Tracey Spicer: We need to change the language surrounding autism

He was always different.

From the time he was a toddler, Ronan had trouble maintaining eye contact, played with toys in an unusual way, and was prone to sudden outbursts of anger. Was it the Terrible Twos? We didn’t know. My sister and her husband soon had a second child, then a third: life took over.

But the questions remained. Why was he transfixed by cords at the back of the computer? How could he play Lego for days at a time? And what caused the jerky arm movements?

Tracey’s nephew Ronan.
Tracey’s nephew Ronan. Photo: Supplied

Suzanne and I are extremely close – born on the same date, three years apart. So, we talked. And talked. And talked.

Diagnosis is difficult: it requires a team of specialists. Every child, and adult, on the autism spectrum displays disparate behaviour (when you think about it, don’t we all?). But society has strict constructs: especially at school.

A lack of focus, inappropriate actions, and disruptive demeanour prompted a diagnosis. This led to a series of sessions with a pediatrician, psychologist, and occupational therapist.

Put simply, it worked: there was a deeper understanding of the condition; Ronan could hold a conversation; and he learned strategies to cope with change.

This is why Autism Spectrum Australia offers a Diagnostic Assessment Service for autism in children, adolescents and adults. Aspect works with more than 12,000 people a year, in the largest autism specific education program in the world. It’s life-changing work. But we also need to look at the language.

“A person’s disability should not be the focus of that person’s description,” says Aspect CEO, Adrian Ford. “By dropping the word ‘disorder’, we hope to encourage understanding and acceptance for the differences of people on the spectrum.”

An emotive 90-second film clip, called ‘A Different Brilliant’, celebrates another ‘D’ word.

14-year-old Callum is a puzzle whiz, representing the unique talent for visual problem-solving, possessed by some on the spectrum.

Four-year-old Chelsea designs her own superhero outfits because, with sensitive nerve endings, she delights in fabrics that are familiar to touch.

And 29-year-old Alexandra is depicted in a café, gazing out the window, finding a safe place in her mind to block out the cacophony.

“So often, wonderfully talented, brilliant people on the autism spectrum are overlooked by society as being odd, or quirky, or obsessive,” Adrian Ford says. “We hope to inspire a wider understanding and respect for how these people are just like you and me, in many ways, but with their own uniquely brilliant take on the world.”

In Australia, more than one in 100 people are on the spectrum. Today, on World Autism Awareness Day, let’s look at the vibrancy of this community through a prism of colour.

Hashtag #coloursforautism on selfies and social media posts. Check for what’s happening in your area. Iconic buildings, including the Cape Byron Lighthouse, will be lit up with all the colours of the rainbow. Really, it’s a celebration of diversity.

Last weekend, I stayed at my sister’s place. Ronan couldn’t wait to show us posters, featuring the inner workings of spacecraft in the Star Wars movies. His passion, attention to detail, and sheer delight were wonderful to behold. So was his gentle hug: “I love you, Aunty Tracey.”

Of course, there will always be challenges. But perhaps it’s time to focus on the everyday joys of a ‘different brilliant’.

Tracey Spicer is the new Ambassador for Autism Spectrum Australia, the country’s largest not-for-profit provider of services and support. Aspect assists with diagnosis, school support, and adult services. At the moment, autism has no known causes, and no cure.