Autism does not mean…

Introduction

Most people have a lot of strange notions of what autism is as well as what it isn’t. This includes a lot of people who really should know better, such as autistic people, parents of autistic people, and medical and mental health professionals.

Here are some things that are still widely and falsely believed to be inherent to autism.

Autism does not mean…

…being trapped inside

There are no normal people inside autistic people, trying to get out. Still, some people see autism as a sort of prison, from which our “real selves” are trying to escape. This is wrong. Inside every individual with autism, there is an autistic person. When we act different than other people, it’s because we are different, not because we cannot get out. Autism isn’t on the outside; rather it’s central to what’s on the inside. It’s the foundation upon which personality exists. Even if one manages to appearing normal for a while, it doesn’t make one any less autistic on the inside.

On the other hand, many autistic people have difficulties using the commonly accepted forms of communication (which in many situations are limited to speech and a specific set of non-verbal signals), and need their surroundings to adapt to whatever forms work for them. This adaption may range from the very obvious, such as using symbols or a keyboard, to the subtle, such as avoiding certain metaphors and using more literal language. This, however, is no less an attempt to escape autism than a deaf person’s use of sign language is an attempt to “escape their deafness”. It’s simply using more suitable means of communication.

…no hope

Autistic people are just as capable of learning, developing, maturing and living long and fruitful lives as anyone else. However, autistic people learn in autistic ways, develop and mature into autistic adults, and if given the opportunity live long and fruitful lives as autistic people. These are not always the sort of lives considered successful or fruitful by non-autistic people. After all, as autistic people are different it’s natural that the details of what one considers successful will differ as well. However, I contend that each person should be allowed to define success for him- or herself.

With all the negative, stereotyped, over hyped propaganda being circulated today, it’s common for parents to believe that all is lost because their child has been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. However, autism doesn’t hurt or make us sad; the intolerance of others does that to us. We grow up, we learn new things and we mature, but we do so in different ways than other people, usually slower than most in some ways and faster in others, frequently in another order than expected, and often in apparently sudden bursts.

…lack of social interest

Not knowing how to participate in social events or being prevented from participation doesn’t equate to not wanting to participate. A lot of autistic people would like to have more active social lives, and can be quite miserable over lacking it. The problems that arise are mostly related to the fundamental differences of neurologies, causing misunderstandings on both sides.

It’s also quite common for non-autistic people to shun autistic people, since they don’t get the kind of verbal and non-verbal feedback they expect from everyone. Although, in all fairness, it’s also quite common for autistic people to shun non-autistic people, since for similar reasons communication with them is usually much more demanding.

…programming ability

One of the most common “comfort points” encountered online, especially for parents of children diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, is that while their children may not get the most active of social lives, “at least they’ll get high-paying IT jobs.”

It’s true that there are a lot of capable autistic people in IT, and that many have an aptitude for working with computers. However, no form of autism guarantees computer skills.

…lack of emotions

There are autistic people who report having little or no emotions, but they’re most definitely not the norm, and I personally believe that a lot of them are depressed due to the extremely common bullying and exclusion of autistic people.

However, just because we may have different emotions, or show them in different ways, doesn’t mean we feel any less. In fact, many of us seem to have far stronger emotions than most people, and some also report being hypersensitive to the emotional states of others, even if they cannot pick up the social cues that would explain them.

This belief may stem from the fact that non-autistic people often cannot read our emotions the way they’re used to be able to with others. However, emotions are inside a person; they don’t reside in one’s facial muscles. The basic rule here is to ask.

…uniformity

Autistic people come in all shapes and sizes. Some are happy, others are depressed. Some don’t speak, others never seem to stop. Some spend all their spare time reading about trains, or fish, or human relations, others don’t. Some might appear very eccentric, others completely normal. Some like green sweaters, others like red ones. Some live in institutions, others might be living next door to you.

We’re all unique individuals; a fact that’s deploringly often overlooked when autism is discussed. What we have in common are basic ways of functioning, the foundation upon which personality is built. Furthermore, it seems that there are significant differences between autistic people even on these most basic levels. However, these are as of yet only discussed in clear ways by autistic people, as the researchers haven’t yet caught on to this.

Resources

Autism? What is it?
A description of autism, including a “what it’s not”-section.

Autistic Adults and Adolescents
On the myriad of possible variations and presentations.