Everyone is not a little bit autistic, but everyone can relate to autistic experiences. Autism is a developmental disorder made up of human characteristics. So of course, you can always or occasionally experience a characteristic of autism and, yes, you can relate to an autistic person: that does not automatically mean you’re autistic.
Autism is a developmental disorder made up of human characteristics in three categories: communication, sensory processing, and executive function. To be on the autism spectrum, you experience characteristics in all three categories to a degree that affects your ability to function on a daily basis in the neurotypical world we live in.
The Categories of Experience
Executive function involves self-regulation skills dependent on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated, and successful executive function requires them to operate together.
Sensory processing includes all information taken in through the five senses. If you experience sensory processing disorder or difficulties, you experience one, a few, or all five of the senses differently than is typical; they can be highly sensitive, extremely insensitive, or switch between the two.
Communication struggles—or decreased social development—refers to atypical language development, difficulties understanding what others say, and difficulties communicating nonverbally—through hand gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and the like.
There are a lot of seemingly miscellaneous characteristics which actually fit into these categories too. Stimming, for example, is a way autistic people add a little control and calm to an overwhelming sensory environment. And obsessions, for example, are a result of executive function differences.
As an example of all three, I don’t use typical voice inflection or tone, I get completely distracted by vacuum cleaners to the point of not hearing anything else around me, and I will not remember instructions, names, or details unless they’re repeated or written down.
For example, I’m nonverbal in certain environments and situations, I stim by pulling my eyelashes out (I’m working on not), and changes to my regular routine can cause complete meltdowns (this includes adding an unexpected person to plans, showing up at my house unannounced, or keeping me from doing the things I do every day, like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watching Good Mythical Morning).
For example, I can’t accurately read facial expressions or body language, I’m highly sensitive to touch, and I’ll miss meals, showers, and dog walking if I’m doing a puzzle. This last one is an example of an obsession and executive function disorder. You can love puzzles too; you can spend hours on them, but if you can physically step away without significant, sometimes meltdown-inducing mental effort, that’s not executive function disorder. I’ve been forcibly carried away from a puzzle at 3 a.m. by a friend who insisted I get at least a few hours of sleep.
For a longer list of my experiences, I’ll refer you to 20 Characteristics of My Autism.
Please Relate to Me
I’m not hopeless—none of us are. My autism affects me in ways that mean I’m still able to have a nine-to-five job, relationships, my own small business, a dog, a rabbit; I pay my bills and I do my own taxes and I travel and sometimes I even do puzzles for just three hours instead of twelve. And even if I couldn’t do those things, I would be able to do others.
I’m autistic. Please, please, please relate to me—whether you’re autistic or not—but please do not tell me everyone is on the spectrum. Please don’t tell me everyone’s a little autistic.
When I hear that, I hear that my daily struggles are daily struggles for everyone. I hear that, since everyone is this way, I should be able to do the things everyone else can do. I hear that I should be able to focus even when there’s a light flashing somewhere; I should be able to make a doctor’s appointment on my own; I should be able to not have a meltdown when I’m struggling to explain something that probably seems more important to me than it should be.
When I hear you say that, I hear you say that my experience is the norm, and it is not. It’s not and that’s why it’s so overwhelmingly exhausting to be like this in a world that was made for people not like me. That’s why I can’t just add a friend of a friend to prearranged plans at the last minute. That’s why I can’t go to clubs or crowded bars or indoor swimming pools without risking a meltdown or a shutdown. That’s why I can’t just stop writing when I’m writing about a topic I care about; it’s not that I don’t want to stop, it’s that my brain will not stop for anything. It’s 2 a.m. right now.
That’s why my world—a largely internal world that does not operate normally—does not automatically fit into a world that is normal.
I learned to love my world, but it is not everyone’s world.
But Don’t Invalidate Me
This isn’t exclusionary; it’s realistic. I’m not cutting autistics out of autism diagnoses; I’m cutting non-autistics out of autism diagnoses so our experiences don’t get lost. Because, if our experiences and voices get lost in the crowd, we don’t get the help, the patience, the understanding we need to make it through this world alive and well.
Because that’s the fact: we need more help and extra time and tons of understanding just to make it through the day every single day. From ourselves and from others, we need understanding that our routines are more important than you think; we need help calling the doctor for a prescription refill; we need hundreds of answers to our hundreds of questions, and we need extra time to recover from daily experiences.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects sensory processing, executive function, and communication which makes me experience the world differently than is typical: in a way that is occasionally too much and completely out of my control, so I meltdown, shutdown, burn out, and retreat for several days to recover from sensory, social, and regular, everyday experiences.
Sometimes, I can’t speak—physically can’t speak—no matter how badly I want to. Often, I think I’ve said something practiced and perfect only to find out it’s been misunderstood. Sometimes, I use the wrong facial expression and convey the wrong emotion. Sometimes, I interrupt uncontrollably to say something that isn’t related to the conversation—even, or especially, during the conversations I want to have.
What I’m trying to say is communication is hard for me. That makes communicating the ways in which I relate to you difficult as well, but connection and empathy are not hard. They’re automatic. If you’ve heard autistics can’t connect or empathize, then you’ve heard it from someone who hasn’t really tried. I want to connect with you; I want to hear you relate to me, and I can relate to you too. But to do that, I need you to validate my daily experience. Don’t tell me it’s like everyone else’s, because by definition, it is atypical.
And, hey, if you’re reading this and still thinking something like, “I relate to all those things so I disagree; everyone is a little autistic,” welcome to the family, baby, you’re probably an undiagnosed autie.