“Mildly” Autistic: What does this mean for the individual?

Nov 30, 2016

If you have it (Autism) mildly, you are at the awkward mid-point of being “normal enough” for everyone to expect the same from you as everyone else, but “autistic” enough not to reach these expectations.

Chris Bonelli – autisticnotweird.com

Hot air balloon being inflatedReading this got me thinking; when a child is “mildly autistic’, or in the old DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has “Aspergers”, their family, friends, and others would not necessarily know – unless the child and his/her parents decide to share the knowledge.

This then places the individual with “mild autism” sometimes in situations of extreme stress and dilemma.  Occasionally even their immediate family can “forget” or overlook that the person has autism.  This is because most of the time the person is functioning well. They may only experience sensory “overloads” when they are extremely tired, hungry or over-exposed to the stimuli that causes the sensory overload.

This often leads to situations where the person’s family gets annoyed with them, and can cause frustration for the person on the autistic spectrum and the rest of his/her immediate family.

For example, the family may go out to dinner with their extended family who may or may not know that the individual has autism.  The child who is “mildly autistic” is particularly tired and hungry when they arrive at the restaurant but they have failed to communicate this to their parents.

When deciding what to order, the child asks for a particular favourite item on the menu that everyone likes.  The mother, knowing that her autistic child really likes this item, orders what she thinks is ample for everyone plus additional for her child.

Well into the meal, the item has been demolished by everyone.  The child then has a meltdown and starts crying stating how they only got to have one portion and how they had in their mind that they were going to have three.

The mother, who is embarrassed, reacts by chastising her child and makes her child feel as if she is disappointed in them. This then leads to a further meltdown by the child who then makes comments to the effect of how they are not good enough and how stupid they are.

This is an all too common scenario.  The child’s self-esteem is now affected, as children on the spectrum often have low self-esteem and feelings of anxiety and depression.

This is a real concern when individuals are “mildly autistic”, even though the parents generally will be really well informed and supportive of their child.  Naturally for the mother, other factors come into play such as the tolerance and tiredness levels she is experiencing at the time, and any other external stresses.

What I find interesting is when a child is at this “mild end” of the spectrum and have “high executive functioning” how easy it is to forget that the individual has autism at all. Then depending on the individual’s day, levels of tiredness and exposure to overwhelming sensory stimuli, their nervous system may be put into “overdrive” and the smallest incident will set them off into a full meltdown. This can lead to depression anxiety for the individual where they self-doubt and self-loathe.

I then wonder why do we expect our children on the spectrum to be the models of excellence around age-appropriate maturity, when we ourselves often choose age-inappropriate behaviour, interests or activities? Even in this example, the mother chastising her child in such a way that the child knows the mother is disappointed in them – rather than the mother focusing on the behaviour and commenting on what she did not like about the behaviour (rather than the individual).  The mother’s reaction will have a profound effect on her child’s self-esteem and confidence.

As a society we care too much about other people’s ideas of what is and is not appropriate in regards to behaviour, rather than the effect our actions and behaviour will have on the ones we should love and support the most.