What Is Autism?
by Eden of @the.autisticats
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects every aspect of a person’s cognition, embodiment, and experience of the world. It is not a disease, and it is not a bad thing, it’s just a different neurotype. Autism alters a person’s sensory processing, social interaction, motor skills, emotional regulation, and many other things. It is caused largely by genetic factors, with at least 81% of autism likelihood being determined by genes (Pearson). The diagnostic criteria for autism includes: altered sensory processing, difficulty with social interaction, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors and interests.
Autistic people process much more sensory information than neurotypical people (Remington, et al), so our experience of the world is sometimes confusing and chaotic. We observe details more acutely than other people, and sometimes have trouble generalizing concepts because of this heightened perception. Neurotypicals usually only use a couple of examples before generalizing, for example, being told that an orange cat and a black cat are both cats, then seeing a brown cat and knowing that it’s a cat (even though it’s not orange or black); whereas an autistic person might need more examples of different colored cats to understand that a brown cat is still a cat, because we notice and place more importance on the details of the animal (color, ear shape, etc.) than we do the gestalt (shape and general mannerisms of the animal).
Because we perceive so much sensory and emotional information, we can often become overstimulated. In order to regulate our sensory and emotional processing, we do what’s called “stimming.” Stimming is short for self-stimulatory behavior, which is any repetitive motion or action that soothes us or provides us with the sensory input we need. Everyone stims, for example by twirling their hair or tapping their foot, but autistic people stim more often and more obviously, because we have so much more to regulate.
Is autism a “male” condition?
Autism is diagnosed more frequently in cis males than in women, trans & nonbinary people, with the estimated ratio of autistic cis males to cis females being 3:1. However, many professionals speculate that the ratio is actually 1:1, meaning that equal numbers of males and females are autistic. Women, trans & nonbinary people are currently and historically underdiagnosed, due to a difference in presentation and masking ability, as well as the fact that most diagnostic criteria is centered around the male-typical presentation of autistic traits (National Autistic Society). Additionally, recent research suggests that a substantial percentage of autistic people are gender-nonconforming, nonbinary or transgender, indicating that gender variance is more common in autistic people than in the general population (Strang, et. al).
Do autistic people have empathy?
The short answer is yes. There are two types of empathy, cognitive empathy and affective empathy (Wilkinson). Cognitive empathy is the ability to accurately predict how another person must be feeling based on context clues, whereas affective empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Autistic people often have extreme affective empathy, and are very sensitive and responsive to people in obvious distress (Brewer). Cognitive empathy is sometimes a struggle for us, and it’s not because we don’t have the ability to think about how someone else might feel, it’s because we have trouble understanding how a neurotypical person would react to stimuli. We are often said to lack “Theory of Mind,” but really, we lack “Theory of Neurotypical Mind.” Our “Theory of Autistic Mind,” however, is intact. How many neurotypical people do you know, who can accurately understand and predict how an autistic person is feeling in a given situation, based on context and body language alone? Several studies have shown that neurotypical people are impaired in their ability to understand how autistic people are feeling and what they’re reacting to (Milton). It could be said, therefore, that neurotypicals lack Theory of Autistic Mind, as much as autistic people lack Theory of Neurotypical Mind.
Should I say “person with autism,” or “autistic person”?
Although many non-autistic people refer to us as “people with autism,” the vast majority of autistic people want to be called “autistic.” We like identity-first language, not person-first language. This is because autism is integral to who we are as people, and it shapes every aspect of our experiences and interactions with the world. Just like you wouldn't call a gay person a "person with gayness" or a black person a "person with blackness" you wouldn't call an autistic person a "person with autism."
We know there's nothing wrong with being autistic, so there's no reason to distance ourselves from reality. Just because some neurotypicals use the word "autistic" as an insult doesn't mean we should concede and agree with them that being autistic is bad.
Separating a person from their autism implies that there is something inherently wrong, bad, or sub-human about being autistic. Overly emphasizing the humanity of autistic people implies that our humanity is up for debate, and that autism would disqualify us from human status if it were viewed as a core part of our identity. It implies that there's a neurotypical person hiding "underneath" our autism.
Calling someone a "person with autism" is like saying "I know you're autistic, but you're still a (neurotypical) person underneath." If you called a black person a "person with blackness" that would be like saying, "I know your skin is dark, but you're still a (white) person underneath." This makes the standard of humanity based on neurotypicality, whiteness, etc. This is why autistic people reject "person-first" language. It denies us humanity as autistic people. We aren't neurotypical, just as black people aren't white, and gay people aren't straight. That doesn't make us any less human.
What are some areas autistic people excel in?
Autistic people are extremely skilled at pattern recognition. We perceive small details and link them together, observing how they form complex systems of patterns. This ability to recognize patterns, and sort items or concepts into schema associated with those patterns, is called systemizing (Baron-Cohen et al; Smith; Chan; Khazan). We also have an enhanced perceptual capacity, meaning that we can perceive and process more information at once than neurotypicals can (Remington; Mottron et al). This is useful in situations where attention to multiple stimuli at once is required, and means that we notice more of the world around us than neurotypicals do.
Our capacity to perceive is enhanced, and so is our perception itself. Autistic people are much more sensitive to sensory stimuli in general, and have been proven to have very acute visual and auditory perception (Bonnel; “Enhanced Motion Perception”; Mottron et al). Autistic people also have a heightened ability to discriminate between pitches, and are much more likely than the general population to have perfect pitch (Sarris; Stanutz; Bonnel). One other music related strength is that autistic people have an exceptional short and long term memory for melodies (Stanutz).
Not only are we more perceptive than the general population, we’re more creative and original. In a study done on autistic people and neurotypicals who were told to think of novel uses for a paperclip and a brick, although the autistic people generated fewer responses, they came up with more original, creative ideas (Cohen).
Autistic people also tend to be less prone to the effects of implicit social bias on the basis of race, gender, and other characteristics. While autistic people cognitively understand stereotypes, and often exhibit some implicit biases, the overall magnitude of those biases is reduced compared to those of neurotypicals (Birmingham).
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