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Understanding Autism

(Part 1 of "Autism Advocacy")

Describing Autism

I have Asperger's Syndrome, or A.S.

A.S. is a form of high-functioning autism that, like all other forms of autism, is a neurological condition (not a 'disorder', a label that I personally find offensive) that is characterized by having a common cluster of autistic traits rather than a single one. These autistic traits usually have some similarities, so they are often (poorly) grouped into an 'autistic spectrum'. Unfortunately, most people seem to view that spectrum as a low-high linear gradient where, as an example, a person on its lower end might sit in a corner rocking back and forth and cannot speak, but a person on the higher end might have a higher than normal intelligence but is also socially "odd". The reality of autism is far more complex.

Each trait that an autistic person possesses lies along a grid-like continuum. Think of the trait's intensity variable as gauged on the Y-axis and its function variable gauged along the X-axis. Now, take all of the traits and set the center-point of their graphs back-to-back along the same line. As you draw a line through each of the trait intensities and functions, you will start to see how each person's particular form of autism affects day-to-day experience.

Both the intensity and the functioning of each trait affects every autistic person differently, so depending on the individual, some of their traits are more obvious than others. Also, no autistic person ever has ALL of the identified traits for their variant; they may have several of them, but not have any of a few of others. Their "collection" of traits and the "intensity" of each trait make up the individual autistic person's "pattern", and no two patterns are ever the same.

Understanding Autism

I think it's important for people to understand Asperger's Syndrome (and autism in general). Even though the DSM no longer includes Asperger's as a separate diagnosis, I believe that it's still a useful way to identify people having low social skills but a generally high intelligence -- along with higher than normal rates of manic-depression and suicide. Unfortunately, most people tend to perceive things in a strictly binary context, making it difficult for them to understand something in multiple shades of gray - especially something as complex as autism.

An example of one difference between someone having a form of autism like Asperger's Syndrome and someone who does not can be seen in the behaviors of children who like dinosaurs. At some point in their lives, most kids like dinosaurs. I think part of their affection is the idea that they can sometimes imagine themselves being Godzilla stomping through Tokyo. The primary difference between a neurotypical child who likes dinosaurs and an Aspie child who likes dinosaurs would be that the neurotypical child will not memorize each species' Latin designations and the geological period when they lived; Aspie children have been known to do that.

It's easy to see that a person in a wheelchair has a physical impairment and may require some help or support. As a neurological condition, the influence of Asperger's Syndrome and other autistic conditions are often invisible to the rest of the world. We are not stupid - most of us have higher levels of intelligence than most people who are neuro-typical, but because we don't always "fit in" socially, we are often teased, bullied, or otherwise vilified for behaviors over which we have little control. We don't often have many friends even though we want to, and those who care about us - family, and those we consider "family" - are often concerned that we are not taken advantage of for our "gifts".


Frequent Comments Autistics Receive

(I have heard each of these comments at least once.)

"You don't look like you have autism." Really? How is an autistic supposed to look?

This sort of comment is typically spoken by someone who only has a passing idea of what autism is and how it affects those of us who have it. Autism is nearly impossible to identify visually; its traits are primarily behavioral, such as difficulty with social interaction, communication, and lack of eye contact.

Unfortunately, the only reference most people have to reference someone who is autistic is Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" or Jim Parsons in "Big Bang Theory". That's it. In reality, most people wouldn't know an autistic person if they sat next to them.

"Everyone is a little autistic." No, they aren't, and anyone who might state this is probably discriminatory, intransigent, and consistently tries to make themselves feel better by knocking someone else down.

This is probably one of the most common (and yet highly insensitive) statements made to people with autism. Would it be okay to state "everyone is a little blind" to someone who is visually impaired? How about "everyone is a little Black" because a large portion of the world's population descends from (a few million years ago) distant African ancestors. I think not.

Some people might have a personality trait that may also be common in autistic people, but those people are not even close to being autistic. Having a form of autism influences every part of that person's life, every minute of every day. It's not something that we can simply turn off. For us, statements like this are no different than someone saying "you are a little pregnant" because you have a massive belly and crave weird food combinations.


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