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If You’ve Met One Autistic Person . . .

You’ve met one autistic person.

A lot of people tell me, when I reveal my recent diagnosis with autism, “You can’t be autistic.” They tell me I’m too smart, too capable, too successful, too empathetic, to be autistic. Some of them even say, “I know an autistic person and you’re definitely not like him, so you can’t be autistic.”

Please reconsider the ignorance you’re revealing here. Autism is not a personality diagnosis. It doesn’t tell you anything about what areas of interest a given person has. Autism is also not a skills diagnosis. It’s not an intelligence test. Yes, there are autistic people who also have profound intellectual disabilities. There are autistic people who are unable to speak. There are autistic people who memorize “useless” trivia.

There are also autistic artists and writers. There are autists who are brilliant activists. There are autists who have high IQ’s and low IQ’s. There are autists who are fascinated by trains, calendars, sports minutia, and the order of the American Presidents. There are also autists who are fascinated by social rules, languages, knitting and crocheting, triathlon, nutrition, environmental policy, and anything you yourself are interested in.

To be autistic, you generally have to be diagnosable in the following categories (https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html):

1. “Deficits” in social communication.

a. Lack of social reciprocity.

b. Lack of eye contact.

c. Lack of “appropriate” body language or facial expression.

d. Difficulty adjusting social behavior to the context.

e. Precision in language, inability not to correct mistakes.

2. “Restricted and repetitive” behaviors.

a. Repetitive motor movements, objects, or speech (rocking, echolalia,etc)

b. Rigidity, insistence on sameness.

c. “Highly restricted” interests that are “abnormal” in intensity or focus.

d. High or low sensory reaction to lights, noise, smells, tastes.

Other common traits of autism include a tendency toward literalism, a strange or missing sense of humor, difficult taking turns, and so forth.

I find it difficult to see all of these traits as purely negative, though the general interpretation of autistic symptoms is as “deficits.” In my experience, it is mostly experiencing the world in a different way. Yes, society treats this different way as bad, as needing correction, and stigmatizes autism, but I’m not sure that objectively there’s any reason that an intense focus on any particular thing should be seen as “abnormal” except by those who have decided what “normal” is. Why shouldn’t it be normal to memorize things that interest you? Why should studying particle physics and talking about it socially be wrong? Why should it be bad to ignore other people’s signals of disinterest in your topic of conversation? Why shouldn’t the onus be on other people to steer the conversation in the direction they prefer?

Yes, autistic people are often seen as social awkward or rude, as overly blunt, and as unempathetic. But I put it to you that autistic people simply require more blunt communication. It isn’t that we refuse to ever listen to other people (though that trait can be seen in non-autistic people, as well as autistic people — being selfish or unempathetic isn’t really a trait that can be located solely in one group of humanity). Most autistic people (in my experience) want to be kind, and are simply bewildered by a world in which they are expected to guess what other people want. Why can’t you just say it outright? Why is social interaction some kind of arcane game of hinting indirectly at everything?

There are similarities in autistic styles of communication. There are sometimes similarities in styles of humor. There are often similarities in the lack of wanting things to change, though that can be alleviated with some literal explanation of what the change is and how to get through it step by step. Also, many autistic people have a high level of social anxiety because they’ve spent their entire lives being told that they are doing everything wrong. A lot of autistic people apologize for everything they do because they assume they must have done something wrong if anyone is talking to them. That’s what happens when you only receive negative feedback all your life.

But as I said before, autistic people are widely varying in many other ways. If you’ve met an autistic person who is obsessed with prime numbers, do not assume other autistic people are obsessed with numbers. Some are, most aren’t. If you’ve met an autistic person who is rude, you needn’t assume all autistic people are rude. And I further recommend that you reconsider your own prejudices about what is polite social interaction, because many autistic people enjoy conversations with other autistic people in which social rules are suspended and we are allowed to speak openly and honestly with each other without being told we are “wrong.”

I am not musical at all. I have a very musical daughter and kept having to explain to more and more advanced teachers who assumed that I must have taught her something about music that I am a musical idiot. However, I am a word expert. Not only do I love to read dictionaries and memorize definitions of words, but I love idioms. If I had another life to live, I’d have become a linguist. I speak German fairly fluently, but also studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Russian. I wish I knew more languages. And no, in case you are inclined to think my interest is on some lower level, I don’t just like to learn exact translations of words. I like how the whole world changes in another language. It feels and is different when you’re German, Spanish, or Russian. I love to see the world differently.

I also love talking to other people. I love listening. But yes, I struggle with what other people think of as social reciprocity. I struggle with reading body language. I wish people would just hold up signs to indicate their emotional state so I could respond appropriately. But I have an artistic nature. I love visual art. I love poetry. I love metaphors — once I figure out that’s what they are. Those things do not make me less or more autistic. They are just part of me. Because I have a personality and a skill set outside of my autism diagnosis.

Some autists do not speak verbally, but have found the internet to be a wonderful way to communicate by typing onto computers. Some autists may have little interest in communicating. Some are exceptional visual artists. Some are scientists. Some are musicians. Some are actually so empathetic that it overwhelms their own emotions and makes it hard for them to separate self from other. Some struggle to identify their own emotions or to understand that their body is signaling emotion to them. Others are awash in feelings and struggle to find logic and words within them.

My point here is that we are different, we autists. We are beautiful and complicated and wounded and well, human. Maybe we don’t seem human, but I beg that you stretch your definition of humanity a little further than it is right now. I tense whenever I hear someone define humanity in a way that excludes autistic people: All humans crave social interaction. All humans crave touch. All humans want eye contact to feel understood.

We autists are also human. Don’t turn away from us. Don’t lump us all together. We are who we are, and we live in a world that hates us. Please don’t add to that hatred. Please let us all help to undo the stigma. It will help us all live better lives. And perhaps the real definition of humanity is learning how others are human differently than we are.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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