University of Southern California
University of Southern California
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
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Chan Division News

Faculty Q&A for World Autism Awareness Day

Linsey Smith helps answer common questions about identity, language and experiential issues for autistic people (and people with autism).

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Photo by Iker Urteag/Unsplash

Photo by Iker Urteag/Unsplash

April 2 marks World Autism Awareness Day, a designated day when communities around the world host events and activities that increase understanding, support and acceptance for people living with autism. In recognition of World Autism Awareness Day 2018, Assistant Clinical Professor Linsey Smith, who teaches the undergraduate course OT 370: Understanding Autism: Participation Across the Lifespan, shares a few perspectives about identity, language and experiential issues for autistic people.

Should I say “person with autism” or “autistic person?”
The debate over person-first and identity-first language is important to be aware of, and there are different perspectives on this even within the autism community. Traditionally, we have been encouraged to use person-first language, which puts the individual before the disability. However, many autistic self-advocates and other neurodiverse individuals prefer to use identity-first language by referring to themselves as “autistic.”

From that perspective, autism is understood to be a core, valued part of their identity, and to separate autism from themselves is not only impossible but denies the value of this integral part of identity. I always recommend asking the person you are interacting with what they prefer, as preferences vary from individual to individual.

What is the spectrum? Can someone be “high functioning” or “low functioning?”
There is a wonderful comic strip by Rebecca Burgess that I use in class to give students an alternative perspective to what is often described as a linear spectrum. In this example, the autism spectrum is non-linear, like a color wheel, reflecting the fact that a person may have significant challenges in one area while having significant strengths in another. For example, an individual who is non-speaking could have strengths in the area of social motivation and engagement, and enjoy being in loud social environments, while another individual who has strengths in verbal language and conversation skills may have significant sensory challenges and anxiety that limits socializing in unfamiliar social settings.

This model challenges the use of functioning labels, which can be damaging to both groups described as “high functioning” and “low functioning,” by misrepresenting both their level of challenge and level of ability. That can, in turn, impact access to supportive services and opportunities for participation in meaningful occupations. 

What is neurodiversity? How does it relate to autism?
Neurodiversity is defined by Nick Walker as “the diversity in human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning.” The neurodiversity paradigm offers an alternative to the pathology paradigm by viewing autism as a difference or normal, natural variation — rather than as a disorder — that involves a balance between real, everyday challenges and unique strengths in perceiving the world. The neurodiversity movement calls for equal rights and inclusion for neurodiverse individuals.

What are some things I can do to be an ally for the autistic community?
Such a great question! There are also many ways to be an ally for the autistic community on an individual level. Some ideas include:

  • Learn from first-person narratives — talk to autistic people, read blogs, articles and books written by people on the autism spectrum and listen to podcasts. Some of my favorites include Aquamarine Blue 5 which is a collection of essays written by college students on the autism spectrum, Songs of the Gorilla Nation by Dawn Prince-Hughes, Parallel Play by Tim Page, Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin and a podcast called “Spectrumly Speaking,” just to name a few!
  • Be a thoughtful and critical consumer of media portraying autism. Ask yourself if first-person narratives and experiences are represented, either through real individual or family stories, autistic actors or consultants on films and TV shows. The 2017 winner for U.S. narrative film at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Keep the Change,” features autistic actors playing characters on the autism spectrum, one of the very first narratives films to do this. Also consider whether diverse perspectives are represented, including diversity across the spectrum, gender, age, ethnicity and cultural perspectives.
  • Make an effort to be more inclusive and to make spaces and environments that you regularly engage in more accessible. This could involve making modifications to sensory environments in your sorority house, teaching elementary school students about neurodiversity, partnering with autistic researchers, suggesting ways to make the interview process at your workplace more accessible, and so much more!
  • Continue to educate yourself and others! Stay up-to-date on the research, attend courses, conferences and seminars, and become more politically informed on, and involved with, policy that impacts the autistic community.
  • Don’t just raise awareness; Promote acceptance and inclusion!