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"Like being in a train station in downtown Beijing" - what it's like to live life with autism

21-year-old Adam Harris was diagnosed with autism when he was just five. He says it’s time Ireland learned to understand and engage with the condition.

shutterstock_405544870 Source: Shutterstock/Anton_Ivanov

HOW MUCH DO you know about autism?

For most of us, it’s an abstract concept, something Hollywood might treat in a predictably ill-informed manner. But autism is very real. It’s estimated that 48,000 Irish people have the condition. That’s one in every hundred.

Fundamentally autism is a developmental disorder, a condition that impacts on a person’s ability to interact with their environment. An autistic person will develop differently to what might be considered the norm.

Creating awareness regarding autism is what 21-year-old Adam Harris does. As head of charity AsIAm, he has been working tirelessly towards that end. He should know better than most – Harris is himself autistic. He describes the condition in a more accessible way.

“Imagine you suddenly find yourself in a train station in downtown Beijing – the place is so noisy you can’t hear yourself think and no one speaks your language. All you want to do is get on a train and leave,” Harris told TheJournal.ie. “That’s an example of how an autistic person might perceive the world.”

adam Adam Harris

There is no one definition of autism though. Everyone experiences it in different ways. You might say you speak the language, but you’ve learned it from a textbook, whereas everyone else speaks it fluently. What we do is about gaining day to day accessibility for people with the condition.

Harris himself was diagnosed as being autistic at a relatively early age, although he mentions that many people are not so diagnosed until their teenage years. By age 13 he had become comfortable enough with his condition to attend school without an educational support.

Adam briefly attended college to study social science, but left his course with the establishment of AsIAm. The charity is now the entirety of his focus – something which can play into the hands of someone with autism.

“They say when you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism,” he says. “It’s different for everybody and everybody is different.”

But there can be advantages. In my case, the condition is totally part of me. It lets me focus on one thing and I mean really, really focus. I’m very creative and can think outside the box. All this helps my work today. Autism lends itself to hyperactivity so you can have lots of energy.

It’s not all positive as you might imagine. That heightened level of focus goes hand in hand with poor concentration and very high levels of anxiety.

“You’re in the train station,” says Adam. “So long as there are signposts everywhere showing you the way out you can be calm. But if one of those signs is missing, the stress is acutely heightened.”

Adam himself handles situations in which he is feeling overwhelmed by ‘stimming’ – that is, self-stimulatory behaviour. That can be as simple as flapping one’s arms, or pacing around in a circle. He describes it as being like when a computer engages its fan, to cool down its processors.

“If I’m in a very busy place with lots of noise and I can’t hear myself think, I’ll stim,” he says. “So I might run around in circles to give myself relief.”

The problem is if you don’t know what that is that can look, well, unusual, and be easily misunderstood.

Harris’ work now concerns creating awareness in Ireland regarding autism. He says that Irish people are naturally understanding and inclusive (“it’s in our nature”) but that the support provided here is “very binary”.

asiam Source: Facebook

“You have to understand that everyone is different – and labeling is disempowering,” he says.

It stops people reaching their potential. We need to make society more accessible. Like for an autistic person who is well qualified but dislikes eye contact, a job interview can be very difficult.
We socialise but we do it in a different way. Our work is about creating the tools for those affected to reach their potential.
That knowledge hasn’t been mainstreamed before so people know how to be properly inclusive, in a way that works for someone with autism. This is a message that hasn’t been delivered before – and it’s so important that it does get delivered.

This weekend AsIAm is holding its first National Autism Conference in Dublin Castle. The event is entirely sold out, with 350 people expected to attend.

For Adam, the event is about “keeping the autism community at the centre of the conversation”.

“It’s to be a really autism-friendly event,” he says. “70 of those attending the conference are adults living with the condition – for a lot of them such social situations are hard to imagine or comprehend.”

So we have an email with everything in the itinerary set out in detail. There’s a colour-coding system – green, amber, red – which indicates whether an attendee wants to talk or not.
Everyone at the conference will have earplugs. There is to be no perfumes or aftershave as some with the condition find strong smells difficult to deal with.
There will be quiet rooms and sensory rooms for people to de-stress if things get a little overwhelming. And we’re making the room as easy to navigate as possible given a lot of people with the condition think visually.

This has all been achieved at no extra cost to the event, something Adam is justifiably proud of.

“We include the community, and what this shows is that if we can do it anyone can do it,” he says.

And that should show others the way forward with autism also.
After all it’s in people’s interests to do so. There are an awful lot of people with this condition in Ireland. Learning how to best engage with autism makes sense for everyone.

AsIAm’s national conference takes place at Dublin Castle this Saturday, 16 April, from 9.30am. The theme of the conference is “empowering potential”. You can view the day’s itinerary here.

Read: Here are ten things you can do for people with autism that won’t cost you a penny

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