- Journal -
Myrrh Tree discusses the social issues that affect the everyday lives of our students in today's day and age.
Why is Autism Awareness Important?
For Autism Awareness Week, Myrrh Tree will be discussing how autism affects young people entering higher education and the ways education institutions can do better accommodate to the needs of their neurodivergent students. There have been significant strides made in
making higher education institutions (HEI) more accessible to those with autism, but studies show that autistic students still face significant barriers when it comes to transitioning into
higher education, issues that stem from lack of general awareness of autism, lack of resources and support as well as misinformed stereotypes about the disorder. Myrrh Tree values education being accessible to all people and wants to contribute to the improvement
of education and educators in the UK by keeping ourselves and our graduates informed. This week, we will be discussing what autism is, debunk some common myths about the condition and the struggles that autistic people face in the higher education system.
What is Autism?
Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is commonly known as Autism. The condition refers to a large collection of neurodevelopmental traits that make autistic people different to someone who is neurotypical. While autism manifests as brain differences, this does not mean that autism is a mental illness or learning disability, though sometimes they can go hand in hand; autism is a neurodivergent condition that affects the ways one perceives and interacts with the world that are different to those without autism. As a result, autistic individuals can struggle with aspects of life and society that neurotypical people consider
normal and don’t perceive to be an issue.
According to the NHS, significant elements of autism include:
“find it hard to communicate and interact with other people
find it hard to understand how other people think or feel
find things like bright lights or loud noises overwhelming, stressful or uncomfortable
get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events
take longer to understand information
do or think the same things over and over” ((NHS))
Other examples of autistic traits are rigid, repetitive patterns of behaviour, restrictive and highly specific interests and activities often accompanied by various levels of hyperfocus on
favoured topics (Cai and Richdale) .
Everyone with autism is different; while some autistic people may really struggle and need the help of a carer to live comfortably, others may need little or no help at all. Similarly, symptoms of autism can greatly vary between individuals; whilst one person may be overstimulated by lights and sounds and struggle in a work environment, another may not
have these issues, but instead have difficulties interacting with people or taking care of themselves at home. There is no right or wrong way to be autistic. While autism is not a medical condition, and therefore does not require a “cure”, autistic people may require
additional support and coping mechanisms.
In the UK, it is estimated that one in 100 children are diagnosed with ASD, with more still left undiagnosed (British Medical Association) . After significant developments in understanding ASD, autism is considered to be much more widespread than commonly thought, especially in adult demographics.
Autism is no longer thought of to be a specific condition brought upon by bad parenting that affects primarily children and boys, but a diverse and fairly common manifestation of neurodivergence that anyone can have. Despite the progress the psychological community has made in understanding ASD and its pervasiveness, its presence within popular conception is still riddled with misinformation, lack of awareness and an unwillingness to make contemporary spaces like work and
schooling more inclusive. This has contributed to negative perceptions of autistic people from the general population (Gurbuz, Hanley and Riby) , which has been found to exacerbate
the isolation and additional mental health issues of autistic individuals (Cage, Di Monaco and Newell) . It is tremendously important that we deconstruct our prejudices concerning autism, as studies show this to be one of the most significant obstacles to autistics mental
health and transition out of school.
Debunking Autism Myths
There is a lot of misinformation about autism perpetuated around the world, concerning the
causes of autism, methods of managing it or prejudicial stereotyping of the condition. Here are some examples of popular myths about autism that are untrue:
Autism is caused by vaccines or bad parenting. Like many other neurological issues, the direct cause of autism is still obscure, but most sources agree that autism is a condition one is born with and can potentially be inherited from parents. There is no evidence of external stimuli ‘turning’ someone autistic.
Unfortunately, autism has been plagued with pseudo-scientific explanations for its
roots from parents and psychologists alike. The theory that autism is caused by a cold and distant mother (‘refrigerator mothers’ as they were referred to in the 20th century) has thankfully long since been disproven, but the bogus claim that vaccines cause children to develop autism is still common. The MMR vaccine happens to be administered to children at the same
developmental stage that autism symptoms tend to become evident - around 12 - 18 months - creating a confirmation bias for parents who notice these symptoms soon after vaccination (Davidson) . This suspicion was supported by an Andrew Wakefield
study which has since been revealed to contain misconduct and further studies into epidemiology and autism soundly discrediting his findings that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Not only have the rates of autism in children not decreased since this recent trend of avoiding vaccines, but the villainization of vaccinations can cause great harm to young children by exposing them and other children to diseases, potentially causing outbreaks.
Only/mostly children are autistic:
For a long time, autism in the popular consciousness was perceived as affecting mainly children. Even today, the vast majority of diagnoses happen during childhood.
This can be attributed to issues adapting in school and social environments being
more evident to teachers and parents early on, whereas autistics who do not
struggle in school make it to adulthood without a diagnosis. For instance, if a child is getting fairly good grades, it can be easy for teachers and parents to assume the child does not need support or diagnosis. Lack of knowledge about the various symptoms of autism also attributes to this, such as men and boys being disproportionately diagnosed more often than women and girls (Timimi, Mallett and Runswick-Cole) .
Stereotypes about autism are often attributed to the behaviour of young boys, so they tend to get diagnosed earlier. Young boys were the original model for autism in the term’s infancy, so the majority of known autistic behaviours are based on how the condition manifests in the juvenile male population. Women and girls can exhibit
autism differently, such as tending to be more active socially than boys, and
therefore not being identified as needing support in a classroom. Girls also have
been found to show less restricted, repetitive behaviours than boys – another typical element of autistic criteria. Since girls do not often fit the stereotypical criteria for
autism, they often get looked over for not being disruptive or socially challenged
enough to be autistic. As such, women can go for decades, perhaps their entire lives, without a diagnosis for not matching the male stereotype (Hendrickx) .
Moreover, the stigmas surrounding autism in adult life and the workplace can discourage adult autistics from getting diagnosed, for fear of ostracization or negatively affecting their occupation. Likewise, the stereotypes about autistic individuals can lead one to believe that they are not autistic if they need little to no support.
Autistic people are savants/geniuses:
Savant syndrome is described as individuals with mental disabilities displaying above
average abilities in specific areas, particularly memory, artistry or calculation. Many pop-culture depictions of autistic people have these traits, such as Rainman or Sheldon Cooper.
While some autistic people have special skills and interests, many others do not have exceptional levels of skills, just like anyone else. Only around 10% of autistic individuals have savant-level capabilities, but because of how prevalent this stereotype is in the media it has become commonplace and can influence people’s perceptions of the general autistic population (PS John, J Knott and N Harvey) . The stereotype of the autistic savant can alienate autistic people, particularly children, and make them feel inadequate when they don’t live up to the expectation. Many people tend to confuse an autistic individual’s talent or special interest as a savant skill, assuming they are naturally gifted as opposed to working hard to attain a skill like anyone else. This can put enormous pressure on autistics who are expected to perform naturally better in certain fields than anyone else.
This particular misconception is exacerbated by how most cases of savant syndrome have IQ scores of 70 or below, seemingly in spite of their strong capabilities in certain topics. However, IQ tests tend to measure only a very specific kind of ‘intelligence’, relying particularly on verbal and linguistic skills which many autistic
individuals fall short in (Treffert) . This has created a stereotype of extreme disability co-existing with extraordinary genius, when in fact many autistic people with savant syndrome are likely to be just as, or more, intelligent than anyone else.
Autistic people are emotionless and lack empathy:
Early literature concerning autistic people identified them as emotionless, lacking the capabilities to understand and reciprocate the feelings of others. While autistic people do struggle to interpret social signals or adapt to the unspoken rules of socialisation that neurotypicals rely on, the idea that they do not understand or empathise with others is an untrue and dehumanising stereotype. Autistics may perceive situations differently to neurotypicals, may take more time to process feelings or struggle communicating their reactions/sympathy, which can appear to be uncaring behaviour when that is not necessarily the case. Sensory and
communication difficulties mean that autistic individuals may avoid group activities or large social events, like festivals or clubs, because of the stress they can cause (Cai and Richdale) . As a result, studies show that around 50% of autistic participants report difficulties in maintaining friendships and participating in social activities (Gurbuz, Hanley and Riby) . These behaviours give the impression that autistic individuals are introverted, and are uninterested in spending time with others when that is unlikely to be the case.
Many autistics adults do, indeed, value friendships and the feelings of others, but have a more difficult time than most connecting with others due to the combined obstacles of their own communication difficulties, autistic-unfriendly social activities and neurotypicals’ preconceived notions of the uncaring autistic. Moreover, this stereotype can cause difficulties for autistics who do not struggle so badly at socialising. It can lead to friends questioning or dismissing someone’s autism diagnosis because they can maintain eye contact or express sympathy. These concepts can damage a person’s self-esteem, make them question themselves and make them feel hurt and isolated.
Autism in Higher Education
Higher education institutions (HEIs) are becoming more inclusive than ever, with dedicated mental health support systems and accommodation arrangements in place to aid any student struggling with mental health transition into university. The kind of support students get at this period is likely some of the most important they will receive, as it comes during a time when they are likely to be living away from family for the first time, transitioning into an unstructured and unfamiliar way of living. Adequate support can be critical for a successful transition, whilst inadequate help can cause excessive stress and potentially influence autistics a student’s decision to drop out of study (Cai and Richdale).
Higher education can be daunting to those with autism. One USA report noted that autistic youth had ‘one of the lowest rates of college enrolment, with over 50% of these young adults being in neither education nor employment during the initial years following secondary school… with similar findings having been reported in the UK’ (Cai and Richdale). Moreover, autistic students tend to have lower graduation rates than non-disabled students, and have reported adjustment issues and thoughts of dropping out far more than non-autistic students (Gurbuz, Hanley and Riby). Unsurprising, considering many aspects of HEI systems are difficult to navigate for students on the spectrum. Survey participants with ASD have claimed that ‘the lack of structure at university compared with secondary school was unexpected and problematic’, compounded by group activities and the need to connect with supervisors. Crowded lecture halls, loud and busy campuses and a focus on self-made time management can also be very overwhelming for autistic students. As well as this, a lack of knowledge and support at universities can cause issues and miscommunication between teachers and students, the former misunderstanding autistic coping methods and the latter struggling to keep up with what teachers expect of neurotypical students.
Universities have been implementing more accommodations for autistic students in recent years, but according to autistic survey participants the support that universities offer still fall short in certain significant areas. In particular, the vast majority of accommodations are focused primarily on improving academic outcomes, rather than extending support to general social and livelihood obstacles that can affect an autistic student’s experience. Moreover, support requirements tend to be identified ‘without significant input from college students with disabilities’, so there are frequent cases of autistic students getting accommodations that do not adequately address their needs (Gurbuz, Hanley and Riby).
Studies have found that ASD students receiving academic support, typically in the form of flexible assessments, extra exam time, increased structure and smaller assignments help to greatly reduce the stress and anxiety of the student (Cai and Richdale). However, many autistic students report support being slow coming or not accurately addressing the issues affecting their work (Cai and Richdale). It appears that there needs to be a better understanding from HEIs about how non-academic issues affect one’s academic performance, and how supporting areas of social and non-academic-functioning can better help to integrate autistic students into university life.
Suggestions for improvements identify highly personalised support systems, such as peer mentoring, to be of greater benefit to the autistic student as the diversity of the condition means that personalised support can track an individual’s needs more thoroughly. Pilot studies have shown that specialised peer mentoring not only improves ASD student’s academic performances but also their social lives. However, this system could potentially take a high toll on resources, with no guarantee that each student will be afforded the same quality of support (Gurbuz, Hanley and Riby). A more cost-effective alternative is a support group model, ‘integrated into the curriculum’ and with regular meetings to provide the structure that autistic students lack; while less personalised, meetings like these have been found to reduce anxiety and depression for autistic students.
All this aside, by far the biggest obstacle to overcome in terms of transitioning to university is awareness and acceptance of Autism from peers and staff alike. Many autistic students report a lack of awareness of ASD in HEIs that leave lecturers unknowing of autistic difficulties and differences. For instance, students that are trying to block out excessive stimuli to focus on the lecture may appear as if they are zoning out to a lecturer (Cai and Richdale).
Stereotypes follow ASD students follow them into adulthood. The association between autism and childhood make people assume that it is a condition to be ‘grown out of’, influencing autistic students to not seek help because they believe they no longer have their condition (Cai and Richdale). Situations like this can be exacerbated by the lack of awareness concerning the criteria to be autistic, as mentioned above. Students who don’t ‘seem autistic’ by the time they get to university, likely to hear such an opinion from their peers or lecturers, may be convinced that they do not need support. This is why awareness is so important, because the misinformation is still rife within HEIs and can drastically affect an autistic student’s mental health and chances of completing study.
US and Australian research has noted misunderstandings and contradictions about autism from university staff, including underestimating the sensory sensitivity and the daily needs of their students (Gurbuz, Hanley and Riby). Feelings of isolation because of a lack of acceptance can agitate the mental health problems of autistic students, making them feel more lonely and anxious particularly around social situations. The pressure to ‘mask’ in order to fit in and camouflage one’s autism is a result of the general prejudice and misinformation and can increase the loneliness and stress autistics feel. The need to camouflage in order to feel accepted can make ASD students feel like they don’t belong at HEIs, potentially influencing the numbers of them not finishing their studies. One autism survey found that 43% of participants said they did not feel society accepted them as autistic (Cage, Di Monaco and Newell).
Considering the importance of the role of education in our lives, it is paramount that education systems be the spearhead of countering this statistic. Autistic individuals that feel accepted in their formative years in the education system can help the mental health of the autistic population and potentially give them the confidence to advocate for themselves in other areas such as the workplace. Feeling accepted by others greatly benefits autistic individuals, improving their social lives as well as mental health and academic performance. In order to counter discriminatory ideas about autism, it is incredibly important to push for greater autism awareness in the public sphere. Requiring a thorough knowledge of autism, dispelling harmful myths in particular, from educators is pivotal to the adjustment of autistic learners to their environments.
Myrrh Tree advocates for nothing less than total acceptance for all, and expect our educators to live up to the standards that autistic individuals need to feel accepted and comfortable in society.
(NHS), National Health Service. "What is autism?" 2019. NHS. March 2021. <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/autism/what-is-autism/>.
British Medical Association. Autism Spectrum Disorder. September 2020. 25 March 2021. <https://www.bma.org.uk/what-we-do/population-health/child-health/autism-spectrum-disorder#:~:text=It%20is%20estimated%20that%20around,diagnosis%20of%20autism%20spectrum%20disorder>.
Cage, E., J. Di Monaco and V. Newell. "Experiences of Autism Acceptance and Mental Health in Autistic Adults." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2018).
Cai, Ru Ying and Amanda L. Richdale. "Educational Experiences and Needs of Higher Education Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2016). <https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10803-015-2535-1.pdf>.
Davidson, Michael. "Vaccination as a cause of autism-myths and controversies." Dialogues in clinical neuroscience (2017).
Gurbuz, E., M Hanley and D.M. Riby. "University Students with Autism: The Social and Academic Experiences of University in the UK." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2019).
Hendrickx, Sarah. Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Understanding Life Experiences from Early Childhood to Old Age. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015.
PS John, Rachael, Fiona J Knott and Kate N Harvey. "Myths about autism: An exploratory study using focus groups." Autism (2018).
Timimi, Sami, Rebecca Mallett and Katherine Runswick-Cole. Re-Thinking Autism: Diagnosis, Identity and Equality. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016.
Treffert, D.A. "Savant Syndrome: Realities, Myths and Misconceptions." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2014).