What is autism and why is public understanding important?

If we’re to change how the world sees autism, we need to challenge misleading stereotypes

Awareness and understanding of autism has improved markedly in recent times. But there is still a long way to go, as is shown by the fact that autism was the fifth most common ‘what is?’ question on Google in 2014.

All too often, we hear from individuals and families living with autism who have experienced misunderstandings or faced judgmental attitudes based on misinformed stereotypes, such as autism only affects children, all people with the condition are geniuses or that they lack empathy.

As is often the case with stereotypes, these examples are fallacies; they are also unhelpful and can be deeply upsetting for families and individuals affected by autism. They also reinforce misinformation about autism, limiting what people with the condition can achieve and making it more difficult for them to get their needs recognised and to access the right support.

Stigma towards autism has often been difficult to tackle because it is affects everyone differently and it’s a hidden disability, which makes it hard to recognise. But it can, and must, be addressed.

Autism is a lifelong condition which affects more than one in 100 people in the UK; only about one in 100 of individuals with autism have an accompanying special ability; and people with autism do have empathy, often feeling emotions more intensely than their peers due to over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours. But they can find it difficult to recognise these emotions in themselves and sometimes express these in different ways to others.

Our supporters consistently tell us that improving public understanding of autism is their top priority, which is why awareness raising is implicit in everything the National Autistic Society does. Better understanding of autism would improve every part of their lives, increasing the chances of an early diagnosis and support, lowering incidents of bullying at school and improving employment prospects.

Take employment as an example - currently, just 15% of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment, despite the fact that the vast majority want to work. Our experience shows that employers who are aware of autism and make simple adjustments, like making job interviews more accessible, can unlock the hidden potential of a whole new group of employees, many of whom have strengths that can give employers a competitive edge, such as accuracy, good eye for detail, and reliability.

If we’re to change how the world sees autism, we need to challenge misleading stereotypes, like the central character in Rain Man, wherever they emerge and increase understanding of the condition in every sector of society, from health and social care to culture and media. But this type of large scale change requires a holistic approach, influencing issues at a national level, while empowering and working with people and other organisations across the country to make a difference in their own communities.

Autism can have a profound effect on individuals and families, but understanding and support can make a huge difference.

Carol Povey is Director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism

For more information, support or to get involved in campaigning or volunteering, please visit www.autism.org.uk