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We need to talk about autism. It’s not what it looks like

How visual cues can help us better understand children with different abilities

Images are powerful. They can shape the way you see the world around you – even for something as misconceived as autism. As a data scientist and a family member of a young person with autism, I know strong, evocative visuals can bring a deeper understanding to a developmental ability that affects approximately 1 in 44 children in the United States today.

To mark World Autism Awareness Month in April, I created an illustration using Adobe Fresco to bring to life the abstract – and commonly misunderstood – concept of autism. I began by sketching a silhouette of a girl. I gave her a long dress that runs to the ground. To give her dress texture and pattern, I drew alphabets in different colors. The alphabets represent the diverse abilities of children with autism. I then gave her a companion, a teddy bear.

The world can be a confusing place for individuals on the spectrum, who find themselves at odds with everyday norms we grew accustomed to. I drew lines above her head to illustrate this thinking and added strokes to represent uncertainty.

One of the main issues faced by children with autism is effective social communication. The picture cards in the illustration represent the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). PECS is a form of functional communication that uses visual symbols to prompt non- or pre-verbal children to communicate their needs in the absence of speech. The cards include common everyday items – food, clothing, clock and toothbrush, favorite things (book, piano, and bicycle), or objects in public spaces, such as a car, and a shopping trolley at the supermarket.

As people with autism may experience sensory overload in crowded places, I gave the girl noise-canceling headphones as the final touch.  

This illustration helps explain what goes through a child with autism’s mind when they interact with others. Children with autism not only face difficulties in expressing themselves but also in understanding what others say to them.

Why? One study showed that children with autism may not be as sensitive to speech. Using brain scans of children with autism, scientists discovered that the voice-selective cortex in the left-brain hemisphere was weakly connected to brain regions associated with rewards. If young people with autism do not find speech stimulating, making speech communication more engaging might help.

Seeing the world through the experience of a person with autism is easier said than done. But we can start by tackling social communication. Language is, after all, an important force that unites (or divides) people and communities.

For children struggling with language, we can use visual cues to motivate them to use speech. My personal favorite is magnetic drawing boards. They are erasable and come with different color areas that can double up as sensory stimuli.

I also drew inspiration from animated character, Mirabel Madrigal in Disney’s Encanto to create an animated video of the illustration I drew. Mirabel, the leading character, was the only person in her family without a magical gift, while everyone in the family line received magical powers when they came of age. Mirabel’s experience as an outsider to one of her own mirrored what a person with autism might experience. She couldn’t fit in with the rest of her family, just like the struggles faced by people with autism when navigating the neurotypical world.

The video sheds light on an experience of a person navigating autism; it’s impossible to walk a mile in their shoes.

I encourage you to move beyond awareness to acceptance, and finally, action. Practice different ways of sharing ideas that consider the many abilities of people with autism.

Avoid the temptation of minimizing another person’s challenges. Keep an open mind, cherish differences and exercise patience. Become a true ally and advocate.

Let’s be deliberate and thoughtful in our actions toward people with autism beyond April.


Alvina G. Lai is an associate professor, data scientist, illustrator, science communicator, and content creator for the Zero to Data Science YouTube channel. She leads a Health Informatics group at University College London and has won multiple awards for her research, including a recent award from the Royal College of Physicians. Her work has also been featured in a BBC Panorama Documentary.

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