The Impact of Shifting the Way We Think About the Autism Spectrum


Recent years have seen a vast change in the conversation about the autism spectrum, as it is now being led by a variety of autistic people themselves – the only real way of understanding a condition that has no absolutes.

As someone on the spectrum, it has been enlightening to hear the experiences of people worldwide and see the similarities, however vague, that shed light on a condition I’m still understanding. However, despite all the positivity this has created, there is one common absence from many of these stories.

Characteristically struggling to communicate inner emotion, stories of day-to-day happiness are often a rare find in stories written by autistics. The public press uses autistic savants as a benchmark for “good autism” and too often assumes everyone else has a permanent uphill struggle to deal with, ignoring the fact that so many of us are perfectly happy with the lives we lead, irrespective of what others consider “low-” or “high-functioning.”

While I support the message of hope within the autistic community and compassion from the general public, is this paradigm we are creating of fighting a permanent uphill battle the way to achieve our goal?

That goal, in my view, is to create an autistic community that is not excluded for their differences, but celebrated for the gifts they bring, and whose various difficulties are both understood and accounted for.

It may be an idealistic vision, but it is one worth aiming for. It will, however, require integrating into education schemes the daily, admittedly more “unremarkable” stories. Stories that document the success of everyone on the autism spectrum, including those whose autistic qualities are nearly imperceptible to the neurotypical, but are still unique in a misunderstood way.

That publicly held mental image of autism in itself allows for a fascinating thought. If the happiness of autistics from all across the spectrum in as much variety as it allows can be made publicly associated with the condition, it could end the days of stigma. It’s this stigma surrounding autism that has trapped it into such a detrimental narrative from which it is difficult to escape.

I hope members of the autism community will lead the way globally in this shift in the way we think of the autism spectrum, and one day, perhaps all mental and physical health conditions, too.

The actual answer to what makes autistic people happy is, of course, not a single, standard answer; there are no “standards” to work from or to in autism, nor any way to pin down “this is how to be happy.” Its very existence as a complex spectrum of so many variations leads to an neurological ID as personal as a fingerprint. Think of life as a card game as we all play our best cards at the best times, when the opportunity arises, in order to stay in the continuous stream of cards being laid down. We use good cards to compensate for bad ones that we can’t play.

I think of autism as a wild card in the game; it’s one of only a few characteristics (or in this case, a set) that is and can be whatever we choose to make it. A negative stigma on autism creates negative feelings about it; we act on negative feelings, creating negative actions; negative actions creates negative results.

We must use positivity and hope to create positive feelings, positive actions and positive results. What those results are, I cannot say beyond my own.

But, for anyone who did want to know what positive results, success and happiness look like to an autistic person; in this age of easy labeling, it shouldn’t be too hard to spot us, to find us. Leaving conjecture and assumption behind, as we must all eventually do, what’s the best way to find out someone’s reality? Find them, and ask them yourself, of course.

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you have his shoes.” — Billy Connolly

Image via Thinkstock.

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