World Autism Awareness Day occurs every year on April 2nd. The United Nations says that over the past year, the “COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and heightened glaring inequalities around the world, especially when it comes to income and wealth distribution, access to health care, protection under the law, and political inclusion.”
Emma Burton, Modern Languages student at Swansea and President of Discovery SVS, is 21 years old and studying to become a teacher. She says, ‘I want to be able to help students who are struggling or who need support. I want to be there for them because when I was in school not a lot of the teachers were supportive of me.’
OR: What is it like to describe to someone else what Autism is?
EB: In my understanding Autism is a disorder that has 4 different categories it is a social disorder struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication. But also, sensory issues, it is being sensitive to sound, light or touch or on the opposite so being very insensitive. Something that is often misconceived is like the whole spectrum of like a line, and some people are either on the low end or the high end but that doesn’t exist. It’s more like a circle and people are at different points of the circle, for different parts of autism. I am academic, and I am in university so people think I am high functioning, but I do have quite severe sensory issues, I do struggle a lot with non-verbal communication and like gestures. In the autism community at the moment people are trying to get rid of low and high functioning stereotypical labels. It also depends on the day like some days I can go out and talk and do normal activities and then some days I can’t talk to people or look at anyone, can’t turn on my bedroom light because it is too bright, and it is like very much depends on the day.
OR: What has it been like to grow up with Autism?
EB: It was really difficult for me because I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in secondary school so all through primary school when academically I was very bright. My teachers wanted to put into the year above, but socialisation wise I didn’t have many friends because I didn’t see the need for friends, I didn’t have any socialisation with anyone. I would upset people accidentally, they would ask me “am I fat?” I would respond yes if they were because I didn’t realise I was being blunt. I would get frustrated with my classmates because they weren’t as advanced as I was academically. So it was really hard and then when I went to secondary school the change was super difficult and I got bullied a lot because nobody knew I was autistic and obviously, I didn’t have a diagnosis then, so I got no support in school. The teachers weren’t helpful because they didn’t know themselves, they just thought I was an outcast, a loner and stuff. Once I got my diagnosis it was a lot better.
OR: What was the diagnosis process like as a female?
EB: Boys are a lot more diagnosed than girls, because autism shows up differently in girls and is often overlooked and blamed on girls just being “shy” or “sensitive”. For example, if a boy doesn’t want to get involved in playing with his friends that is noted as unusual, whereas it’s seem as normal for a girl to prefer quieter and more personal activities in smaller groups. Girls are also better at “masking” – copying other people’s behaviours and habits – which causes a lot of built up anxiety and mental health issues inside, whereas boys are more likely to have meltdowns or demonstrate antisocial behaviours so their autism is more obvious. Girls are more likely to be called attention seeking or being dramatic which is also another reason why we mask our symptoms and suffer in silence to the point where we hide it from teachers and professionals so it doesn’t get noticed or diagnosed. I’ve been called attention seeking by teachers and my family because I’ve had panic attacks or sensory overload or told I was deliberately alienating myself and being weird for attention when I struggled to socialise and make friends which is why it took me so long to get diagnosed and then encourages masking because I’m afraid other people will think those things about me.