|Autistic Spectrum Disorders – a spectrum of visibility?|
Since my son’s diagnosis a few years ago, I have come across sources of information that have described autistic spectrum disorders as an ‘invisible or hidden disability’. In some ways it is. Many people with ASD do not have an obvious physical impairment that requires a wheelchair for example or a broken bone that requires a plastercast and yet I am uneasy with ASD being described as an invisible or hidden disability for this suggests that ASD cannot be seen. But is this really the case?
ASD is a spectrum where the presentation of autism varies from those who are mildly affected to those who are more severely affected. For those mildly affected such as my daughter, there are no immediate and obvious symptoms of her aspergers. It is only over time and getting to know her that people can start to observe and ‘hear’ the more subtle signs of her aspergers such as her verbal struggles with communication and language. For someone more severely affected such as my son his presentation of ASD is not only audible by the way he talks and responds to various situations but it is also visually obvious through his physical behaviours. From the distant look in his eyes, to his tiptoeing and hand flapping to his difficulty in walking and meltdowns, my son’s autism can be immediately evident to those who know what autism is. To those who have no understanding of autism then what they may see is a child who is antisocial, rude, aggressive, out-of-control, weird, lazy, the result of bad parenting or poor mothering - these are indeed some of the words used to describe my son (and us) over the years. Such words have the power to crush an individual and strip away their self-esteem and confidence which is indeed what happened to my son when he was constantly bombarded with negative language at school.
What then, do you ask, has this got anything to do with my criticism over the ‘invsible and hidden disability’ narrative?
Well, if we continue to describe the autistic spectrum as an invisible or hidden disability, then surely wider society will then expect all forms of autism to be just that, something that can’t be seen. If they assume that ASD is invisible, how are they likely to respond to children like my son when he behaves in what they deem to be ‘unsociable’ or ‘aggressive’ ways in public spaces? At the very least their response is likely to be one of confusion or curiosity, at worst blame or name-calling or even bullying - just the attitudes that I have described above in peoples’ responses to my son and my family.
Do we not, therefore, have a duty to reflect in our writing that autistic people are as diverse as the rest of the population and that while some autistic people may show few or no signs of their autism some people such as my son do? With this in mind, we need to rethink the use of words such as ‘invisible’ and ‘hidden’ and consider how autistic disorders can be better understood by the wider population. In this regard, perhaps our responses to autism should not just be judged on what we instantly see but also on what we hear and what we observe through our interactions with others.