Autism Acceptance Week provides an opportunity to celebrate the unique strengths and abilities of autistic individuals whilst also considering the barriers autistic people may face – and the importance of addressing these barriers to promote equality.
Autism is a lifelong form of neurodiversity that can affect how people communicate and relate to the world around them. There are currently around 700,000 autistic people in the UK. Whilst some autistic people may share some common characteristics, autism is an incredibly varied form of neurodiversity. This means that every autistic individual has a unique mixture of strengths, skills and differences.
“When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”– Dr Stephen Shore
Neurodiversity is the idea that there is a natural variation in human neurocognitive functioning and that this diversity should be recognised, accommodated and celebrated, rather than stereotyped or stigmatised.
Many autistic people face misconceptions about their abilities and differences. Many also face barriers to participation in important areas of life, from the workplace and healthcare settings to educational spaces, legal proceedings and social groups. It is important for these barriers to be removed and for neurotypical people to understand autism and the possible adjustments that may assist neurodiverse people to ensure there is equal access in these spheres.
Celebrating autistic strengths
Just like neurotypical people, autistic people have all sorts of diverse strengths and special skills. However, there are some strengths which are more commonly reported by autistic people.
One of the most oft-reported strengths is the ability to focus intensely on a particular topic or interest. Many autistic individuals have a special interest that they are deeply passionate about, which can lead to exceptional knowledge and/or skill. This intense focus and attention to detail can be a valuable asset. Additionally, many individuals with autism have very strong memory skills.
Some autistic individuals are very honest, direct and straightforward. While this can sometimes be misperceived as insensitive, it can also be refreshing in a world where people often hide their true thoughts and feelings. This directness can be a strength in court hearings and trials, especially during evidence giving.
Autistic people often value consistency and routine and therefore they may be extremely reliable. This can mean that autistic people with these strengths often follow through with their promises, show up on time and complete tasks thoroughly whilst meeting deadlines. Autistic people often thrive on predictability which can be a driving force in being honest and reliable. While reliability is a significant strength, it is important to recognise that not all individuals with autism possess this strength to the same degree and each individual with autism (or without autism) is unique.
Strength-based approaches to autism are increasing in research and practice. Such approaches are thought to improve well-being and mental health in autism. Additionally, a 2023 study by Taylor et al. found that autistic and non-autistic people reported similar strengths but autistic participants reported less external awareness and utilisation of their strengths compared to non-autistic people. The paper highlights the importance of autistic people understanding their own strengths and having the opportunity to utilise these abilities. The top ten strengths reported by autistic participants in the study were:
- Pattern recognition
- Using technology
- Logical thinking
- Attention to detail
- Academic ability
- Problem solving
- Adherence to routines
- Understanding systems
- Repetitive work
Breaking down barriers
There are also some barriers autistic individuals may face, often related to communication. They may require adjustments and adaptations to process and understand language (including non-literal language), express themselves, understand non-verbal communication and engage in neurotypical social routines. Further, some autistic people may have differences around receptive language, meaning they may not always comprehend what is being said to them. Some autistic individuals may have a delay in their ability to understand language and they might find it hard to process multiple sources of information at the same time, making it difficult for them to understand conversations in a noisy or stressful environment. It is important adaptations and adjustments are considered to ensure that effective communication takes place.
33% of the general population experience sensory challenges and this can also be a significant aspect of autism. It is important to note that everyone has different sensory preferences, some autistic people may have heightened or reduced sensitivity to certain stimuli such as light, sound, touch or smell. For example, someone with a heightened sensitivity to sound might find it difficult to concentrate or communicate in an environment where there are lots of different noises. What may trigger sensory overload for one person, may not be bothersome for another, also sensory preferences may change.
It is important to understand someone’s sensory preferences and then adapt environments to accommodate these sensitivities by taking measures such as, reducing noise levels, adjusting lighting, providing sensory stimulation (e.g., fidget objects) to help create a sensory-friendly environment for autistic people. To find out more about different sensitivities check out the Autism Speaks website.
Autism at court
At Communicourt, we often work with autistic individuals in the court system. We see first-hand the difficulties faced by autistic people who are navigating the often overwhelming and confusing legal landscape. Court hearings and trials can be especially stressful with complex legal procedures, shifting timescales, unfamiliar processes and an environment that may prove challenging for some autistic people. These factors can lead to overwhelm, misunderstanding and miscommunication, which can have serious consequences.
In addition, the court environment can heighten some common autistic characteristics. Meltdowns or shutdowns may result from highly stimulating environments (such as a court environment) or situations which result in high anxiety levels.
When an autistic person is having a meltdown, they often feel extremely anxious and distressed, which may be misinterpreted as frustration, non-compliance, or anger. It is important to understand when a meltdown is happening and to support an autistic person through this process. Meltdowns can be very emotionally draining and physically tiring and, therefore, someone who has experienced this may need to take a break before they can continue processing information.
Shutdowns can also occur in overwhelming situations. During a shutdown, a person may partially or completely withdraw. If an autistic person is experiencing a shutdown, they will likely be unable to take in any more information and they may not respond to communication anymore. A break may be necessary, so the individual has time to withdraw and recover.
We work to ensure that autistic people have their needs accommodated and voices heard. Our goal is to ensure all of our service users receive bespoke support to enable effective participation in legal proceedings. It is important to focus on the individual and their unique experiences, strengths, differences, preferences and boundaries. This might include recommending alternative forms of communication or suggesting adaptations that can help autistic people feel more comfortable and confident in the courtroom. For example, considering the sights, sounds and environment. Visual aids such as pictures, timelines or written words may also help some autistic people understand verbal information and communicate more effectively.
Happy Autism Acceptance Week!
During Autism Acceptance Week, it is essential to celebrate and raise awareness of autism. Let’s continue to break down barriers and create a more inclusive society for all. Autism affects each person differently; we should approach each autistic person with an open mind and recognise their unique strengths and challenges. Roy T. Bennett wrote in his book The Light in the Heart, “We are all different. Don’t judge, understand instead”.
If you are a legal professional looking to improve your practice when assisting autistic clients, download our free guide to autism at court from The Access Brief.