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How Do I Explain Autism to Someone Who Has Never Heard of it?

A typical conversation:

“Autism? Oh yeah I have heard about it. It’s like Rain Man, right?”




“Not exactly”.

Rain Man movie about Autism Spectrum Disorder

Explaining Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to somebody who has never heard of it can be a struggle. There are so many different aspects of ASD that may apply to someone else, but not to you or your child.  If you have a child that has been newly diagnosed with ASD, figuring out how to explain it to a friend, family member, or even a random stranger (god forbid) will take some time.  To help you get your own version of it down, here are a few bases to cover:

It is classified as a Neurodevelopmental Disorder

To put it simply, people with autism are wired differently.  A common metaphor used to explain it to the newer generation is to use the game systems metaphor.  What would happen if you took a Nintendo Wii game and tried to put it into an Xbox console? It wouldn’t quite work the same.  Its success is only relative to its environment, or the game system it is being utilized in. 

Once people understand that there are inherent differences between the ways that individuals with autism interpret their surroundings, bodies and minds; then, a much more empathetic approach can be taken.

Many of the characteristic traits of autism like stimming, repetitive sounds and avoiding eye contact can be attributed as habits that help or calm people with autism.

This video sums it up perfectly:

Dear Teacher: Heartfelt Advice for Teachers from Students from Brain Highways on Vimeo.

Autism is commonly associated with Sensory Disorders

Our senses are the mediums in which we process our world.  If you are born being hypersensitive to sound, or hyposensitive to touch, then this can affect whether you are comfortable in a grocery store or whether you want to wear certain tight clothes.  Understanding what sensory disorders are is a crucial aspect of Autism Spectrum Disorder that people need to be aware of.  A neurotypical person who is unaware or does not completely understand the realities of having a sensory disorder may attribute this behavior to being stubborn, spoiled or picky.  This can lead to a child being scolded for something that's out of their control, which contributes to a negative self-image.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

It’s a spectrum

I don’t know how many times this can be said, but it can’t be stressed enough.  Just like with neurotypical people, there are all kinds of shapes, sizes and personalities.  What you see on Rain Man is just one example - one that features a savant. ASD individuals can be verbal or non-verbal too.  Rarely in this world is there a one size fits all approach and Autism Spectrum Disorder exemplifies this.  Calling it anything other than a spectrum is a disservice and essentially paints the term with too broad a brush stroke.

So, when speaking on the topic, be sure to mention and clarify that what is true for an individual is not necessarily true for others.  All you can do is describe what autism is, relative to you or the person you know who has it.

Frame autism in a way that focuses on what they can do

Autism so often gets clumped in with a negative stigma, which is then closely followed by pity and denial.  This mindset doesn't help anybody.  Acceptance of what is can be the first step in doing something positive.  If you focus on what someone with autism can do, and what their strengths are, that eventually makes them believe it as well and you may be surprised at how special they truly are. 

Here is an insightful article by Teresa and Erik Hedley: a mother and teen son duo with autism that write about how they have worked on their expectations together and because of this, have grown by leaps and bounds. 

 Inspirational Autism Spectrum Disorder Quote

If you liked this article, check out these:

I Have Autism and I Need Your Help: Labels
Autism-Friendly Holiday Tips
What is Tactile Dysfunction?
Autism and Bullying: What Can We Do?


Written by Ryan Leung — December 22, 2015

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