April is Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month, but the conversation surrounding autism should continue throughout the year. With autism diagnosis rates rising and more people discovering the role of neurodivergence in our relationships and workplaces, it's more critical than ever to learn what we can about this developmental difference.
Autism Defined, and Redefined
At some point or another, we've all likely read or heard the textbook definition: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that can affect how an individual learns, communicates, interacts, and processes information and/or stimulation. We're often reminded that autism encompasses a broad spectrum of symptoms and manifestations, from communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors to challenges with social interactions and maintaining relationships.
The goal of autism acceptance is to shift us from an "epidemic" and "cure”-based societal focus and into a culture that understands and validates people's" developmental differences as they are. But we don't necessarily hear as much about the unique strengths that may be exhibited by people on the autism spectrum when they have the opportunity to lean into them. This is why many autism advocacy groups are pushing for autism acceptance versus awareness alone.
Autism Awareness vs. Acceptance: By the Numbers
In 2023, it's estimated that about 1 in 36 children is somewhere on the autism spectrum. In 2000, diagnosis rates were closer to about 1 in 150 children.
Looking at this jump in diagnostic rates through an outdated lens, these numbers may be frightening. But the reality is that autism rates are increasing because our understanding of it is increasing. Women, for instance, are much less likely to be diagnosed with autism as children because they may work harder to mask their symptoms, their symptoms may be more subtle, or their symptoms may be mistakenly classified as an unrelated mental health disorder.
So while we may be seeing a rise in autism diagnoses later in life, that is due to our increasing understanding, not because of an alarming "epidemic."
Moving on From Misdiagnosis
Because struggles with sensory overwhelm or interpersonal challenges can sometimes mimic the symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar, and other mental health conditions, many people may go through most (or all) of their lives, never knowing they're on the autism spectrum. Then, when people receive the wrong treatment for the wrong conditions, their feelings of isolation or inability to cope can worsen over time.
Could You be Neurodivergent?
It's important to remember that the autism spectrum encompasses an extensive range of symptoms and behaviors. And just because you may have some traits in common with a person on the spectrum doesn't necessarily mean that you have autism as well.
It's also possible that you may be living with another form of neurodivergence. Neurodivergence is simply an umbrella term that acknowledges the difference in people's mental processing and functions.
Other Neurodivergent Conditions
The most common types of neurodivergent conditions that affect learning, sensory processing, interaction, behavior, and other developmental aspects include:
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): a neurological and developmental disorder that can affect how an individual learns, communicates, interacts, and processes information and/or stimulation.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or impulsivity that impedes functioning
Dyslexia: a learning disorder that involves misidentification or misunderstanding of word concepts, structure, or organization; it can manifest as difficulties with reading, writing, or speaking.
Dyscalculia: a learning disorder that involves misidentification or misunderstanding of math concepts; can manifest as difficulties with reading, remembering, or understanding relationships between numbers and mathematical rules
Dysgraphia: a neurological difference that manifests as difficulty writing; can result from a combination of challenges, including trouble with fine motor skills, working memory, and/or language processing and conceptualization
If you find yourself struggling with symptoms associated with neurodivergence, speak with your physician about your concerns and inquire about diagnostic and support services in your local area. Many neurodivergent individuals are relieved when they receive a formal diagnosis because it enables them to explain and cope with the challenges they face.
Neurodiversity is a principle that asks us to move beyond outdated perceptions of disability to understand and celebrate the differences in how we process information and the world around us.
In Jenara Nerenberg's book Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn't Designed for You, we learn about Sara Seager, one of the countless autistic individuals who have found success in their differences:
"A planetary scientist and astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Seager searches for exoplanets but has trouble with grocery shopping… She has been featured in books, talks, and academic panels… and just signed a seven-figure book deal. But…looking back, she felt very different, until she arrived at MIT…"
Once Sara Seager found herself in her element at MIT, her whole world changed, and she was seen beyond just her ability to fit in and be "normal."
We'll leave you with footage of one of the #TRN family's own, Reid Soria of Autism Sings. Diagnosed with autism at the age of three, Reid was never expected to be able to communicate or connect with the world around him. But now, as an adult, Reid has channeled his creativity and sheer grit into an unprecedented story of hope.
And in finding his voice, Reid has found a new voice for autism and is communicating and connecting beyond what was once considered possible.
Resources for Supporting Neurodiversity:
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