I remember how years back, I had a cap with a tag on the underside that claimed, “One size fits all!” At the time, even as a child, this was puzzling. Did it have some kind of elastic property to it that wasn’t immediately obvious? Did it have a strap on one side that could shrink or enlarge the fitting? Or was it something else beyond my understanding? It turned out there was nothing particularly special about it and it most certainly will not fit properly on everyone who tries to put it on. Autism refers to a very broad spectrum. There are people within the spectrum who are fully capable of registering and understanding the materials I read and write on a regular basis, there are others far beyond my own level of language and comprehension, and then there are others who barely register their immediate surroundings at all.
There’s no one, singular face of Autism. We are many, and there’s not one, nice, neat little way of summing up what an Autistic person that you meet will actually be like. This is a hard truth for researchers and scientists, no matter what their field of expertise: trends and labels are convenient and easy to read, but they aren’t always truly reliable.
I heard on the radio several years ago that, overall, American drivers were being more cautious and responsible behind the wheel. I heard this just as someone cut me off by inches to get on the one-lane ramp to access the freeway. I saw a TV report stating that the unemployment rate was shrinking steadily, just as I was a member of a group of adults with Asperger’s syndrome, all of us still looking desperately for a job. And, of course, after research on Autism itself, I find that I, and many of my friends who have also been diagnosed with Autism, share very little in common with the “hallmark” symptoms used to identify our emotional condition.
Let’s break some stereotypes:
1. Autistic people have trouble expressing and identifying emotions, and can seem detached and unsympathetic.
If anything, I find the opposite to be true, most of my Autistic friends are the nicest and most caring people in the world. That this ever came to be a generally accepted “truth” about Autism, frankly astonishes me. Just look at the last five decades of popular entertainment. The token good-guy characters are rugged, physically appealing, and rarely run into a problem they can’t handle, while the token sidekick or villain is awkward, bumbling, and almost always has a series of awful things happen to them, for the sake of comedy.
This sort of entertainment is popular, but it is important to recognize that these stereotypes promote others to laugh at the socially awkward, or the less-than physically perfect. How did anyone get the idea that these traits are exclusive to Autism? People with Autism empathize with the underdogs, the suffering. We don’t all point and laugh as we see people in pain. Overwhelmingly, it is more often the neuro-typical person in power who does this sort of thing. How did we, the Autistic, get this brand? It just doesn’t make sense.
2. Autistic people do not think in the same manner as most people, and are more oriented towards the visual than the verbal or textual.
With all due respect to Dr. Temple Grandin, this is not true for everyone diagnosed with Autism. Although in my early years, my parents encouraged my insatiable reading habits through comic books, I was less aware of the art, and spent more time focusing on the blocks of text. I poured over the thought bubbles and the meaning behind the words, rather than just a lot of pretty pictures. I often feel the need to apologize to the illustrators for this text-oriented habit of mine. In my mind, the imagery is few and far between, and in its place, a steady hum of words; ideas in different voices. Sometimes this stream of ideas is just a whisper, other times it’s a clutter of several things occurring all at once.
3. Autistic people have trouble focusing on a single task for extended periods of time, either becoming bored or distracted by surrounding stimuli.
This has never been a problem for me, and I know several others that never once displayed this symptom. Rather than lacking focus, I have too much of it. There are times when I can tune out distractions to the point that little other than shouting at me or tapping my shoulder can bring me out of it.
4. Autistic people also find it challenging to multi-task.
This one indicates the complete opposite of the previous one. Is this the so-called “authority’s'” subtle way of saying they just don’t see us as being good at anything? For me personally, I do find it difficult to multi-task, precisely for the fact that I do in fact work so well when given a task that requires focus, and if I can’t give all my attention to a given task and am forced to manage multiple things all at once, I’m inclined to feel that I’m failing at all of them. I’d much rather do an extremely good job at one thing.
5. Autistic people do not tend to like physical contact.
This is another one that makes me wonder, was the so-called “expert” just trying to find a socially acceptable excuse for other people to have minimal contact with us? I really like shaking hands, high-fives, pats on the back, hugs, and having my back and the spot behind my ears scratched.
To say that we don’t like physical contact is entirely too vague; context matters a great deal. All of the aforementioned types of contact, I enjoy a great deal. Having someone stand unnecessarily close to me, jab their fingers at me, slap my back from a completely unseen angle, or anything aggressive or violent, are things that I don’t like. I hardly think this is unusual or abnormal behavior. Don’t find reasons to avoid contact with Autistic people!
6. Autistic people tend to be awkward in social situations.
This is absolutely true, but in my personal experience, it is for other reasons than you may think. I do indeed feel awkward in social situations. Because, when I speak, no matter how loudly, some people just don’t acknowledge that I have said anything at all. I’ll be in the midst of people talking about something interesting to me, something I do want to join in on and provide my input, but there is just never a break in the conversation, at least, not for me.
For some reason, no one registers that I’m standing right next to or in front of them. I feel the most left-out and isolated when I’m surrounded by people who just don’t seem to see or hear me. I feel uncomfortable, not because of me blurting out inappropriate things or having difficulty grasping what’s being said. It’s because I don’t like being ignored, and I’ve often encountered neuro-typicals who feel it’s okay to ignore me, because they just won’t stop talking long enough to give me an opening to respond to them.
7. Autistic People tend to have difficulty in understanding and accepting what is considered socially acceptable.
When I’m in a group of people, I don’t rudely interrupt and ignore what others are saying because I feel I’m so important that everyone needs to listen to me. When I’m interacting with someone, I observe appropriate boundaries and remain at arm’s length unless I’m allowed closer, through words or gestures. And most important of all, I don’t automatically feel as though it’s fair or appropriate to be rude and insulting to people whom I’ve just met.
I start by treating others in a manner I’d like to be treated in an effort to foster mutual respect; if someone immediately behaves rudely to me, I assume they want me to be rude right back to them.
8. Autistic people tend to have difficulty filtering their responses, and tend to be bluntly, even brutally honest.
As with number six, this is only partially correct. Having been uncomfortable for the majority of my life, I know how ugly it feels, and therefore I don’t want to be the source of discomfort to others. I have no trouble whatever in filtering myself when failing to do so would hurt the feelings of someone I care about. But if someone causes me enough emotional distress, I won’t hesitate to let them know how they’re hurting me. And if they continue to do so, or ignore me, I assume they’re intentionally being rude and ugly people.
To me, if someone goes out to be disgraceful, they lose the right to feel indignant after being called out on it. Insults are not something I use lightly. And if I’m expected to lie as part of my job, I have trouble doing so, because I rather tend to believe that clientele would prefer honesty rather than a lie that sounds comforting, and that they want to believe, but is easily discovered and thereafter promotes distrust.
9. Autistic people tend to be slow to process things, and need more time than the average person to complete a task or respond to a question.
Again, for me at least, a half-truth. It’s true, I do tend to take a moment before I answer. It’s because I’m careful enough to filter my thoughts and not blurt out the first random or insulting thing that comes to mind. I want to make sure I say something that conveys what I really want and mean to say.
I don’t want someone to automatically assume the worst possible interpretation of something that was only meant as a compliment. I don’t want a casual remark to turn into a drawn-out, overblown argument. But then there are times when, no matter how hard I try, there just seems to be no right thing to say. Sometimes in life there is just no way to win, and this is when I struggle. For all practical purposes, it looks as though I’ve completely shut down, when in fact my mind is racing at breakneck speed to reach a solution that just isn’t there.
10. Autistic people require routine and structure more than anything else, and become easily confused when contradictory ideas and actions are presented to them.
This is the one hallmark so far that earns a resounding YES from me. I have a circle of friends that I like to meet with on Wednesdays, and when our regularly scheduled meetings take an odd turn into something else, I become emotionally distressed and almost feel it was a waste of time waking up earlier than normal that day.
When my work schedule deviates and I get called into work, or there’s a schedule change, it drastically affects my plans for the next day or even two days, and it either sets me back or gives me more freedom than I knew what to do with. Either way, I’m certain most people would agree that it’s nice to actually be able to plan ahead and account for most things.
11. Autistic people tend to have more difficulty than the average person in managing emotional stress, often displayed by an Autistic meltdown.
This is another resounding YES. Whatever the source of stress, whether it’s school, work, a failed relationship, an injury to a family member or loved one, this is something we all experience, although it manifests differently in every Autistic individual. And not only that, it can differ depending on the nature of the source.
For instance, when I’m burned out from work, I just want to lie down, and curl up, and not have to think about anything for a while. After a failed relationship, I begin retching or crying uncontrollably. And if someone displays poor respect for social boundaries by jabbing their finger at me and raising their voice, or getting unnecessarily close to me, I completely snap and answer their aggression with violence of my own, although more often I try to remove myself from this kind of disgusting and immature behavior before it does escalate to that point.
12. Those who are Autistic display difficulty in looking someone right in the eyes when being spoken to.
This has never once been the case with me. To me, it always just made perfect sense to focus on the person speaking, and to read gestures and expressions along with what was simply being said. But I’m just one person. There are people out there who are Autistic that display many if not all of these traits.
There are others, I’m certain, who share even less in common with them than I do. And if it seemed unclear at first, the whole purpose behind this article was not to simply dismiss all the research and results as a total crock. Far from it, and much of it can be very helpful and insightful. I simply want to remind the experts, and all readers, that these are not rules etched into immortal stone. As a scallywag of a character portrayed by Geoffrey Rush did say, “they’re not really rules, more like guidelines”.
Such things as trends and statistics are the same for all fields of study: they provide insight into a larger picture, but never forget that the larger picture is made up of small, singular details that almost defy the larger picture itself. Much like the paintings of Monet, things look nice and neat when viewed as a whole, and from a distance. But when you look at it more closely and inspect each individual brush stroke, you discover it isn’t as nice and neat as it first appeared, and is in fact very chaotic.
This is what it means to be Autistic. Remember, when you meet one of us, you’re in for a very unexpected, but no doubt pleasant, surprise.
by Christopher Aaron Seltzer
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