BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – Imagine visiting a foreign country where customs are nothing like what you’re used to.

Say or do “the wrong thing,” and you may unintentionally signal romantic interest or the desire to start a fight. To avoid social blunders, you study the behavior of natives and use what you observe to try and fit in.

Would all of that make you feel a little anxious?

Well, this scenario is not very different from what many people with autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, experience.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability. People with ASD may communicate and interact in ways that are different from most other people,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

ASD and social situations

These differences can make some people with ASD feel like they don’t quite fit in, even among friends and family. Because of how a person with autism processes information, they might find some jokes more puzzling than funny. Though highly intelligent, they may miss the subtext in a tactful comment.

Johanna Schroth is a Louisiana resident who was in her twenties when she learned she had ASD. Schroth advised, “Don’t assume that we feel, think, or do things, for the same reason that a neurotypical does.”

She added that if a loved one has ASD it’s important to note that, “meltdowns and repetitive behaviors are due to anxiety.”

Schroth suggested, “Try to reduce anxiety as much as possible. Most important of all is to make sure the person knows they are loved and accepted.”

Of course, not everyone with ASD has the same symptoms.

Ryan Schexnaydre is a gamer and writer from Baton Rouge. He was diagnosed with autism in his early twenties.

Schexnaydre said, “It’s called a spectrum for a reason, and everyone with autism or Asperger’s is unique in their own way. Each with their own struggles and their own strengths.”

Daniene Neal, a psychologist who serves as the Clinical Director of Gulfsouth Autism Center, described behaviors typically associated with ASD.

“Symptoms of autism can vary greatly among individuals in both type and severity,” Neal said. “However, there are two main symptom areas of autism: social-communication and repetitive, restrictive behaviors.”

Neal went on to list some of the symptoms linked with ASD:

  • Delayed expressive communication
  • Problems understanding verbal and non-verbal communication from others
  • Difficulties with social interactions
  • Resistance to changes in routine or environment
  • Stereotypical behaviors like hand flapping, lining up items and spinning

Common misconceptions

When asked what he wished more people knew about ASD, Schexnaydre said, “Troubles that many neurotypical people take for granted. Reading and understanding the social cues, not having to think two steps in advance just to fit into a situation. It’s an interesting journey if only more people would take the time to learn.”

Making time to learn about ASD means getting information from the right sources. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about autism.

Neal described two common misconceptions.

“Vaccines cause autism. This misconception started in the late ’90s with a study by Andrew Wakefield, who found a link between the MMR vaccine and autism; this study was later retracted. This finding has not since been substantiated,” said Neal.

She went on to list another false belief, “‘Autism can be cured. Autism is not a disease that can be cured but rather a neurodevelopmental condition that can and should elicit individualized supports, rather than a cure or treatment.”

Maria Davis-Pierre, a licensed mental health counselor who was diagnosed with ASD when she was 38, described the best way to learn about autism and support people who have it. “Listen to the community,” she said. “Understand that we are not to be cured. Autism is a part of who we are.”

How to support people with ASD

Schexnaydre added another way friends and family members can show support, “Help them find their strengths and assist in honing those strengths any way you can. Besides, people on the spectrum might look at the world in a different way, but sometimes they might see things you somehow miss.”

Most of us want to be seen for who we are as individuals, and people with ASD are no different.

“Autism does not define one as a person,” Schroth said,

Davis-Pierre explained that when people learn she has autism, sometimes their reactions are unpleasant.

“(They) say, ‘You don’t look like you have autism.’ Autism doesn’t have a look. And just because I’m autistic doesn’t mean that you can count me out or be so surprised by my accomplishments. I also don’t like when people find out my children are autistic, and they immediately feel sorry as if I just told them my child had a terminal illness,” she said.

Autism and depression

Standing out as different can lead to feelings of isolation or increased anxiety.

“Autism and depression are frequently co-occurring, but the rate has been found to vary between 2% to 30%,” Neal said. “Although there is not a single explanation, one could be due to the awareness autistic individuals have of their differences in social communication compared to their peers. These differences may make creating peer relationships more difficult or could lead to bullying by classmates and peers.”

Schroth has personal experience with this.

“I’ve had clinical depression and anxiety my whole life,” Schroth said. “I tried to tell my parents when I was around 9, but I was just at that awful age. No one took it seriously until I was failing high school when I was 16.”

Neal said supporters can be helpful by accommodating friends and family members with ASD. But she added, “Not every symptom or behavior of an autistic individual requires intervention. The focus should be on what is important to that person and what will make a significant improvement to their quality of life.”

Davis-Pierre said one way loved ones can help is by, “Being more inclusive and not thinking we are not capable.”

“Just because we may be non-speaking, doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to say,” Davis-Pierre said.

Many people with ASD are finding ways to express themselves and educate their communities about autism. Davis-Pierre is the president and CEO of Autism in Black Inc. Schroth is learning to be a self-advocate, with the goal of becoming a public speaker. When Schexnaydre is not busy writing or gaming, he’s out and about in Baton Rouge, enjoying weekly trivia nights or karaoke.