5 Things I Want You to Know About Being an Autistic Person
There exist few mysteries greater than what exists within the minds of autistic people. No matter how thoroughly the topic is studied, contemplated and researched, autism will forever remain something difficult to understand. It is an extraordinarily rare and horrifying disease often caused by vaccines, gluten, circumcision and, of course, microwaves… I hope you know I’m being sarcastic. However, despite the sarcastic nature of my previous statement, you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been told such ridiculous “facts” directly to my face by so-called “autism experts” (AKA, someone whose third cousin’s mom’s aunt’s great-great-great grandfather’s pet raccoon Sparky had autism).
I understand. Autism can be a difficult subject to fully understand, whether you’re a specialist, relative of an autistic person or even an autistic person yourself. Despite modern advances in science, we are still unsure of what autism even is and how the lives of autistic people can be improved. However, the best source of information on autism isn’t always from textbooks or research essays, but rather, from autistic people ourselves. After all, statistics can only say so much compared to what genuine experiences can, and that’s why today I would like to go over some of the main things we autistic people want you to know both to help in your own understanding of our condition and to help you learn how to treat us in a more beneficial way, both for us and for you.
1. When you meet one autistic person…
…you’ve met one autistic person. Yes, despite the stereotypes seen in the media, every single autistic person is different, and, while we all share some similar characteristics, we are all vastly different people. In fact, not all of us get along, and we face conflicts and disagreements like anyone else. Some autistic people are quirky, fun-loving and pop-culture obsessed, while others are more quiet, reserved and logical, while others are both or neither.
2. Stimming is not scary.
“Stimming” is a shortened version of self-stimulation, the thing autistic people (and many others) may do to calm ourselves down and express emotions. Some of the more common ones you may be familiar with are hand-flapping, running, jumping, repeating words, rocking back and forth, swaying, chewing, and fidgeting. Stimming is something discouraged by many special education teachers, who may repeat the phrases like, “quiet hands.”
However, it’s time to reject the unfortunate silencing of those hands because hand-flapping (as well as all other non-destructive stims) can be both beneficial and actually essential to an autistic person. Along with being calming, stimming is also one of the many diverse ways we autistic people may communicate. For example, when I am nervous, angry, upset or happen to be focusing, I rock back and forth. When I’m excited, I flap my hands. The mentality behind “quiet hands” is one that stems from the philosophy of rendering autistic children indistinguishable from their neurotypical peers and punishing natural autistic behavior, which has fallen out of style in recent years due to the trauma it has caused many autistic people. We autistic people are sensory people. We may put our hands on anything soft, sniff anything fragrant, put anything sweet in our mouths and stare at anything pretty. When this natural function is prevented, we become uncomfortable and unable to focus. For example, when I’m writing my novels, rather than stereotypically hunching over my computer screen perfectly still, I’m actually chewing gum, rocking back and forth to the tempo of my music and rubbing my hands together. Stimming is just another way we autistic people function, and taking it away for the sake of making us look normal is counterproductive.
3. We don’t mean to be “annoying” or “creepy.”
I promise! Unfortunately, one of the biggest, most defining symptoms of autism is difficulty socializing and interacting with others. This can manifest itself in many different ways, whether an autistic person is loud and overly-talkative or silent and reserved. We also typically struggle making eye contact, which is another thing usually handled somewhat like “quiet hands” is: with scolding and punishment. You see, most neurotypicals understand how social interaction is meant to work and merely need a parent to reinforce it. However, we autistic people may lack this natural skill and must work at it if we wish to perfect it. Some autistic people work hard to “look natural,” while others do not; it is merely a personal choice. I myself actually studied etiquette books as a child, which caused me to learn how people “should” behave, but unfortunately they failed to teach me how people actually behave. Since I taught myself these formal mannerisms at a young age, they’ve stuck with me through all these years, which makes me a pretty uncomfortable person to be around. However, I have no intention of changing my behavior, as it is simply who I am. We autistic people tend to have special interests, specific obsessions we focus intently on, and no matter how quiet we may usually be, a conversation about a special interest will usually turn into an hour-long one with no sign of ending. The way we behave in social situations is simply a part of us, and it is a part that cannot be changed without our own conscious effort. Just don’t make me talk on the phone, and I should be OK…
4. It’s almost never “just” autism.
Many autistic people also experience depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD and bipolar disorder as well as neurological disorders such as epilepsy, Tourette’s and dyspraxia. Physical disorders such as bowel disease and hypotonia, as well as a plethora of learning disorders, may also be included. It is unknown why autistic people may face such a wide variety of conditions, but fortunately these are all issues that can be helped. However, it is important for you to exercise the same tolerance that you (hopefully) show autism when it comes to other issues, co-morbid or stand-alone. I for one, have depression, OCD, dissociation and dyspraxia. This just goes to show how vastly different each and every autistic person is.
5: Not all of us want a cure.
Many organizations involving autism have the same motive: to find a cure for autism. While this cause may seem noble at first glance, it should be said that there are actually many autistic people who love being autistic. From the different perspective it gives you, to the vastly different way of thinking, to the simple joy of having a special interest, being autistic can be a lot of fun for some people despite some of the drawbacks. Of course there are many autistic people who do wish for a cure, feeling that the pros don’t outweigh the cons, and some wouldn’t care one way or another. It is incorrect, however, to assume all autistic people “suffer” from autism, as many autistic people see autism as a gift. It can be hard to see the benefits of autism when you focus on all of the hardships we face, but it is essential to realize that if humans were computers we would not be broken but simply be wired differently. As Dr. Temple Grandin, a zoologist with Asperger’s famously said: we’re different, not less.
Getty image by malyshkamju