April, A Month To Think About Autism

April is the international month of autism, a lifelong neurological condition that affects around 2.7% of the world’s population. Several events will be organised in Brno throughout the month, including the illumination of two buildings in blue on the evening of 2 April. Brno Daily will be publishing a series of articles every Saturday of this month with a different point of view on this topic in Czech Republic, through reportage or interviews. Photo credit: Hana Rodná.

Brno, 2 April (BD) – In some cases, autism is explained by genetic features, hereditary or not. In other cases it develops due to environmental factors, such as exposure to certain chemical substances during pregnancy. In some cases, the current state of our knowledge about the condition cannot provide explanations. However, even without understanding everything, the most important priority is to allow people affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders to live the best and fullest life possible, via understanding and including them in society. For this reason, there is not only a World Autism Awareness Day, on 2 April, but also an entire Autism Acceptance Month, which lasts the whole month of April.

Light in blue!

The colour blue is often used as a symbol of autism awareness because it symbolises communication and self-expression, areas in which people with autism face additional challenges. The initiative “Light Czechia in blue”, started in 2014, and involves the illumination of important buildings in blue, along with many other places in the world. The City of Brno will participate this year by illuminating in blue the Moravák building on Moravské namesti, as well as the building of the Regional Office of the South Moravian region on Žerotínovo namesti.

The month launched yesterday, 1 April, with HC Kometa Brno dressed in blue for the occasion. Today, if you have can brave the snow, there will be a day-long charity event at Piknik Box, in Björnsonův sad. Among other things, chefs who appeared as finalists on Czech Masterchef will be cooking there and actors from the municipal theatre, dressed in blue, will perform sketches. Finally, there will also be performances by artists with autism, including a music group. You can find more information at https://www.varimprodobrouvec.cz/.

Several cultural events will then be organized at the Blue Café in the Moravák building on Moravské namesti throughout the month. For example, on 26 April at 4pm, there will be the opening of the exhibition “Rozumění”, which will exhibit the artworks of Brno artists on the autistic spectrum.

Young painter Hana Rodná, herself on the autism spectrum, designed the logo for the autism awareness campaign of NAUTIS, the national autism institute. The slogan reads “We are not from another planet, we live here with you”. She also shared some of her drawings with Brno Daily on the occasion of World Autism Awareness Day. Image credits: Hana Rodná.

Last but not least, every Saturday this month you will find an article on the subject of autism in Brno Daily, starting next week with an interview with a researcher from Brno University Hospital.

Neurodevelopmental or mental health conditions?

But, to start from the beginning, what is autism exactly? Autism impacts many different neurological functions, so its manifestations range from physical clumsiness to sensory hypersensitivity, and from difficulty with organisation to challenges using language. Moreover, each of all these symptoms vary greatly from person to person. Some will encounter great difficulties in one area, but not in another, and vice versa. The need for support also varies greatly, with some adults becoming fully independent, starting a family or finishing higher education, while others continue to need substantial support. Also, some manifestations of autism are qualities, including honesty, better attention to detail, and an original, out-of-the-box way of thinking. This is why the official name is Autism Spectrum Disorder, the term spectrum highlighting the variety of possible manifestations of these conditions.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, which is something different from a mental health condition, even if it is often mistakenly considered as such. Autism, unlike mental illnesses, has no psychological cause, connected with the individual’s experience, but is present from the first months of life, or even before birth according to some research. It affects the way the brain grows, meaning that the brain develops differently than in most people, and resulting in a different way of reasoning and perceiving the world. 

Autism is also a permanent characteristic, like a person’s hair colour or height, and autistic children become autistic adults. Adequate care, on the other hand, allows the person to grow in the best conditions to cope. But what is above all important to understand is that an autistic person may be in perfect health, even if they retain their peculiarities and remain autistic, as their brain is “wired” in a different way. This is why autism is not considered to be disease, but rather as a disability, or simply as a condition. 

However, autistic people are more likely to develop mental health problems, but as an indirect, secondary consequence of their challenges. Life can indeed often turn out to be more stressful for them, because of their differences. For example, autistic children are more likely to be bullied at school, which can later lead to anxiety or depression.

“Since childhood, I have the feeling that we all have invisible antennas through which we communicate. My antenna is broken. Although it somewhat flickers, receives and sends some amount of signal, it is often not enough. I sit with friends and watch how difficult I get to talk to more people and I don’t know how to get involved.” Images Credits: Hana Rodná

Myths and prejudices

Another thing that can complicate the lives of autistic people is myths and prejudices. One of the most common is that they lack empathy. However, the reality is quite different. What we call empathy actually combines several distinct functions. What is usually impaired in autism is the ability to read facial expressions, as well as the ability to guess the thoughts and intentions of others. This represents what might be considered the first stage of empathy. The second step, which consists in feeling the emotions of others, after having identified them, is not affected by autism and can even, according to some research, be exacerbated due to the extreme sensitivity of the people concerned. Autistic people would therefore be equipped with an empathy, often awkward, but overflowing.

Other myths and stereotypes abound. According to popular belief, autistic people are all good at maths and do not enjoy the company of others. This may be true for individuals, depending on temperament, but is not always the case, nor is it specific to autism. Most autistic people seek instead to bond, despite the difficulties they may encounter. Autism is therefore not an aversion to social relationships, but those on the autistic spectrum can experience a difficulty in establishing them. 

On the left “little genius”, “gifted child”. On the right “problematic student”, “pupil with special needs”. Images Credits: Hana Rodná

More and more children diagnosed with autism?

A third myth is that autism was initially a very rare condition that is increasing dramatically. Although a small increase in the actual incidence, due to the increasingly advanced age of parents or environmental factors such as pollution, cannot be excluded, the main reason for the exponential increase in the number of diagnosed children lies in the evolution of diagnostic techniques. Firstly, advances in knowledge have made it possible to refine the diagnostic criteria and thus to recognize the more subtle forms of autism, whereas before only the cases presenting the strongest symptoms were diagnosed as such. Second, testing is being carried out more systematically, on a larger scale. Professionals such as school teachers or general practitioners are better informed, which allows them to guide parents. Also, the diagnosis is now less stigmatizing than a few years ago, so parents are less afraid to take their children to be tested. Finally, recent research has shed light on the issue of autism in women. It was previously considered that women were much less often affected by autism, but research is leading specialists to gradually realize that women have different, sometimes more subtle symptoms than men. A scientific bias, as is unfortunately apparent in many other medical fields, had been established because studies have been mainly carried out on men.

Pieces of puzzles are one symbol of autism. Image Credit: Hana Rodná

People with autism or autistic people?

Another change taking place about autism is the way we think about it. The autistic community is increasingly speaking out for itself, claiming the right to be different and for autism to be considered as more than a flaw, as a part of their personality that they would not want to change. This movement, autism advocacy, takes its roots from the academic side, particularly in disability studies. In the same way that the deaf community defends its culture as part of human heritage, of its diversity, not to be eradicated, the autistic community seeks to highlight its value. This change in way of thinking is also reflected in vocabulary. While “people first” (people with autism) was previously preferred, more and more people are choosing to define themselves as an “autistic person”, in order to insist on the fact that autism is a part of themselves, of their identity, of which they have chosen not to be ashamed.

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