I have plenty of topics I want to cover, but there’s no point in that if we don’t know what autism is. Some of you may be familiar with how some doctors describe it. What I want to do is a little different. I will go over the current medial diagnostic criteria for ASD, but I will also try to explain more from an autistic perspective. Many of the behaviors listed as symptoms are from non-autistic people observing us without really taking the time to understand us. While some of our behaviors and thought processes may seem odd, they all have a purpose and a reason.
So I will go over each common symptom or characteristic of ASD, and hopefully give you more information than just what the behavior looks like.
SOCIAL & COMMUNICATION CHALLENGES
About 1/3 of autistic people are nonverbal. This doesn’t mean that they don’t communicate. They may speak through a machine or write. This has to do with the unique way our brains are made. Autistic people who don’t speak verbally can have wonderful things to say if you take the time to listen. There are even some of us, like me, who are verbal, but become nonverbal in certain situations if we are too overwhelmed. If I’m too overwhelmed by my environment or my emotions, speaking is too difficult and I just text people instead.
Eye contact can be difficult for many of us. Some people are just fine with this. You will find some autistic people that will have no problem looking at you in the eye and feel completely comfortable with it. I on the other hand have to tell myself to constantly look at people, because if I don’t, they think I’m not listening. The ironic part of this is that it’s actually harder for me to concentrate if I’m constantly telling myself to sit still and look at you. I listen less, and I think less. Then because I can’t concentrate, I feel stupid. When we don’t look at you, we’re not being impolite. We’re trying to listen, and that is how we do it. When I’m thinking, I can look away and bring up a visual memory bank and walk around in it. That stops when I look at you.
Body language and facial expressions can sometimes confuse us. Sometimes we will even study them as someone would study a subject in school. Because of this, our expressions and body language can appear forced or just wrong. We might choose the wrong expression at the wrong time. We never do this intentionally. We’re just trying to communicate in a language that doesn’t really make sense to us, but seems to be used by everyone else around us.
I have major difficulties with understanding the emotions of others around me. Often this gets labeled as “lacking empathy” or “problems with empathy”. This isn’t true, and it’s insulting. I feel compassion and empathy. What I have problems with is imagining another person’s situation or understanding their feelings in the moment. I just need someone to explain this to me. This is what many of us need, and many people just refuse to take that time. Rather than give us the information we need, they label us “selfish, arrogant, rude, or uncaring”. None of these are true, and are very hurtful.
Another common problem is not understanding the intentions of others. It can be something simple like not “reading between the lines” when someone is talking to you, or something more serious like not recognizing a dangerous person. This is connected with not understanding people’s emotions and not understanding body language. We rely on people explaining things to us, and lying is foreign.
I’ve found that many of us have difficulty identifying and describing our own emotions. This can make friendships and intimate relationships difficult. The other person feels disconnected from you. It’s not that we don’t want to tell you. We just literally don’t know. We’re not lying when we say when don’t know what we’re feeling.
Having conversations in general can be difficult. We can often not understand the natural rhythm. When do we talk vs when does the other person talk? This often happens because we don’t pick up on the subtle social cues like body language, or certain phrases that are hinting something. We also will often be silent until a topic of interest is brought up and then we won’t stop talking. We will gravitate to people that share our common interests so that we can have a specific thing to discuss. It’s our way of connecting with people. So, if we’re overloading you with a bunch of unwanted information, please understand that we are trying to connect with you.
RESTRICTIVE / REPETITIVE BEHAVIORS
This is how the medical model categorizes these behaviors, but I don’t like this. I understand why they say this. The diagnostic criteria was created just from observing the behaviors of children and contrasting them from “normal” children. Now that we have adults on the spectrum who can tell you their experience, I think this should be adjusted. I would rather these be categorized as the ability to intensely focus on one single thing for long periods of time, and neurological differences in how we process and respond to sensory input.
A common one in this category are unusual repetitive movements called stimming. The only reason it’s called unusual is because they are not movements that non-autistic people do, and we tend to do them more often. So you might see people bouncing their leg, tapping a pencil on a desk, and biting their nails if they’re nervous, but no one thinks it’s odd or concerning. However, if people see us rocking back and forth, waving our hands, or spinning in circles, then that’s labeled as odd and concerning.
I’ll do a whole blog post on this later, but there are a few main reasons for stimming. 1) Emotional regulation: We can either stim as an expression of emotions, or as a way of releasing emotions that feel too overwhelming. 2) Sensory regulation: We can swing between hypersensitive and hyposensitive. So stimming can be used to either block too much sensory input, or give ourselves sensory input if we feel that it’s lacking. 3) Communication: If someone is hitting themselves, then they are communicating that they are not ok. If they are jumping and flapping their hands, they are communicating happiness. So there are many reasons for stimming, and each person will have their own stims and their own reasons. You may not understand them, but stimming is important to us and it does have a function.
Echolalia is another common one for autistic people. My son does this a lot. It can seem annoying to have someone constantly repeat words and phrases, but it’s how many of us learn. My son learned most of his language by repeating and imitating words and phrases from TV shows. I will often repeat conversations that I find effective, which is a form of echolalia. We do this to learn, to play, and to interact with people.
We will often have highly intense interests. Some we will keep throughout our lives and others we will rotate through. We will learn every single detail about it until we feel we’ve exhausted that topic, and then we move on to the next. I’ve often been called “The Human Encyclopedia” for this reason. It’s not really that we’re super smart, although some of us are, but it’s more that we obsessive learn our interests. This can be considered a restrictive behavior, but I prefer to call it an intense focused interest. We will often call these our “special interests”.
Many of us can be highly sensitive to our environment. I am one of those people. Lights can be too bright. Sounds can be too much. Textures of clothing and food can make me want to run away. I notice the flickering of certain lights that no one notices. I hear noises that people don’t hear, and don’t filter out the background noises that everyone else seems to be able to do. I like or dislike food based on texture. I don’t understand why certain clothing is made a certain way. I don’t understand why you don’t feel the stitching the scratches my skin and the tag that feels like wood. Our brains are different and we sense and feel things differently. So it only makes sense that we would react differently.
Predictable routines. Most of us like predictable routines. I’m not as insistent on this one as other people. I’ll naturally create a routine for myself and I like that I know what’s going to happen next. This is why many of us like our routines. In this chaotic world, having a predictable routine is comforting. Some autistic people will also have OCD and their routines will be extreme. For these people, do your best to respect their routines and needs. It doesn’t need to make sense to you. Just know that it brings them comfort and reduces their anxiety.
SOME FUN STUFF
Many people have a misconception that we are all savants. That is rare. We will likely have something we are good at, just like anyone else, and it will probably have something to do with one of our interests. For example, I’m an artist, and I’m good enough to at least sell some of my paintings. I think in pictures and not words. It’s why I’m good at painting, but it also means I have trouble explaining things, especially emotions. How do you explain what you’re feeling in the moment if all you have in your head are pictures?
Because I think in pictures, I have a visual map of where everything is in my house. I can have you name an item, and then I can tell you it’s location at this exact moment. I can even do this for other people’s houses if I’ve been there recently. I’ve had friends call me to help them find things.
Typically we will be excellent at one thing and bad at another. Some of us see visual patterns everywhere, others collect large amounts of data, and other easily see how things connect. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Support and encourage our strengths, and help us through our weaknesses, just as you would any other person you cared about.