Autism. A little understanding goes a long way.

I have often written and said that I have no experience with autism, that I don’t know anyone who is autistic.

I was wrong.

For years, I had been following Henny K and her music work with autistic children – many of her clients cannot speak – to some degree. I had e-mailed her once or twice and gotten slightly unexpected responses, but figured that she was simply very busy.

Then I ran into the video below (bottom of page). Oh! I had no idea that Henny is autistic! A whole new world opened up.

Some time ago, when I found myself slightly annoyed with the responses from a friend in the Netherlands, the coin dropped. Might she be…? I looked at some checklists, thought back to experiences I had had with her over the years. (I have known her since the early 1980s, from before I went to university.) Some things seemed to click. Yes, she might be slightly autistic, and that realisation suddenly put my experiences – the one that annoyed or exasperated me, lol – in a very different perspective.

I also looked into what you should do if you suspect that someone may be autistic. You cannot “diagnose” someone else, but you can tell the person about your suspicion so that they can look into it and possibly find tools and methods that may make life a little easier for them, if they are indeed autistic. So I did.

There was no specific response.

A few weeks later, while we were Skyping, she said “Oh, by the way, you asked whether I might be autistic.” Turns out that her sister’s daughter is a psychologist and she bluntly told her mother “You’re autistic.” one day. The two sisters have talked about it and have also concluded that their dad is slightly autistic as well.

She is not highly autistic, my friend – to the extent that I can assess that – but the puzzle of her has now clicked into place for me. I’ve for example been in discussions with her in which she would suddenly apply such a “warped” kind of logic that I didn’t know how to respond. And I have gotten angry, too, a few times.

But there was something else that happened in recent years that had baffled me and that, so I now understand, comes from that inability to assess certain things from the perspective of others, who apply a different kind of logic. This is not “lack of empathy”. They step into other people’s shoes a lot. More than most of us. It’s just that when they step into another person’s shoes, the view can be very different from ours.

(Logic is not always what we think it is, no. We often apply logic on the basis of what we already know. It was one of my parrots who made me aware of this, that others can apply logic and still arrive at very different conclusions.)

Below is the video that I referred to at the start of this post. It took me a while to wrap my head around this. But eventually, I started to get a sense of it and once you do, you understand why environments with lots of flickering lights and lots of noise can be so hard to deal with for autistic people.

A little understanding goes a long way.

From now on, I can approach my friend with a lot more compassion than I had done in the past decades. (Oh yeah! I can be amazingly patient – or so I have been told – but I can also be very impatient – and I know it.) All it takes is for me to step into her shoes and try to see the world from her perspective. And then a lot of things start making a lot more sense and you – I – stop demanding the impossible.

My friend is only slightly autistic but the way in which she is little bit different has often annoyed me in the past and I have also sometimes attributed too much importance to remarks she made. At other times, the way in which she is different has also delighted me.

Observing the extent of neurodiversity can be like tiptoeing through a fairy tale land with delight and wonder. Oh, look at that elf and that gnome and that troll! Oh, saw that fairy flutter by on her delicate gossamer wings? And there, there is a genuine giant!