Autism has meant different things to different people since it was first classified in the 1940s. Originally defined as a rare psychosis which only affected children, the way autism was understood was very much a product of its time in the age of psychoanalysis.

Autism is now understood as a complex, invisible condition which a person is born with. Autism is a developmental condition which means that the way a person communicates, interacts and understands other people, and the world, is different to those who do not have the condition. It can be described as a “spectrum” which means it impacts different people, in different ways, to differing degrees at different times and in different situations.

The Train Analogy

Imagine what it would be like if you were to be picked up suddenly and dropped into the middle of a packed rush hour subway in downtown Tokyo.

To begin with, you are overwhelmed by the number of people in your personal space – the subway is so packed that you literally cannot move. Lots of people are talking to each other at once, to the point that you can barely hear yourself think. One person standing next to you may wear very strong perfume. Another person may have bad breath from forgetting to brush their teeth. The environment around the subway makes you extremely uncomfortable on a sensory level and you cannot wait to get off and out into the city.

The subway arrives and everyone disembarks. Every other person begins to walk in the direction they need to go in. But you find the signs around the station very confusing and you don’t know how to leave the station. Doing the logical thing, you approach another passenger to ask for directions. You can’t tell from his body language or facial expression whether he is happy to help or annoyed to be stopped. He is speaking very quickly in Japanese and is using local expressions you know nothing about – you cannot follow his instructions as you are unsure about what he is saying to you.

At this stage, you get more anxious – you find the unfamiliar, busy Subway station overwhelming and you cannot communicate effectively with locals around you. You try to go out alone, you look for signs on the wall and try to follow these signs towards the exit. You relax as you feel you are making progress and moving in the right direction. However, you now completely rely on the signs to leave the station. As you approach the final turn the sign before the exit is missing. While everyone else in the station knows how to leave from this point, you have no idea and find yourself right back at square one.

Firstly it’s important to acknowledge in this scenario you aren’t less capable than the other passengers on the train,  just different. Day to day activities such as sitting in classroom or commuting may be just as big a culture shock for an autistic person.

Different cultures can be stressful but most of us still like to experience them. Autistic people want to do the same things as other people, but being met halfway can make the difference between being part of the community and being cut off.

Fundamentally, being autistic is like living in a world that is not built for you, and the earlier example helps us highlight some fundamental realities of the condition, namely differences in sensory processing, communication, reading social situations and managing anxiety and stressful situations.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability present from birth which causes difficulties in communication, forming relationships, understanding abstract concepts and sensory processing. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that people living with autism will experience varying levels of challenges and needs.

Often described as an ‘invisible’ disability, many of autism’s main characteristics may not be noticed until much later in a person’s life and mistaken for personality quirks. This often means that an autistic person may not receive the right supports from crucial people in their daily lives. Getting a formal diagnosis is critical for anyone on the spectrum to access the help that’s best for them and their families.