Apparently, today is World Autism Awareness Day.
In the US, this seems to have been co-opted by the eugenicist pressure group posing as a charity who call themselves Autism Speaks, so a lot of people there have been fighting that by talking about Autism Acceptance instead of awareness.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the main promoter of the awareness thing is the National Autistic Society, which actually does stuff to help autistic people.
So, I’m just going to talk about autism, and you can be aware of it or accept it as you choose.
I am autistic.
I don’t know exactly what my diagnonsense is at the moment. I got given various different labels growing up, and for a long time in my adult life I thought a label would be more trouble than it’s worth, but I’m going through the formal process now to discover what that label would currently be.
But I definitely have something in the autism spectrum. To show what I mean, I just (re)took a standard diagnostic test online. Here’s my result:
For those who can’t read stuff in images, that’s a table of results. And it’s interesting because right there I’ve shot down one big myth about autistic people.
There’s a belief shared by many that there are “high functioning” and “low functioning” autistic people, and that “high functioning” people are somehow qualitatively different from low functioning ones. The usual dividing line there seems to be whether someone has verbal skills or not.
Looking at that, as you can see, I get a slightly higher score (and am therefore slightly “lower functioning”) than the average for autistic people, but well within the normal autistic range, on the overall test. But look at the breakdown. I actually do better than the normal neurotypical man on language skills, one of the usual problems autistic people have. But then look at sensory/motor problems — the average neurotypical man scores 17, the average autistic man scores 35, I score *sixty*.
So, when it comes to understanding the English language, I am slightly “higher functioning” than most neurotypical men. When it comes to unimportant things like being able to eat food without getting it all over my clothes, or carry things without dropping them, sit down without injuring myself, that kind of thing, I’m very, very, “low functioning”.
So functioning labels are useless, as they are for most. I’m autistic, and every autistic person is different.
So I’m going to talk about what being autistic feels like, from the inside, to me. I’ll be throwing in things that are more to do with my comorbid conditions — in my case asthma, migraine, depression, anxiety, dyspraxia, psoriasis, and probably some others I’m missing — because these things all interact with each other, and are all part of the same big THING that is the way in which I differ from other people. Most autistic people have some set of comorbidities like this — it’s all part and parcel of the condition.
So… autism is
Having to cross the road every day on my way to work at my old job, because I couldn’t walk past Lush and the Body Shop without nearly choking.
Having music more wonderful than anything I hear in the real world playing in my head a lot of the time. I can hear every instrumental and vocal line precisely.
Being unable to get that music out in any real way, because my hands and voice won’t do what I want to no matter how much I practice.
Remembering that the song Tex Beneke sang as his audition piece for the Glenn Miller orchestra was “Brooklyn Cowboy”, because I read that in a book when I was eight. Basically just remembering *every* fact about anything I find remotely interesting.
Not remembering *anything* in the functional memory sense. I will never remember to take the bin out, or to water the plants, or anything like that. Never.
Noticing *everything*, and being able to find patterns in *everything*. Being able to write a book like An Incomprehensible Condition in about three weeks because everything connects to everything else in your head.
Being autistic means, among other things, having no filters on input. Where most people only notice relevant things, we notice EVERYTHING. This means that everyone else, for example, is constantly shouting about ten different things in their body language and tone of voice.
The paranoia that comes along with that. “Oh, my boss said I did well at work, but he looked over to one side as he was saying it, so he was probably lying, but his voice sounded sincere, so does he mean that I’m doing well, or does he want me to think he means I’m doing well when really he means I’m doing badly, or does he want me to think that he thinks I’m…”
Being utterly honest with everyone as a result, because playing social games when you’re never sure if you’re five steps ahead or five behind is impossible, and thus making the kind of good friends who *appreciate* honesty. The best people in the world.
Being unable to play the kind of social games that are necessary to have more than a tiny number of friends, or to flirt. Flirting for me and many other autistic people, is either being oblivious to anything coming from the other person when they initiate it, or accidentally crossing lines I don’t know are there and being creepy as hell when I do the initiating. So I don’t.
Being unable to get to sleep until twenty hours after I get up, no matter how tired I am.
Being unable to catch a ball.
Being able to read three books a day from about the age of three. I’d read Catch-22, 1984, most of Wodehouse, most of Twain, chunks of Dickens, pretty much every classic science fiction or fantasy book, and books by Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking and others before I was ten.
Having read those books during play time at school instead of playing with the other kids, because they thought I was weird and I couldn’t catch a ball.
Being able to see patterns. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s important, and possibly crucial to the autistic experience I think. I once quit a job, because I knew the company was going to fail. I knew it was going to fail because I had been reading about cancer biochemistry, and noticed an isomorphism between the structure of the company and that of a tumour. The company collapsed, fairly suddenly, a few months later. But other times you see patterns that just aren’t there. There’s a reason why so many conspiracy theorists are aspie. You know when you see faces in clouds? Having autism is like that for *EVERYTHING*
But god, some of the patterns are beautiful.
Having no energy, ever, because literally every interaction with human beings has to be mediated, as if you have to translate every sentence you speak from English into French, and from then into Chinese, in order to communicate with everyone. When you suggest that they might try to learn at least French, if not English, so they could communicate better with you, you get told both that you have a communications disability and that you should meet them half way. But if you learn to do this too well, you get told you’re “high-functioning”, don’t need any accommodations made, and don’t have any right to an opinion about things that affect “low functioning” people.
Having only three pairs of socks you can wear, because you can’t cope with seams, or synthetic fibres, or natural fibres that are too smooth. And they don’t make that brand of sock any more.
Being constantly aware of your toenails, as a weight pressing down on your feet.
Being terrified you’re boring people, because you can’t read the signals, but being unable to shut up because the details of the 1990s lawsuits over the rights to Miracleman are just so *fascinating*.
Spending all your time worrying that just by being yourself, in a world run to rules that you can’t properly comprehend, you’re hurting other people.
Being told that you have no empathy.
Only being able to eat about five different foods, between weird stomach problems, allergies, migraine triggers, and sensory issues. Choosing food not on the basis of “do I like this?” or “is this healthy?” but “can I physically stand to be in the same room as this substance?”
Unconsciously counting up to 1023 in binary on your fingers while talking to someone.
Generally having bits of your body act autonomously, without you really noticing.
And so on.
For me, at least, autism is sometimes disabling, but at least as often it’s the reason I get kinds of joy and excitement that I honestly believe are closed off to many other people. But as you can see from the stuff above, it’s so tied in to who I am that it makes less than no sense to talk about it as something separate from me. It’s shaped — it *is* — both my body and my personality.
But almost all the disabling aspects of autism come, not from autism itself (though some do — it *is* a disability, and quite a severe on), but from other people’s attitudes. Autistic people go 95% of the way to accommodate neurotypicals, ask the neurotypicals to go the other 5%, and get told “that’s completely unreasonable! Why won’t you even meet us half-way?”