What Is Autism?

Four small, silvery spheres, which are the fruit bodies of a fungi are framed by twigs to the left and a fallen leaf below them.

What Is Autism?

Autism is a name given to a spectrum of neurological differences. These differences are not new, and occur all over the world in people of all different ages, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations. While every Autistic person is different, many of us share common traits. Sometimes, these traits conflict with structures that are designed to accommodate non-autistic (allistic) people, and Autistic people can experience barriers to interacting with environments and situations that are not designed to accommodate our differences from allistic people. This does not mean that being Autistic is an inherently negative thing, just that we face barriers that allistic people do not, because much of the dominant society is already designed to accommodate the needs of allistic people.

Below are some common traits that many Autistic people share. It is important to point out that Autistic people are individuals and no two Autistic people are exactly alike. No Autistic person will have all the traits listed below, and this section is intended to give examples of common Autistic traits, not to be a measuring stick by which to judge all Autistic people.

Some common Autistic traits include:

Sensory differences:

Many Autistic people are more sensitive to some types of sensory input than the non-autistic majority. Some Autistic people might also be less sensitive to certain types of sensory input. This varies from individual to individual and one individual can be more sensitive in one area and under sensitive in another. For example someone might find bright lights overwhelming or might have difficulty filtering out background noise. Someone else might find light touch or certain textures overloading and painful, but have difficulty identifying sensations of pain or hunger.

Additionally, some Autistic people might experience co-occuring sensory differences such as misophonia, synesthesia, and central auditory processing disorder, for example. While some of these differences, such as most forms of synesthesia are neutral, others, such as misophonia can cause difficulty. Many of these difficulties could be reduced or alleviated by changing aspects of the environment to make it more accessible. The best approach to this is universal design, which is the process of thinking about accessibility when designing space or a service to make it accessible to the greatest number of people without requiring additional accommodation or work arounds.

To regulate sensory input many Autistic people stim. Stimming is a repetitive motion or behaviour and stimming typically meets a sensory or communication need. Most stims, like hand flapping, humming, or spinning are neutral or positive, and help Autistic people to regulate our emotions and sensory experiences, as well as communicating emotions.

Stimming is not limited to Autistic people. People with other disabilities that affect sensory perception, such as ADD, Schizophrenia, and Sensory Processing Disorder, may also stimm to help regulate sensory and emotional input. Even neurotypicals stim, although, because they are the majority, their stims tend to be normalized and therefore draw less attention. For example, many neuro-typicals stim by tapping their fingers or biting their nails. It is simply that Autistic people often stim in ways that are less common and more visible, in part because we are processing more sensory input that neurotypicals filter out.

It is important to recognize the positive role of stimming, particularly in light of the pressure many Autistics experience to stop stimming. If you are an older Autistic person who has been pressured to stop stimming, allowing yourself to stim can be helpful in managing sensory overload. If you find yourself in situations where you feel that it is in your best interest to be less visibly Autistic, check out our list of discreet stims. If you are a non-Autistic family member or professional please be respectful of the Autistic people in your life. Please do not pressure Autistic people to stop stimming or to replace non-harmful stims, simply because you think it’s weird or it makes you uncomfortable. Many Autistic people have written on the harm done by compliance based therapies, especially those that aim to to make kids look less Autistic or which enforce “Quiet Hands” (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6,7). Some parent bloggers (1,2,3) and professionals (1,2,3,4,5) have also written on the subject. The links provided are intended as examples, they are not exhaustive.

Sometimes sensory overload can lead to stims that are more negative such as head banging. It is important to remember that even ‘negative’ stims can be a form of coping or communication. It’s best to manage self-injurious stims by identifying the underlying cause, and then either removing the trigger or trying to find a less harmful stim to use instead of the self-injourous stim.

Communication differences

Autistic people tend to have differences in our non-verbal communication compared with non-autistic people. Some of these may be related to sensory processing, others may be related the way we think or process language. For example, many Autistic people are uncomfortable with direct, sustained eye-contact. Some people report finding eye contact physically painful, while for others it is simply overloading or distracting. Some autistics find eye-contact distressing enough that they prefer not to look towards the face of the person they are talking to, and may stand slightly turned away from the person, others have learned to fake eye contact by looking at a person’s ear or nose. Some Autistic people lip read to compensate for auditory processing differences.

Many Autistic people have difficulty reading body language and may have body language that is different from non-Autistic body language. These differences in body language can also mean that many non-Autistic people have difficulty reading Autistic people too.

There are also differences in how many Autistic people use language. Sometimes it takes us longer to process language, or we may have difficulty reading between the lines. This can result in a communication style that is more direct. Sometimes delays in processing language, or very visual styles of thinking, can lead Autistic people to interpret things more literally; it may take time for someone to learn what is meant by slang or by more figurative turns of phrase that are more commonly used by the non-Autistic majority.

The stereotype that Autistic people are incapable of lying is not strictly true, but many people do have enough difficulties reading the other person that the social manipulation involved in consciously lying becomes more difficult than it is worth in many situations. While it is possible for Autistic people to learn sarcasm, many of us have difficulty reading tone of voice. This can make it easier for us to miss a sarcastic tone, especially in people we are less familiar with.

Language differences

Some Autistic people experience delays in learning language, and even those who do not experience a formal delay in learning language may process language differently, or have difficulty with some aspects of language. This can include more obvious language issues, such as difficulty producing spoken language, as well as less obvious differences, like speaking in an “overly formal” tone (for instance, people may accuse us of “trying to sound like a textbook” when we are simply using our normal way of speaking), and having difficulty “code switching” (or adjusting what language we use in different contexts).

The language difficulties that many Autistic people have can also result from different causes. Language is a complex process and involves many different skills, including memory, executive function, the physical production of sounds, the ability to read and modulate tone, and so on. Some people may have difficulty “translating” visual thoughts into spoken language, while may have difficulty with other aspects of language such as auditory processing, or in modulating tone of voice, or recognizing whether they have spoken their thought out loud.

Many Autistic people find it easier to communicate through text, typing, or other alternative forms of communication. This can be true even of people who have otherwise high verbal ability. Just because someone is able to speak doesn’t mean that they might not also be able to benefit from having the option to communicate through text, if that is easier for them. Many Autistic people report losing some verbal ability during times of stress or overload. Again, these traits vary from person to person. There are some Autistic people who find spoken language easier and may have more difficulty with writing.

Emotional differences

Autism can be associated with differences in emotion and in emotional regulation. Many Autistic people report feeling emotions very strongly, but communication differences may make it more difficult to communicate those emotions. Sometimes difficulty with emotional regulation can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns. While not everyone on the spectrum experiences meltdowns or shutdowns they are an aspect of being Autistic that many of us have to navigate.

Meltdowns are an extreme flight or fight response that can be triggered by emotional or sensory overload. These are different from tantrums as they are not for the purpose of getting a response out of other people. Instead, many Autistic people will make efforts to find a safe, private, place if they are feeling that they are close to a meltdown, as meltdowns can be quite painful and embarrassing for the person having them.

Shutdowns are similar to meltdowns in that they can be caused by overload, however, they present in a very different way. Shutdowns may involve temporarily losing some abilities, and experiencing feelings of being stuck. Often a person experiencing a shutdown may be unresponsive or appear very sleepy. Sometimes a person may even become immobile if the shutdown is severe enough. Often to cope with a shutdown the person may try to restrict their activities and experiences. For example, someone might become temporarily withdrawn and only be willing to eat their favourite food or wear their favourite clothes. This is typically an attempt to reduce overload by only engaging with foods/ textures/ or experiences that are comfortable and easy to process.

Some, but not all, Autistic people experience some degree of alexithymia. Alexithymia is a difficulty in processing and identifying emotions. For some people this can include a difficulty putting their emotions into words, and for others it may mean that they are unsure of what they are feeling emotionally, or even that they perceive themselves as feeling no emotion. It can also cause people to have a more blunted emotional affect and not display emotions as strongly in their face and body language.

There is a myth that Autistic people lack empathy. This myth is untrue. In fact, many Autistic people report feeling excessive emotional empathy, to the point where being around other people can be  overwhelming. Others report difficulty identifying and feeling emotions in relation to other people, which may be linked to alexithymia. Some Autistic people also experience empathy for things that non-autistic people do not experience empathy for, such as inanimate objects, animals, and plants.

What many Autistic people do struggle with is reading other people’s emotions and knowing how to respond. This can lead to responses that are unexpected and out of step with how a neurotypical person would respond. This can lead to misunderstandings, especially when neurotypical perceptions of empathy often revolve around putting themselves in other people’s shoes and making assumptions (which may not always be accurate) about what the other person must be feeling. Autistic people are often very aware that how we would feel in someone else’s situation is not how a “typical” person would feel, so this particular expression of empathy may be more difficult for many Autistic people, as we may be more hesitant to make assumptions.

Difficulty reading neurotypical body language does not prevent Autistic people from developing a sense of justice, feelings for others, or having emotional responses to seeing others in pain, once we become aware of their feelings. Assuming that Autistic people lack empathy because we process feelings differently and may have difficulty reading non-Autistic people makes about as much sense as saying that neurotypicals do not experience empathy because they cannot read Autistic people’s emotional expressions and are only capable of caring about other people if they can see themselves in them. The reality is that while we may have differences in how we experience empathy, both groups are capable of both empathizing with, and failing to accurately read other people.

A need for structure and routine

Living in a world not designed for us, that often confronts us with overwhelming sensory experiences can be unsettling. It can be easier to manage sensory overload and anxiety when there is a certain amount of predictability. When things are predictable it’s easier to gauge how much energy one has to deal with certain sensory inputs, or to devote to a particular activity or social interaction. When things are unpredictable it becomes harder to gauge how close one is to hitting one’s limits. For this reason many Autistic people benefit from a certain amount of routine.

Additionally many Autistic people struggle with areas of executive functioning. This means that we may have difficulties with things like planning, keeping track of time, monitoring ourselves, or transitioning from one task to another. Executive functioning difficulties can also create a need for routine and structure to compensate for specific impairments.

Most people, Autistic or otherwise, tend to be more prone to rigid, and black and white thinking when they are stressed and overwhelmed. Because Autistic people are more frequently confronted with experiences of overload we may appear to have more rigid thinking. Like anyone else, we find it easier to learn, think creatively, process new perspectives, and be ourselves, when we are relaxed and comfortable and not overwhelmed.