When many people think about what autism looks like, their imagination often doesn’t extend far beyond socially awkward savants or tantrum-throwing elementary school children. Sheldon from the “Big Bang Theory” may come to mind.
However, stereotypes like these fail to meaningfully represent autistic experiences. One small way to support autistic people, even beyond Autism Acceptance Month in April, is by broadening your understanding of autism. There is no one way to be autistic, and all autistic people deserve acceptance.
First, it helps to have a working definition: Autism is a developmental disability characterized by different ways of thinking, feeling, socializing, communicating, moving and/or navigating everyday life. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network goes into more depth on their website.
Autistic people are as diverse in neurology as allistic (non-autistic) people, and we all have varying levels of ability and comfort in each of these areas. You can’t know whether someone is or is not autistic just by looking at them, and it can be damaging to label people as “more” or “less” autistic, especially with language like “low-functioning” or “high-functioning.”
Rather than thinking of autism as a linear spectrum, imagine a color wheel; each section of the wheel can be labeled with one of the six general categories, and each person falls at a different place in each section depending on their ability and comfort levels. Artist Rebecca Burgess explains this in comic form.
I am not “visibly” autistic; I am privileged because I am speaking, able-bodied and perceived as productive in society. However, my autism deeply informs the way I interact with the world, in positive and negative ways.
Just like allistic people, autistic people each have their own realities and experiences that are far more complex than stereotypes.
On the surface, some of us may appear to fit the savant stereotype because we specialize brilliantly in one field or skill or succeed all-around academically. At the same time, this often leads others to reduce our personhood to just our “useful” abilities, which can be profoundly isolating.
It sends the harmful message that allistic society does not value autistic people without special skills. Even those of us who excel in our interest areas face pressure to constantly maintain a high-achievement level, often leading to burnout.
Only about 10% of autistic people are considered savants. On the other hand, special interests are a hallmark of autistic thinking for 75 to 95% of us. Special interests are lifelong or short-lived passions that can overlap with academic interests or center around hobbies, media, etc. Because of these, allistic people tend to consider us gifted and artistic, or childish.
A more realistic and accepting portrait of autism would acknowledge a wide range of intellectual abilities, needs and interests. Our cognitive differences may mean that we learn at a different pace than others or that we problem-solve in ways that no one else would.
Some autistic people, including adults, do experience meltdowns. These are distinct from tantrums and often happen involuntarily when our senses are overwhelmed. We can be sensitive to external stimuli, like loud noises or harsh lights, and we can lack sensitivity to internal stimuli, like when we’re hungry.
Stimming — including repetitive actions such as fidgeting with hands, playing with hair, clicking pens, rocking back and forth, repeating words or phrases, etc. — is one way for autistic people to regulate our senses, combatting both overstimulation and boredom.
Some stims may be distracting to others, but many are unnoticeable. Fidget toys have become increasingly popular, and even allistic people can enjoy their benefits.
Other assumptions about autistic people usually revolve around social, verbal and physical ability. To deal with these briefly, the important thing to remember is that there is no single way to be autistic.
Autistic people may be extroverted and friendly, introverted and shy or anywhere in between. For some of us, interpreting others’ expressions or feelings can be difficult, or we might struggle to express our own feelings or modulate our tone. We may speak fully, selectively or not at all, and may use alternatives such as visuals, text or text-to-speech to communicate.
Many of us experience motor difficulties, which could look like general clumsiness or having trouble coordinating movement in our hands. Motor difficulties are also associated with co-occurring conditions like Down syndrome; autism is relatively common in people with Down syndrome, for example, though Down syndrome is uncommon in autistic people.
We may or may not have co-occurring conditions, but as with autism, these shouldn’t be assumed. Many relate to mental health and can be influenced by our environment; autistic people may be at higher risk for anxiety, depression and eating disorders in part because of how our families and peers treat our autism.
The best way to understand autistic people is not by boxing us into categories, but by listening to us. In the modern age, a lot of autistic self-advocacy happens through social media; I’ve found that autistic creators on TikTok provide a particularly valuable window into our daily lives.
On the flip side, be wary of organizations like Autism Speaks that rely on a rhetoric of awareness, causes and cures without meaningfully supporting autistic people.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network illustrates how “Autism Speaks talks about us without us” and provides a variety of resources by, for and about autistic people. Spectrum is a more research-oriented information hub that can also deepen your understanding of autistic experiences.