My daughter is now more than half way through her primary school years and in a few short years she will face the transition to high school. She has come so far since the day she was diagnosed with autism exactly a week before her fifth birthday.
She reads fluently.
She writes beautifully.
She has a friend.
She talks in long sentences and can have a full conversation with me.
She is ‘doing well’ at school.
She no longer flaps in public, hides under tables or cries when people look at her.
She’s growing, maturing and slowly getting independent. So much so that an acquaintance recently asked me if she still had autism.
I wasn’t sure wether I should laugh or cry.
For anyone who is in any doubt: autism is a life long condition. You don’t ‘grow out of autism’ but you can learn to adapt and cope better. It is the latter that my daughter is mastering.
She has realised that others laugh and mock you when you flap in the school dinner hall so she soon stopped doing it. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to or need to she just knows it’s not the acceptable thing to do.
She has learned social chit chat enough that when people she is familiar with make small talk she no longer comes across as confused or ignorant. We have spent years working through different social scenarios to help her learn coping strategies. We have spent months on the same social story until she could reply with a simple ‘I’m good thanks’ to the question ‘how are you?’ As long as conversations continue as she has practiced she appears to be a fluent communicator.
She has learnt that not everyone loves to hear non stop information on the same subject. She has learnt that not everyone needs the same strict order of events as she does and that other children enjoy the change from routine even if she doesn’t. She understands what is expected of her and does her best to conform.
She hasn’t been cured of autism in any way, she has just learnt that to get by in life she needs to mimic non autistic people in order to survive.
As a society we are telling autistic people, wether we agree or not, that being non autistic is the best way to be. We start at a young age by placing as many autistic students, like my daughter, in mainstream school in the hope that other students will ‘bring them on’ and perhaps even ‘cure’ them. We may never actually say as much but we expect THEM to change and not the other way round. If a child is unable to hide their autism, mask their sensory issues, or cope with the demands of everyday school life we deem them a problem and educate them elsewhere like they have somehow failed.
My daughter has learnt to do what society expects of her. She mirrors her non autistic classmates in order to survive and so to onlookers it can easily be mistaken that she no longer has autism just because they can’t see her autistic traits any more.
You can not grow out of autism. It doesn’t happen. My daughter will one day be an autistic adult. She is proud of her autism. She knows she is autistic and she isn’t ashamed. Yet in school she could easily be mistaken as the same as her peers.
It’s called camouflage autism and it’s extremely common in school children and adults.
They can look, act and talk like non autistic people but that doesn’t change the fact they are autistic.
The difference therefore between getting better at coping and growing out of autism is that the first is extremely common whilst the second is in fact impossible.
Just because I have spent years helping my child to cope in a world that is foreign to her does not mean she is cured.
Just because my child can make it through a day at school, or an adult can make it through a day at work does not mean they are not autistic.
They are autistic people all around you, living in your street, at your work, in the shopping centres and driving on the roads who have all developed ways to cope and live in a world that is different for them. They may appear the same but they aren’t. Camouflage autism is all around us, if only we knew.
Think of it this way. If an Australian came to live and work in the UK and over time lost their accent, their Australian ways of doing things and blended into UK culture would we no longer say they were Australian? Of course not.
So why do we think because an autistic child or adult is learning to cope better that they are suddenly no longer autistic?
Maybe if people really got to know others and embraced autism more we would see that while at times it is admirable to want to be like others it is also wonderful to be your true self too: autistic or not.