely understood and accepted, parents and caregivers will be able to detect signs earlier and children will get the treatment they need.
When teachers work alongside parents and child psychologists during school years, they are better able to help children on the spectrum feel more comfortable in class and find techniques to help overcome educational challenges. And in the workplace, small adjustments and an appreciation that autistic employees bring a wealth of valuable skills can make all the difference.
Behavioural psychologists encourage social inclusion
Because people on the spectrum often have trouble with interpersonal interactions, others assume they would rather avoid social situations entirely. Therapists know this is not true: many autistic people highly value their relationships and find their struggles to connect a source of frustration. Instead of leaving someone out because of their autism, find ways to include them: invite them into a conversation, find out what environment would make socialising easier, and be patient if their social skills don’t meet your expectations.
Improving representation of autism in the media
You may have heard Elon Musk recently describe himself as the “first person with Asperger’s to host Saturday Night Live.”
Or perhaps you’ve seen the positive representation of an autistic teenager in the hit television show Atypical.
Maybe you remember Pope Francis, in 2014, talking about “breaking down the isolation and, in many cases, the stigma burdening people with autism spectrum disorders.”
These are all examples of ways mainstream media and culture are helping to change the conversation around autism. People with autism are increasingly being celebrated and shown to be a dynamic group, rather than a blanket stereotype. Shining light on autism in its many forms helps everyone see this developmental disorder through a new lens.
Our child psychiatrists and psychologists are committed to ending the autism stigma
At Sydney’s Dolphin Tribe clinic, our team of child psychiatrists, behavioural psychologists, and psychotherapists is passionate about ending the stigma around autism.