Autism: Rainbows Abound

Heather E. Sedlock

“Autism is a Rainbow” is one of several autism metaphors used by the autism community. These metaphors shape thoughts and beliefs about autism, and influence the actions of individuals. Metaphors also impact family members who have autism, as how their family members view them can influence how they view themselves.

To appreciate autism metaphors’ community influence, a definition of autism is necessary. Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder typically characterized by:

  • “Poor social interaction (this can include lack of eye contact, and social exchange, both verbal and non-verbal)
  • “Language delay (expressive language is equally important as receptive language; repetitive phrases and inability to initiate dialog or support it)
  • “Obsessive behavior (this can include inflexibility, repetitive physical movement and fixation on objects).*

Autism Is a Rainbow

The rainbow is an object of beauty, something to be seen and appreciated. There is nothing wrong with a rainbow. The rainbow metaphor is often expressed in the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of those in the autism community. The spectrum of colors in a rainbow also represents the wide range of abilities of people with autism.

There are six areas the “Autism Is a Rainbow” metaphor influences:

  • Research
  • Day-to-day life
  • Future planning
  • Treatment or accommodation
  • Conversation topics
  • Organizations and groups

The types of research supported by those who subscribe to the “Autism Is a Rainbow” metaphor usually focus on treatments or technology that will enhance the live of people with autism, not “fix” them. Metaphorically, research by this group would develop a new window cleaner, so a person can look more clearly at the rainbow through the window. More literally, research might create a new communication device for a nonverbal person with autism, instead of trying to “fix” the person so that he or she can communicate verbally.

The focus of day-to-day life is often on the little and big achievements by those who have autism, and on the “good” side of autism. A rainbow comprises a spectrum of bright colors and people in this group often view the day-to-day activities as bright experiences. They do acknowledge hard times, but the main message is about the progress made by adults and children on the autism spectrum, with less focus on the dark side. Some members of this group refuse to speak about or listen to anyone or anything that sheds a negative light in any way on autism. One does have to acknowledge the difficulties of autism in order to find adaptations or supports, but it is also good not to dwell too long on the negative. In other words, stop to smell the roses but be wary of the thorns.

Parents and caretakers often discuss future planning in this group. The options discussed include trust funds (in case person is unable to work), ongoing support, therapies, and so forth so that the individual can function just as they are. Other areas of need include education and vocational skills training. Because a rainbow is complete, there is nothing to add to it, but very specific circumstances must come together so it can shine, and its innate beauty can be appreciated.

Since rainbows are to be admired as is, treatment philosophies focus on technology and devices that assist a person, and minimize or mitigate only the negative aspects of autism. To represent this metaphorically, a treatment could be considered wind. If wind were to blow, the rain clouds move on, and a rainbow appears. This is in contrast to a negative view of autism as a “rain cloud.” So the treatments would include awareness and self-advocacy so that individuals with autism can educate others about how terrific they find having autism is.

Conversations on social media websites reflect the rainbow metaphor as well. Rather than focusing on what is missing from peoples’ lives, the conversations are about how those with autism feel and experience life, and about acceptance — by those with autism, and from parents’ perspectives. This is expressed in the metaphor by the “brightness” or positivity the rainbow represents. Since a rainbow is a thing to be admired, conversations in this group center around the admirable aspects of participating in the autism community.

Organizations exist for this group as well, such as ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network). However well the rainbow represents this community, the rainbow is not often used as a logo or symbol of pride because of its association with a different community: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT). Some have changed the colors slightly making them more pastel or a more saturated hue, but the logo usually contains another element to help limit any confusion.

Those with autism often miss metaphorical meanings but the impact of metaphorical conceptual thinking still affects them by affecting those around them. If a parent thinks of his or her child as a thing of beauty to behold, rather than a source of trouble and strife, the child will have a more positive view as well as more self-confidence.

*Hausman Morris, Robin. “What is Autism, part one.” Web. April 18, 2010.