Autism Awareness Month: Community members share experiences


Sam DeSmith Jr. Psychology

Maybe you are someone that has a loved one on the autistic spectrum. Maybe you have taken a few special education courses and feel you have a solid grasp on the ins and outs of autism. Maybe you feel you know autism like the back of your hand because you are diagnosed with it. Autism is present in many of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.

The month of April is Autism Awareness Month, a time to share resources and learn about the autistic experience. Information gathered from Special Education professors, YouTube videos about life with autism and, most importantly, a one-on-one interview about the autistic experience with a CWU student, showed that autism is unique and individuals are not defined by their diagnosis.

According to, a website written by Lydia X. Z. Brown ho is on the autistic spectrum, autism is a neurological, developmental condition that has a lifelong duration. Those on the autistic spectrum often show distinguishable differences in sensory or information processing, social skills, learning and communication styles.

The diversity of autism

In the pursuit of understanding what it means to be autistic, one will find that autism cannot be simplified. 

“It’s such a broad term,” junior in psychology Sam DeSmith said. “It affects people in so many different ways… It’s on such varying levels to where I’ve met other people that are on the spectrum. They’re not like me, and I’m not like them.”

Ableism, a bias favoring people who are able-bodied or don’t have disabilities, waters down the complexity of what is considered a disability. Many people have their own definition of autism.

“I actually don’t view the word autism as a disability,” DeSmith said. “I see it more as a modifier. In some ways, it is an enhancer of various abilities, and it kind of limits others.”

In a similar vein, Ethan Lisi in his “What it’s really like to have autism” TedTalk explained that comparing neurotypical people to those with autism is like expecting two separate consoles with different software to be able to read the same disks (i.e. Xbox and Playstation). Those with autism have their own gifts and strengths entirely different from those of many neurotypical people.  

When asked what the most misunderstood aspect of autism is, all of those interviewed answered similarly: autism is diverse. 

I don’t think anybody would claim to be an expert in autism, because everybody that I’ve had in my classes and have known in my experience is different,” said Assistant Professor in Education Development Teaching and Learning Tim Lawless. “That’s why it’s a spectrum disorder. It’s all over the place.” 

“It varies, because it’s highly responsive to the environment,” Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Supervision, and Educational Leadership Naomi Peterson said. “Additional stress and emotion can exacerbate it.” 

Addressing some misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about autism that CWU community members can collectively work to dismantle.

According to the YouTube video “What Women With Autism Want You To Know” on the women empowerment channel “Iris”, the idea that the autistic spectrum is linear is misguided. She explained that the variety of characteristics autism can bring to the table cannot be simplified into one spectrum, that each characteristic is on its own spectrum and autism is the 3-D model of what all of the individual spectrums look like.

Lawless said movies like “Rain Man” perpetuate stereotypes about the community that can be damaging, and stressed the importance of seeing each person with autism as a unique individual.

“People assume that everybody who has autism is like Dustin Hoffman in that movie,” Lawless said. “They’re not all savants that can memorize enormous amounts of information. They’re all unique human beings just like we are … but they have somewhat consistent issues that they deal with.”

Lawless said it’s crucial not to treat autism as something that needs to be cured or fixed.  

“Just be mindful that there isn’t a solution,” Lawless said. “And the most hated thing I think that people hear is, is there a cure? That’s really hurtful to people in the autism community because that’s just who they are. Looking to prevent that or cure that is very, very hurtful.”

According to Lisi’s TedTalk, if autism was regarded as a natural part of being human, the world could be designed to better accommodate everybody. 

“I am not ashamed of my autism,” Lisi said. “And I may not think like you or act like you, but I am still human and I am not diseased.”

According to Peterson, the diversity and inclusion conversation centering around identity, race and gender often excludes the “diversity of disability,” and she would like to see disability more in the forefront.

DeSmith recommended teaching students about autism, finding exposure to people with autism and engaging with the autistic community early on in life, so people can be less susceptible to harmful biases and discrimination, similar to the way that racism and sexism are now being introduced into curriculum for younger students. However, biases still exist within the system of diagnosing autism.

Intersections of gender and autism

Peterson pointed out in her interview that women are disproportionately diagnosed with neurodivergent disorders. In the article “What Women With Autism Want You To Know”, the majority of the women diagnosed with autism weren’t actually diagnosed until after their teenage years. Some women aren’t even diagnosed with autism until their late 30’s and early 40’s, according to the video. Women with autism are hardly represented in the media and go undiagnosed a majority of the time. 

According to Erin Digitale and Vinod Menon at the Stanford Medical News Center, women have less repetitive and restrictive behaviors making it more difficult to diagnose. Autism has historically been studied from the male perspective, and autistic men have shown to often have these types of characteristics, they said. Menon believes that there needs to be more research from the female perspective to better understand how the characteristics between male and female autism contrast with one-another. 

A major reason that women go undiagnosed is because they often don’t fit the stereotypes of people with autism. As Lisi explained in his TedTalk, many people assume that autistic people are male, unsociable, only really show interest in their special interests, don’t empathize, lack humor and “stim” openly. 

Many autistic people engage in “stimming” or “stims,” activities that stimulate the senses such as hand or arm flapping, repeating certain phrases or sounds and tactile “stimming,” which includes rubbing certain materials and textures, according to “Stimming” is a coping mechanism used to deal with overwhelming emotions like joy, anger or sadness.

While “stimming” is common, so is “masking” or “passing”: trying to hide autistic characteristics in order to fit in with neurotypical people, which puts a lot of pressure on autistic people.

How the community can be supportive

According to Lawless, the world is primarily built for neurotypical people and more accommodations for the autistic community would be beneficial, instead of expectations for the autistic community to modify who they are on a core level to fit in.

“It’s about changing,” Lawless said. “Changing the game so that it’s fair. Not everybody needs the same things. Making it equitable means making the accommodations so that that person can function because their needs are different than the person next to [them].” 

These accommodations can be made by simply becoming aware of what might set a person off, what they enjoy and how you can help them connect to learning in class, according to Lawless.

Lawless mentioned the Bookshare resource online as a possible tool for people with disabilities.

“Bookshare is free to anybody who has any kind of a diagnosis of a disability,” Lawless said. “It is basically any book you could conceive of read aloud by a professional reader. That’s absolutely free through the state of Washington.”

Peterson said the accessibility studies program teaches students to advocate for themselves and others, especially post-high school when individuals are no longer assigned federally-funded advocates to navigate the school system with. She said a universal design approach can be helpful for those on the spectrum.

“What’s interesting to me is if people have a universal design approach, and they think, how many different ways can this job get done?” Peterson said. “It makes it more possible for people who’ve got divergent ways of thinking to do the job and be contributing instead of excluding people if they don’t meet a narrow definition.”

Peterson said holding space for alternative solutions is a way to keep neurodivergent students engaged with flexibility. 

As the CWU community collectively learns about autism, remember to make connections with those who are on the spectrum or neurodivergent in some way, appreciate them and value their perspective, listen, respect their viewpoints and advocate with them when needed.