April - what does that make you think of? Spring, Easter, new beginnings? Did you know April is also Autism Awareness Month? As someone who has an autistic sibling of my own, I think April is a great opportunity for people to understand autism in order to support autistic people, and their families and friends.

Although autism is very different for each person, I asked Rebecca, a Year 12 autistic student at Wimbledon High School, if she would kindly answer some questions in order to provide some insight into what being autistic is like.

In order to introduce Rebecca I posed the question ‘When did you find out you were autistic?’ She first said that it was important people understood ‘I’ve always been autistic and always will be and I just want people to know that rather than a specific age', before continuing on with her diagnosis story: ‘I always knew that I was different. I had a lot of problems in primary school: I used to have very ‘physical’ meltdowns, would hide under desks and wouldn’t speak much. However, all of these were put down to my dad being/working in a different country. I had someone (a teaching assistant/senco) who would support me at school and come with me if I needed to leave. However, it was only when I was 15 and had a severe asthma attack that meant I was in hospital for a couple of days did anyone put a word (autism) to my behaviours and difficulties. The medical professionals looking after me in hospital noticed that I had many autistic traits and so referred me to be assessed. When I looked up autism, it all made sense and seemed so ‘me’. When I got diagnosed about 8 months later, I felt a huge sense of relief and I had an explanation for why I was different. Since then, it’s been an ongoing process to unmask, accept myself and find strategies to help me cope in a neurotypical world. I’m proud to be autistic.’

‘What do you find the most difficult about being autistic? - ‘The fact that other people don’t always accept me for who I am. Loud, noisy, and crowded environments are hard for me.’

Since people often focus on the negative impacts of autism, I asked 'Do you find there are any positives/advantages being autistic?' Rebecca responded with, 'The fact that I can spend quite a lot of time doing things I love. For example, when others get bored doing lots of maths questions, I can spend hours doing them, often enjoying them. Thinking differently is also often needed to solve problems. I also love the fact that I have special interests because I can spend a lot of time engaging in them and enjoying myself (mine are pandas and cricket).'

When asked ‘What is it like being autistic in a school with neurotypical children?’ Rebecca responded with ‘It’s hard - I’m not going to lie. Most people are generally quite accepting when they learn more but there are some who either forget or still have outdated and negative views about autism. I think that when I accepted myself for who I am and stopped comparing myself to others and working in a way that works for me then I could finally be alright being different. Some days are harder than others (particularly when there are loud building works) but overall, I’ve never known any different and it’s just my life.’

'Some of the difficulties with autism are social communication and social interaction, do you have difficulties in these areas and if so, do you have any coping strategies?' - 'I do. When I need to speak to someone, I ask to do it outside of noisy environments so that I can reduce the ‘stress’ that I’m experiencing at the time. I don’t force myself to make eye contact and often stim freely. If needed, I’ll ask to continue the conversation via email. I also have prepared flashcards if I need to explain my conditions or what’s going on (e.g. I’m overwhelmed because it’s very noisy, I can’t make eye contact etc.).'

Especially during Autism Awareness Month, it is important to not only understand autism but what people can do to help autistic people so I posed the question: ‘What can others do to help people on the autistic spectrum?’. ‘Suggest having conversations outside of noisy environments. Don’t judge us when we’re stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour such as rocking, chewing, flapping hands etc). As you get to know us, you’ll probably know when we are ‘happy stimming’ and when stimming is a method of trying to cope with the environment and we’d actually rather leave. Kindness and patience goes a long way. Ask the autistic person how best to support them and what they’d like you to do in certain situations (as you get to know them).’

Finally, I finished on the question: ‘If you would like people to know one thing about autism, what would it be?’ - ‘That autistic people are human and we deserve that respect. We are different not less.'

As Rebecca alluded to being able to spend lots of time doing things she loves, I also see this in my brother. His passion for the things he loves are unmatched. Take film - if I watch a film with my brother I guarantee he will know everything about it, from specific production dates throughout the process to both actors and concepts. Or reading - books, comics, magazines and even recreating some of his own - his creativity is something I admire.

Having an autistic brother has certainly opened my eyes. As Rebecca mentions, loud and busy places are overwhelming for him and communicating the way he feels about a situation can be daunting. However, knowing him well, it is now easier for me to tell when he’s finding an environment difficult and the importance of simply being patient and calm. I think it's just vital to remember that every person is important and we all need to live harmoniously together, everyone ultimately is different not less.