One thing that a lot of people don’t know about autism is that a lot of the challenges people on the spectrum face are invisible. “Invisible disabilities” is an umbrella term that is used to describe a wide range of disabilities that aren’t immediately visible. Autism can be considered as an invisible disability, and the invisible aspect of autism leads to stigmas and misconceptions in society. In this blog post I will talk more about the invisible aspect of autism, why it causes stigma, and how changing our mindset can help with autism awareness and acceptance. Note that there are some aspects of the autistic spectrum that are visible, but I want to focus on the invisible aspects in this blog post.
To put it simply, the autistic spectrum isn’t something you see on the outside when you meet someone on the spectrum. A lot of the common challenges among people on the autistic spectrum are ones that are not visible on the outside. For example, sensory overload, increased anxiety and troubles with adjusting to change are challenges that many people on the autistic spectrum face but are invisible for the most part. From my experience, because a lot of the challenges I face from being on the spectrum are invisible, a lot of people wouldn’t know that I am on the spectrum until I tell them.
Unfortunately, the invisible aspect of autism does lead to stigma in society. One reason, and arguably the reason that we need to be aware about people generally make their judgements based on what they see on the outside. As the autistic spectrum isn’t something you see on the outside, it can lead to people saying things like “You don’t look autistic”. This is really hurtful as it comes across as invalidating the challenges people on the spectrum can face, which can really put someone off when opening up about their autism. As someone on the autistic spectrum, there are days where I seem absolutely fine on the outside whereas the reality is that I am facing many challenges that are autism specific. However, this is something that is not always understood.
Furthermore, the labels “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” autism in my opinion can add to the stigma when it comes to the invisible aspect of autism. Someone with zero or very minimal knowledge of autism would think that high functioning autistics can function better and are more capable than low functioning autistics. Firstly, the label “low functioning” can be seen as dismissing the abilities and strengths these people have. However, that is not what I want to focus on here. People that come across the term “high-functioning” autistics for the first time would think that these individuals can function independently in society with no problems whatsoever, and can manage everyday tasks with little difficulty. However, this can mean that the challenges that these people face which are not visible on the outside, such as adapting to change or maintaining good wellbeing can be downplayed. In summary, having the label “high-functioning” autism can divert from the fact that many challenges people on the spectrum face are invisible, leading for it to not be taken seriously.
From the perspective of someone in the autistic spectrum, the stigma and misconceptions that come with the invisible aspect of autism can be harmful. Whilst people on the autistic spectrum don’t expect others to be an expert when it comes to autism, they want to feel understood and for their challenges to not be invalidated. In particular, when it comes to the challenges they face which aren’t visible on the outside, they want others to realise that these challenges are no less to challenges that are visible. Therefore, having the stigma in society where people take the challenges that are invisible less seriously can dent their confidence, especially if it means that they struggle to access the support they require. I have written a blog on autism masking here. Unfortunately, one reason why people on the spectrum mask is because they feel that they have no choice, as they feel that the challenges they face that are not visible isn’t acknowledged or taken seriously in a neurotypical society. If these challenges were acknowledged more widely, then people on the spectrum wouldn’t feel that they need to mask.
Understanding the challenges that people on the autistic spectrum face that aren’t visible on the outside is important for both autism awareness and autism acceptance. It helps with autism awareness as it allows people to realise that autism is more than what you see on the outside, and because of that it can take time to understand it if you know someone on the spectrum. It also helps with autism acceptance because if we are more aware of the challenges people on the spectrum face that are not visible on the outside, then we can begin to acknowledge them. This would lead to society being less judgemental and more empathetic and understanding when it comes to these challenges.