Old article I wrote.
Autism: From the Inside Out
A primer and explanation from an autistic woman to a non-autistic audience.
Different types of Autism?
Autism runs on a spectrum of different levels of social ability, some call this ‘low functioning’ and ‘high functioning’. Personally I am not a fan of this because of the implication of ‘high functioning’ person being better or superior to a ‘low functioning’ individual.
Autism comes in many forms, from completely non-verbal and non-social
(the typical ‘autistic child’ you may have seen on tv.), to people with ‘HFA/Aspergers Syndrome’ and
Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS for short).
Are you all like Rainman?
Some of us are indeed gifted with superior ability in certain areas, from mathematics to languages to most anything you can think of.
But those of us with those abilities are in the minority of the Autistic population.
Most of us have particular special interests that we are incredibly knowledgeable about or remarkably talented at.
I myself can play piano to a concert level, as well as understand most anything electrical or mechanical. But basic math escapes me completely, I also have a fairly large obsession with “The Dresden Dolls” and exploitation films.
Sometimes these special interests can be a bit all encompassing. But when you find it hard to fit into an emotionally centred world, can you really blame us?
Facts are easy to process and understand and for us they can be things of joy giving us happiness on levels that face to face conversation at times barely even match.
The autistic activist Dr Temple Grandin once said ‘I am what I do’.
Which sums it up, we are defined by what we are good at.
Non-autistics are defined by social and emotional constructs, those are hard for us to grasp.
So that definition is found elsewhere.
What do you mean by different levels of social ability?
Here is a metaphor everyone can understand.
You don’t send a fashion designer to repair a toaster. (Although I’m sure out there somewhere is a very lonely fashion designer/toaster expert dying to be called upon)
Just as you don’t do that, you don’t send an Autistic person to do a Neurotypical persons ‘job’.
We are simply not wired that way.
Neurotypicals are highly social beings with an innate understanding (to varying degrees) of social communication; this includes things like reading body language such as facial expressions, body movements, tone of voice and eye contact. Most people on the autistic spectrum do not have this ability and as such have difficulty dealing with social groupings, politeness and appropriateness (though this I think has to do more with the judgement of others than the autistic people themselves). We also have difficulty with ‘turn taking’, that is the ability to work out when to speak and when not to speak AND what to speak about.
Are you all emotionless robots?
No, not at all.
People on the autistic spectrum lack what is called is sometimes called theory of mind, or the ability to perceive emotions in others and react in kind.
You may have heard this referred to ‘a lack of empathy’ unfortunately this is often confused as also meaning lack of sympathy. I have a great deal of sympathy and am able to on a rational level understand and want to help people in plight or in need of help. I often lack the ability to emotionally understand what they are going through (unless I have personally experienced the same thing).
This can often not only apply to others, but to ourselves as well.
I myself can take a great deal of time working out in my head what my various emotions mean, honestly the only things I can feel and identify on the fly are ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘excited’ and ‘angry’.
When I do have emotional reactions to things, it is usually delayed by sometimes (hours or even days) due to the way my brain processes the information.
Because we have difficulty processing emotional information quickly and then being able to act on it, we often have extreme issues having emotionally based conversations.
This does not mean that we cannot understand what you feel or say.
We often just take our time working it out.
On empathy and navigating the social world.
Living in a world you’re not built for can be a hard task.
Let’s start off with a simple example.
You and a friend go to buy coffee.
How do you deal with this situation?
I guess you’d find something nice to wear, arrange a date, time and place over the phone.
Then meet and enjoy.
Now let’s see it from the perspective of a person like myself, with high functioning autism.
First I have to work up the courage to use the phone; this is a BIG DEAL for me I Really do not like using the phone. The whole experience of talking to a disembodied voice freaks me right out. God forbid somebody calls me the sound of the ringing can make me want to run for cover.
Then, I have to find something to wear. Okay no big deal right. Well for me this isn’t such a big problem. I don’t have issues with fabrics. Some autistics are highly sensitive to different textures and smells. So unfamiliar or tight fitting clothes can be a cause of stress and processing difficulties.
So that’s all sorted and the time and date and place are worked out.
Now I have to leave the house. Most autistics have severe sensitivity to environment.
This ranges from difficulties with bright lights, different sounds and vibrations or even the feel and smell of objects. Some of these can be heightened and incredibly painful to us or sounds that are actually very soft can be so loud as to be irritating or even panic inducing.
I’ve learnt to wear headphones all the time so I don’t have to deal with the outside noise.
Everything from loud bangs to diesel motors set me off badly. Don’t get me started on car horns.
So once I’ve dealt with this I have to deal with the social stuff at the cafe as well as dealing with environmental sensitivity. Now you may understand why an autistic spectrum person might act a bit strange or scattered.
So we get there, meet somebody we know start a good conversation.
But the friend might be upset about something and in need of advice.
Let’s say she has just lost her job and she is feeling down and upset.
The autistic person turns around and explains reasons why she might have deserved to be fired, and ways she may solve the situation in the future and then rattles on about various government services she may be able to use to get by. This is a logical answer with a focus on the facts of the situation.
But the friend she gets upset when the autistic person says these things and goes off at him or her about being heartless and uncaring because didn’t they realise they needed somebody to empathise with them and give them some emotional support.
This is an example of where Neurotypicals and Autistic Spectrum Individuals could have a misunderstanding.
The autistic person may not have understood what his or her friend needed because she did not give direct instructions and relied on emotional information to get the message across about needing support. If perhaps the autistic person has been told ‘hey, I really need you to ‘be there’ and hang out with me today and have some fun because I’m feeling down’ then perhaps things may have gone more smoothly as the autistic individual will have had a better idea of what their friend needed.
Navigating the socially based world is complicated and highly unpredictable.
The day to day social situations one can encounter range from the simple to the complex.
And all require various degrees of understand of the social ‘rules’ at play and the expectations that are required from the individuals involved.
These rules are nearly always unwritten and in a constant state of flux
depending on the people involved.
What is appropriate for one situation may really not be appropriate in another.
The same goes for the people you are around.
It’s no wonder that with our sometimes limited social understanding that we can act a bit strange.
Who could blame you when just trying to work out what other people want from you is such a chore.
But don’t jump and assume that we can’t empathise with you just because we come at things from a different angle. We can be just as caring as anyone else.
I hope this article has given you some clearer insight and greater understanding of what it’s like to be autistic, and to understand what we have to go through day to day.