I’m a high-functioning autistic person. At the age of eight I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, though that term is officially no longer in use; it now comes under Autistic Spectrum Disorder. I’ve known since I started blogging that having a named condition could be an interesting thing to write about, but I haven’t done so yet. Part of this is practical; I know that in this series of articles, I’ll mention some of my less-than-ideal traits, and when I say in a cover letter that I pride myself on my writing and that you can find it on my blog, I don’t want that to be the first thing that a potential employer sees (hi!).
I’ll go through why I’m reluctant to talk about my condition:
The first was embarrassment; when I was younger, I didn’t want anyone to know that I had what could be considered a disability (it has “disorder” in the name, right?). Over the last few years I have told enough of my friends that I have a condition to know that they either don’t care, or don’t know what it is.
Another reason is that I know that I have an attention-seeking streak. I’m very shy in large groups, so I let this manifest in other ways, like drawing attention to myself through my writing; I can’t deny that part of my motivation for writing this is that I like it when people read my stuff and tell me what they think. Especially when they say how articulate I am.
The main reason I have for thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t write about Autistic Spectrum Disorder is my own attitude towards my condition. For a start, I’m no expert on the subject. More importantly, having a diagnosis doesn’t make me any less vulnerable to prejudices towards people with autism. I have a few friends who are on the spectrum and most of them, like me, are high-functioning and, though it’s a horrible term, relatively “normal”. My knowledge about people with more severe autistic spectrum conditions is minimal.
The irony is that one of my autistic traits is to see things in absolute terms. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that, having at some point taken on board the idea that having Autistic Spectrum Disorder was a negative thing, I would have quite a negative perception of autistic spectrum conditions myself. That doesn’t excuse anyone, autistic or neurotypical, from having prejudices. I think autistic spectrum conditions are misunderstood, and it’s important to be willing to challenge one’s preconceptions, which is not easy.
Finally, I often feel that telling people I’m on the spectrum is a cop-out. I don’t think being slightly on the spectrum affects me severely, relative to the anxiety and self-esteem issues that I also have. So why mention it? I sometimes think having a named condition can function as a way of avoiding responsibility. If society shouldn’t have the same expectations of people on the spectrum as it would of neurotypicals, doesn’t mentioning that I’m on it imply a desire to take on less responsibility?
I wouldn’t make the same accusation of other people with autism, because I don’t know how it affects them. But in my case, I don’t think there has ever been an instance when naming my condition has enabled others to do anything specific differently to make circumstances easier for me. So I feel that the only practical function of telling anyone about my condition is to mitigate my mistakes.
Why even write it, then? Partly for the attention, partly because I like writing out my thoughts in this format, and partly because my blog isn’t really about anything, apart from me. And I do have some frustrations with how I think my condition is misunderstood, so this is a way of adding my voice to whatever discussion there is. I know I don’t know everything, but I’m sure a lot of people know even less. Of course, those people probably aren’t reading this article; my stuff will be read by my family and friends, who know me, many of whom are teachers and or have autistic family members and have knowledge, theoretical or practical, about the subject; probably more than I do. I’m more likely to confirm your beliefs than to bust any myths.
So, what do I think more people should know about the autistic spectrum?
One of the best things anyone said to me about the concept of my blog was that everyone is on the spectrum. I think that’s helpful to remember. I don’t have every autistic tendency, and a person with no diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder can have autistic tendencies; when I argue with family members over where to put something, it could be considered to be two peoples’ autistic tendencies clashing. There’s a reason why we talk about the Autistic Spectrum, not the “Autistic Box of People Who are all Exactly the Same”.
I find it helpful to see my condition as a personality trait rather than a condition. My autism can’t be cured, so there is no “Jack without the autism”. I’m quite an anxious person, and anxiety is a bigger issue for me than being on the spectrum. That’s one reason why I’ve found it hard to tell employers what they can do to make things easier for me; I don’t know which aspects of my worldview could be due to my autism, so I can’t quantify its effect on me. The most important thing is that, like neurotypical people, autistic people are all different.
If you’re a neurotypical person wondering what high-functioning autism is like, consider this: your perception of reality is completely unique, and you can imagine being another person, but you can’t know for certain whether what you’re imagining is right. Having autism has many similarities to not having it. I used to think most neurotypical people knew a few cheat codes to charm strangers, make friends, win people over, stand up for themselves, get laid, almost without thinking about it. I now know this isn’t true, and some autistic people are more outgoing than some neurotypical people, because we’re all individuals.
To illustrate this, as I was finishing up this post, somebody put a link to this quiz from an upcoming Channel 4 program on Facebook, which had some interesting results. According to this, I score lower for physical sensitivity and organisation than average (autistic people typically score higher). My social interaction score is lower than average, but higher than average for an autistic male. My score on the “Autism Spectrum Quotient” was around average for an autistic man.
I don’t think many people really understand what autism is, but the problem is that a lot of people think they do. I don’t know much beyond my own experience, and I’m diagnosed with the condition.
One thing that does bother me is the idea that people with autism don’t have an imagination. Last Tuesday I went to a Careers Fair for people with autism, and other hidden impairments, and a man from the BBC interviewed me about my job-seeking experience. While I was telling him how important it is to remember that everyone is an individual (go me!) I made a mistake; I said “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be more autistic than I am, or not autistic.” What I meant was “I don’t know what it’d be like”. I’m concerned that my choice of words might have fed the idea that people with autism don’t have an imagination.
I certainly do (although if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know). Like most children, I spent much of my childhood playing imaginary games with my sister and friends. Many of these games had derivative elements of films and books, but they still required imagination (I don’t think I’d embarrass my sister too much if I say we often pretended to be at Hogwarts). As an adult, I write fiction, and even when I take inspiration from situations that I have been in, it requires imagination.
The same goes for a sense of humour- I know I have one, though it might be different to yours. I’m not a good joke-teller; when I tell an anecdote, I’m not always sure whether the person hearing it realises what the funny part is meant to be. I know I can be witty if the opportunity arises, but it’s usually something only a few people will appreciate.
To conclude, I think it’s difficult and quite problematic to make generalisations about people with autistic spectrum conditions. I don’t think being on the spectrum myself gives me a more nuanced or less stereotyped view of other people on it, and it can cause me to examine my own behaviour to see whether I think I’m behaving in what could be considered an autistic way.
This article was updated on 9th May 2017.