Today is World Autism Awareness Day, so I’m taking this opportunity to raise awareness of the differences and challenges faced by some people on “The Autistic Spectrum” when interacting with an often-baffling “Neurotypical” society.Advertisement
This article covers Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 1, and is based on my own experiences of being stranded on Planet Neurotypical – far from the uncomplicated safety of my native Planet ASD Level 1, which is located in the Autistic Quadrant of the Special Needs Universe.
There are three planets/levels of ASD, with three being the most severe and restrictive to independent living on Planet Neurotypical. I’m not able to speak for Level 3 because I’ve never been there. I also don’t speak for all the inhabitants of ASD Level 1 because – like the Neurotypical world – ours also contains a multitude of lands and cultures.
If a native of Neurotypical were to visit one of the planets in the Autistic Quadrant and behave as they do in their own society, it would be like Godzilla laying waste to Tokyo. Fortunately for them, they’re not expected to come to our planet. It’s we who always have to go to theirs, and get in trouble for accidentally Godzilla-ing all over it.
For the sake of harmony between the Autistic Spectrum and Neurotypical planets, I’m going to try to dispel a few of the most common misunderstandings.
Many visitors from the ASD Quadrant DO have empathy, it just looks different.
The assumption that autistic people never care about others is wrong. When we are able to understand the reason behind a person’s emotion and what they need from us, we will be right there with them, sometimes to a point that it overwhelms us and especially if the person is sad, suffering or angry. Some of our species from ASD 1 have developed the ability to occasionally guess correctly after years of studying baffling Neurotypical ways.
We’re not good at reading facial expressions. We can figure out the basics like a smile means happy, downwards eyebrows mean angry and tears mean sad after trial and error, but if a wry smile or a thoughtful frown is thrown our way then we’re on shaky ground.
We can work out patterns in behaviour and get by that way, and sometimes we’ll even notice the ones a Neurotypical would miss. However if our two planets ever declare war on each other and Planet Neurotypical needs to invent a code that we’ll never crack, they should just use emoticons.
To us, Neurotypical societal rules contain infinite terms and conditions in print so small that we can’t read it, and they all contradict each other. If we can’t immediately figure out exactly why someone is feeling sad or angry, a big red “DANGER” alarm will start flashing inside our heads because we know we may be about to give the worst response possible and make everything worse.
We might be silent and stare into space for a little, while inside we’re frantically trying to translate the interaction or exchange into into our own language, grab our dog-eared copy of the Neurotypical rulebook, look up the appropriate answer (no time to read the small print, there’s a terrifying EXPECTANT SILENCE happening), translate it back into neurotypical language and cautiously deliver it way too late.
Some of us will attempt to do the above but the gazing into space goes on for hours because we’ve accidentally taken a wrong turn and ended up trying to figure out how fast a roundabout would need to be spinning for a medium sized, bottom-heavy muppet to be flung off it.
Others will attempt to change the subject, and some of us will take a guess at what might work based on how we’d want someone to react if the roles were reversed. All of these options usually result in us taking down a few Tokyo skyscrapers with our tails.
People from Planet Autistic are not intrinsically rude, difficult and badly behaved.
For example, we might respond to being asked, “Do you know you have beautiful eyes?” with a short, “Yes.”
To a native of Planet Neurotypical it comes across as vanity but to us the process goes:
Hang on, why are they now annoyed? They didn’t ask if I considered my own eyes to be beautiful, and they didn’t specify whether they meant beauty of appearance or function. And if they do mean appearance and I agree with them, why is it conceited to say “Yes”? They’re not any great achievement of mine, they were like that when I was born.
When we’re in environments with lots of stimulation we can have meltdowns, but it doesn’t always have to be loud, with flashing lights and sirens. It can be in a restaurant that a Neurotypical might believe to be quiet and calm. But it has a fan, and the blades of the fan make the light flicker through them and the breeze is making the corner of the menu on another table flap. A waitress behind us is clinking cutlery, another is watching us to see if we’re ready to order, and tapping her pen against her leg. One of our shoes is laced up tighter than the other which feels wrong and wonky, and we’re getting anxious because we keep re-reading the menu and it’s not going in, there are too many things in the way.
To the Neurotypical species it’s a relaxing experience – but imagine being attacked by every Dr Seuss character at once with some random seagulls and monkeys thrown into the mix, all shouting your name in various weird accents, and that may give an idea of what it feels like for us.
Those of us from Planet ASD 1 can learn how to lock most of that up inside, though it’s exhausting and incredibly difficult. It’s just too hard for the folks from the planets ASD 2 and 3, and it’s too hard for the children from ASD 1.
Yes, everyone “may be on the Autistic Spectrum” – but it’s not that simple.
Some inhabitants of Neurotypical might share the odd similar traits with Autistics but they are still able function successfully on their home planet.
To be Autistic is to have such a different way of processing, interacting and communicating that it impacts on almost every single aspect of their daily lives, even if it’s unnoticeable to the inhabitants of Planet Neurotypical. That’s why it’s classed as a disability.
Saying “We all live a bit in the ASD Solar System” to an Autistic person when one of us is trying to explain why we’re struggling, places the responsibility for our inability to manage certain things on our shoulders, and implies that we’re just not trying as hard as the people on Planet Neurotypical.
The difference is huge. We’re not just shy, awkward, introverts who are a bit particular about how things are done, we’re octopi trying to swim with a shoal of sardines. We aren’t built for it, we can’t instantly change direction even when we know we’re supposed to and we have way too many arms waving aimlessly about that would be perfect if we were allowed to use them for doing octopus things.
Having ASD 1 means we look like the rest of the shoal, so when we mess up we’re in big trouble with the real sardines. None of them will be saying, “Crikey, Karen the octopus did well stuffing herself into that sardine suit, crawling out of her safe little crevice and keeping up with us for ten minutes didn’t she? Next time we should all jam ourselves into that tiny cave for a visit. Did I tell you I once saw her unscrew a jar with one of her legs and then get inside it? Maybe she’ll teach us how to do that.”
Being a native of the ASD Quadrant is NOT a mental illness.
It’s a developmental disorder, and it can’t be “fixed”. Some of us can learn the basics of what’s expected from us but it will never come easily or naturally. Many of us develop mental illnesses due to being bullied, misunderstood and persistently anxious about how next we’re going to annoy or offend someone. It’s like an endlessly repeating game of Buckaroo or Pop-Up-Pirate, but instead of just losing the game we lose relationships, friends, jobs, familial support, confidence and sometimes our lives.
People from ASD 1 aren’t all computer nerds or mathematical geniuses.
Some are, some aren’t. Some have other incredible talents and some don’t have anything out of the ordinary. Please don’t take us all to Las Vegas to count cards, the bedlam in the casino is more likely to make our eyes explode. Even if it doesn’t there’s a good chance that we will just spend the evening with our hands over our ears, fixated on the dealer’s slightly wonky bowtie.
Personally I’m appalling at maths and have no cool tricks apart from the unwanted superpower of a sense of smell so extreme that I can tell if someone in your family trod in dog muck five years ago, and I never get a high-five from anyone for that.
All Autistics “look autistic“.
If to “look Autistic” is to either be in a wheelchair with more obvious care needs, have a different gait, or obvious stimming (e.g. hand flapping or rocking) then some of us do. However we’re more often from the planets ASD 2 and ASD 3, who sometimes have an intellectual disability or are unable to read the Neurotypical handbook that we from Planet ASD 1 carry with us.
I’ve studied that rulebook since nursery school, which is where I twigged on that the natives thought I was weird. I found out that I’m supposed to look them in the eyes, so even though it felt as wrong and invasive as that person leaning over and licking my face, that’s what I did.
A few years later I became aware that I’m expected to occasionally glance away if I didn’t want to look like a serial killer, so I watched when they broke eye contact and started doing the same. Unfortunately, it takes so much self-control and concentration to get that bit right that there’s no way I can also take in what’s said to me.
Being alone or in the company of someone who doesn’t expect eye contact is like kicking off a pair of stiletto heels after wearing them for ten hours and putting on a pair of fluffy slippers.
If I’m forced to look at someone while they’re explaining something to me, all of my concentration is going to go into that, so I don’t default and look away. I’ll look riveted, but please nobody expect me to be able to take in what is being said, because I’m already busy convincing everyone that I’m listening.
It’s not called a disorder on our planet.
A disorder is an irregularity of normal function, which is what happens when we’re in a Neurotypical society. But we’re not faulty, we’re just different. Today is World Autism Awareness Day, but Neurotypical people are welcome to visit us on our home planet any time to see how things work for us.