What Is Autism?
Simply put, autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental difference. It presents differently in each autistic person. It means that autistic people have brains which are built in a fundamentally different way from non autistic people. More generally, autistic people have differences in how we process information, how we communicate and how we interact with the world.
Autism is sometimes referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC). Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism, so someone with an Asperger’s diagnosis is autistic. Many people within the autistic community are moving away from these terms as many of us do not feel that we are disordered, the term “condition” can be viewed as medicalising being autistic, and Asperger’s is generally not given as a separate diagnosis anymore.
Autistic people are often seen as quite different from our peers. We usually have what is referred to as a spiky profile – we excel in some areas and may struggle in others. For example, an autistic child may hit some milestones at the same time as peers, but they may also hit them early exceeding expectations for someone of their age, or may be at a similar level as younger children in others. Or an autistic adult may be a professional, highly skilled in their field, yet struggle to carry out household tasks.
Here’s a few things autism is not – it is not a disease. It is not a mental health condition, although many autistic people have co-occurring mental health conditions. It is not something that will ever go away. It does not mean the person is broken, and autism is not something that needs fixed. It does not mean that a person cannot be an active, contributing member of society.
The image below shows an image of an autistic brain synapses on the left and a non autistic brain synapses on the right.
Source: study led by David Sulzer at Columbia University Medical Center 2014
As a result of our differences in the way our brains are structured, autistic people literally experience the world in a different way – our senses take in information differently ( sensory ), we have differences in how we communicate with others ( autistic communication ) and process information.
It is the reason most (though not all) autistic people prefer to refer to themselves as autistic rather than a person with autism. Autism informs every experience, thought and action autistic people have. Many autistic people say that it is not possible to think of themselves without autism as there is no point where the autism stops and they begin. Autistic people often see our autism as an integral part of who we are. Many autistic people would not remove their autism if they had the opportunity – who would we be without it?
Being autistic does make some things harder, but it can also make some things easier. While our sensory differences can cause us difficulties, we can sometimes use sensory input to help us, and we can also experience sensory bliss. Many of us struggle with executive functioning, but we can also hyperfocus. Many autistic people feel that this evens things out.
Autism as a Spectrum
Autism is often referred to as a being like a spectrum. Some people believe that this means you have very autistic on one end, and mildly autistic on the other. This is not the case – all autistic people have different things they struggle with, and things like stress, how much sleep we have had, whether or not we are hungry, can all impact upon how autistically we present.
It is better to think of it like a rainbow. A rainbow is a spectrum of colours. We don’t consider blue to be superior to red – both are equally good. In the same way, there is no one brand of autism that is better than, or more autistic, than another.