This post is some personal observations I have made about people’s perceptions of The Autism Spectrum. When I refer to “people”, I don’t mean “all people”, I just mean the people I’ve encountered personally, whether in real life or talking to online.
When people first learn about autism, it’s because their new friend [be it a real person or a fictional character] has been described as “having autism”. These people, not really understanding what autism is yet, look at their friend’s characteristics and decide that all the traits they have are autism - that’s what autism is, it’s being like Sherlock, Abed Nadir, Einstein, that quiet kid in class, your friend’s nonverbal son. The stereotypes can be nice (look at all the aspergers characters in film, books and television, which paint most of them as eccentric, bad with people, but nevertheless geniuses) or they can be bad (like “Autism moms” complaining how difficult it is for THEM to raise their child… or Louis Theroux’ documentaries painting a bleak portrait of autism “sufferers”).
At this stage, the person learning about autism usually seems to think of it as a binary state… like a lightswitch. They’ll tell you you either HAVE AUTISM and are therefore exactly like the stereotype they’ve created (lights on) or you DON’T HAVE AUTISM because you’re not exactly like that stereotype (lights off).
If they’ve read up a little more, they might have seen the word “spectrum”. Now they have a more generalized view of autism. But they get the idea of “spectrum” wrong - they see it as a linear thing: a number-line, a scale, a dimmer switch or volume control, from Zero to Autistic — or from “low-functioning” to “high-functioning”. At that point they say silly things like “You’re very high-functioning!” or “No, but I mean like, the really really autistic kids, who, like, can’t do anything because they can’t talk”. They invent this linear relationship between a person’s verboseness and “how autistic they are”.
A lot of people seem to get stuck at this point, so I think the word “spectrum” requires some explanation.
When I see the word “spectrum” I immediately imagine a rainbow, or light being split from a prism. I’m sure most people do. And sure, the spectrum of colours is derived from the electromagnetic spectrum - we get different colours at different wavelengths - it’s a continuous range.
BUT- where does white light come from? White light is a combination of all those different wavelengths. You can create new colours by mixing different colours together. You can make colours brighter by adding a little bit of the other colours. You can mix the wavelengths together at different intensities. There’s a lot of ways of combining colours.
Which essentially what the autism spectrum REALLY is. Which is why labels like “high functioning” and “severely autistic” are dumb labels. Just because one autie excels at public speaking doesn’t make them unanimously “high functioning”. Conversely, I know of nonverbal auties who are masters of writing. To tell someone with a vibrant imagination, intense emotions, passionate interests and brilliant intellect that they’re “low-functioning” because they don’t vocalize their thoughts out loud is a massive insult. To refuse someone’s pleas of help because they’re “too high functioning” is also a shitty thing to do (I’m looking at you, ATOS).
There’s lots of ways in which we function, some of which are interdependent, others independent, and the levels vary wildly between autistic people, and they also vary wildly in non-autistic people too:
- Long-term memory
- Short-term memory
- Physical awareness
- Spatial awareness
- Vocal ability
- Verbal reasoning / ability to understand instructions
- Linguistic skills
- Mathematical and logical skills
- Executive function / Planning
- Ability to filter information
- Processing speed of sensory input
- Ability to focus / attention span
- Emotional self-awareness
[These might not be the exact distinct cognitive ‘functions’ as according to all the sciencey literature, this was verbatim]
I see my functions as a bar chart. In the version I drew it’s a prism splitting white light into the whole spectrum, but the different colours fade out at different places (and it’s a homage to Pink Floyd :p). That bar chart can vary throughout the day, be markedly different on different days, and is always changing over time.
In times of anxiety all the functionality unanimously drains out of me. In a nice chilled out environment it all comes trickling back.
When I’m in the zone doing something I enjoy, some of those rays of colour will be shooting off the image :D
(Note how there’s no lines on the image denoting the “average person“‘s ability towards a particular function, because this shit is nigh on impossible to quantify person-to-person. All you can do is compare yourself to yourself)
I think that’s more accurate than “low functioning” vs “high functioning” ??????????