The Side of the Autism Spectrum I Wish More People Would See
When searching for traits, characteristics, or “symptoms” of autism online, the first and the majority of information you’ll probably find focuses on the negative aspects, at least as perceived by the “official sources” and “leading spectrum experts.” It begins to sound like a broken record. “Lack of empathy.” “Rigidity.” “Cognitive inflexibility.” “Clumsiness.” “Obsessions.” “Fixations.” “Developmental disability.” “Socially awkward.” “Inappropriate.” “Impairments.” “Lack of eye contact.” “Emotional issues.” “Lack of communication.”
If neurotypical “normal” people see us that way and refuse to recognize or acknowledge our positive traits and treats us according to their exclusively negative stereotypes (if they have even formed an impression of us beyond the “Rain Man” stereotype at all), no wonder people on the spectrum experience higher rates of depression and self-harm. As I browse the web in search of some affirmative information about people on the spectrum (including myself) it becomes clear to me that internet sources and these “experts” tend to focus more so on the negative side of autism, rather than embracing the beauty of autistic people.
If only I could count the amount of times I have had people say to me, “Well you don’t look autistic.” “I thought autistic people were not able to talk.” “Do you have some sort of career plan considering autistics are not employable people?” These kinds of stereotypical remarks can make people like myself afraid of embracing being autistic. It’s a shame that we are categorized in a way that can make it hard for us to open up to people, because we are apprehensive of others’ reactions and prejudiced opinions.
It’s time to shatter the stigma associated with autism spectrum disorder.
I’ve decided to focus on writing about the “positive” aspects associated with ASD. The beautiful characteristics and traits most people on the spectrum have; the traits you don’t hear about because of the pervasive stereotypes.
Here are some positive characteristics many of us carry and that work in our favor. The traits that shine much brighter than the negative, traits we should embrace rather than be self-conscious of. We really do have a unique, distinctive and individual view of the world.
We usually have a good long-term memory, although many people on the spectrum struggle with short term memory problems (including myself). The average person can remember memories from when they were 4-6 years old. Many of us on the spectrum can remember much further back than that. These are usually very distinctive, unfamiliar recollections. Even when we learn things that do not intrigue us, we will often recall them accurately and relay the subject fluently as if we spent years learning that information, when actually we heard it once. Genius, huh?
My brain is an expert in remembering patterns and things in order. I have found myself often recognizing people I have seen before in cars, simply by remembering their car registration number. Or I can remember (with ease) people’s phone numbers by reading them out once or twice. But tell me your name? I’ll forget it in a couple of hours. In my case, it is the unusual details I remember the most and will stick with me forever. I pay attention to the most unusual things, and more than often, people will look at me like I need to be locked up in an institution rather than tell me that it is highly intelligent.
Many autistic people are highly intelligent. Some of us even hover at genius level. Einstein may have been autistic, as well as many other highly intelligent people. Some of us end up in careers where our special interests are strong — in my case, psychology and other science subjects, which I understand more than anything else. If we want to know about a subject, we won’t just research the main aspects, we will research and learn about every minor detail until we are experts in that field. This comes with fixation and obsessions but in my opinion, it works incredibly in our favor.
There is also a correlation between autism and savant syndrome. “Autistic savant” refers to individuals with autism who have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons. There have been cases where individuals on the spectrum have no verbal communication, but are able to play instruments without actually being taught, or have no concept of amounts of money or numbers associated with money, but are able to calculate large sums without using a calculator. The most well known case of this was Kim Peek, an autistic man who inspired the movie “Rain Man.” In my opinion, everyone on the spectrum has some sort of unusual ability or streak of genius.
I have no emotional intelligence or social intelligence. I don’t have the capacity to be aware, in control and express how I am feeling regarding emotions, which often results in me feeling confused, overwhelmed and perceived as lacking empathy towards other people because I simply can’t process my feelings. In such situations, I often experience sensory overload. I also feel like I am unable to express my feelings verbally and only have those thoughts in my head.
I also often misinterpret what people say to me. I don’t sense body language, sarcasm, certain jokes, tones of voice when people are speaking, when people are upset and even what people’s intentions are with me. I even went to the extent of asking my boyfriend what he meant when he first asked to take me out; my reply to him was “as friends?” I couldn’t work out why he wanted to take me out, which resulted in him feeling a little insulted. But of course he wanted to take me out as more than friends. I’m a catch! Through consistent research, understanding and support, he now understands why I asked this at the beginning.
Despite these difficulties, I excel in academic work. Everything I read, I absorb like a sponge; I am able to remember precisely (word for word) what I have read in order to help me in my academic work. My memory recall outweighs my difficulties entirely, and this is evident in my work.
We’re genuine, straightforward, and honest. No hidden agenda here. No double-meaning, either. No alter-ego, split-personality, or two-faced attitude. We don’t play head games or manipulate people. What you see is what you get. What we say is what we mean. In a nutshell, we don’t beat around the bush!
In my case, I’m sometimes a little too honest. If you ask me if I like your new hair cut and I genuinely think it looks like your mum cut it with a knife and fork, I will tell you! This often gets me into trouble as I don’t mean it spitefully, I just don’t have a filter for my thoughts. But hey, at least I’m honest!
Autistic people often pay exquisite attention to detail. As I have mentioned previously in my case, the way our brains work is to recognize patterns and connect dots in ways other people may not perceive. We can make some lightning-quick analogies between two seemingly vastly different concepts. We also don’t do things halfway; if we’re going to do it, we’ll do it, and if we’re not, then we won’t. If we decide (or realize) something is worth our time, we’re going to give it our full effort. “Just good enough” is usually not “good enough” for us.
Although people on the spectrum can struggle with seeing the bigger picture, they are often gifted with the ability to focus on details of things and situations. Because of this, they may able to come up with creative solutions to problems. Because people with autism have the ability to focus long and hard on their areas of interest, they can make great academic and scientific strides. As I mentioned previously, I excel in my area of interest, psychology, which has given me great insight into the way my unique and quirky brain works.
Little or no prejudice
Perhaps because we know what it is like to be different or “not normal,” people on the spectrum tend to be more accepting of others. We are more focused on people’s behavior as opposed to hierarchies or social position. We can teach the rest of the world a lot about accepting people for who they are, rather than pre-judging.
Many people on the spectrum are truly passionate about the things, ideas and people in their lives. We spend our time, energy, and imagination necessary to truly master our area of interest, and we stick with it even when it’s difficult and frustrating. We really are the meaning of the word passionate!
So there you have it! We’re not so bad after all, huh? With a little compassion, empathy and consideration, it would be a better world for autistics to live in. I say “us” a lot because I stand up for the people like me around the world who are frustrated as I am with the stigma associated with ASD. We are not impaired; we are unique, clever and passionate people who just have a different way of seeing things.
“Sometimes it is the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” — Alan Turing
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Getty image by Ross Helen.