What Is Autism?

You might think that the question 'what is autism' would have a simple answer.

The National Autistic Society say that 'Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them'.

The NHS website tells us that 'Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a range of similar conditions, including Asperger syndrome, that affect a person's social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.'

The dictionary says that autism is 'a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour.'

All these definitions focus on autism as a disability or a disorder. ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder, after all, so it's in the name. And yes, being autistic comes with its difficulties. But a lot of those difficulties are within the context of a neurotypical world. Neurotypical means that you have a 'typical' brain and neurodiverse means you have a brain with some kind of difference. Examples of neurodiversity include autism, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette's. The concept of neurodiversity is that having a brain that's different isn't bad. It's part of the spectrum of human experience. Some people are tall, some are short, some are neurotypical, some are neurodiverse.

We may seem different because we ARE different. Our brains are 'wired differently' as some like to say. But that doesn't mean our brains are worse. A linguist's brain isn't worse than an engineer's brain simply because the linguist can't build what the engineer can. They have different abilities and different weaknesses. The reason some of the difficulties autistic people face are so pronounced is because the majority of the population don't have the same difficulties. The world is catered to neurotypical people and their problems, not neurodiverse people and theirs. It's like being a linguist in a world of engineers.

The foundation of the idea about the 'difficulties' that autistic people have is called the 'Triad of Impairment'. I used to accept this as gospel, but now I do an little involuntary sneer when I hear the phrase. A summary of the Triad of Impairment is as follows, taken from the Sycamore Trust:

Triad of Impairment

The Triad of Impairment refers to the main difficulties that people with Autism have:

  • Social Interaction: resulting in difficulties with social relationships, often appearing aloof and indifferent or having no awareness of personal boundaries and socially acceptable behaviour. Some will only show affection to others on their own terms. They may prefer their own company and tend not to seek the companionship of their peers.
  • Communication: People with Autism may have difficulty with verbal communication with some having no language at all. Others may be echolalic, that is, repeating words and phrases that they have heard. They may talk incessantly about one particular topic that interests them but not be aware of others reactions. Some may also have problems with non-verbal communication, for example, not understanding the meaning of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice.
  • Imagination: People with Autism may have difficulty in the development of interpersonal play and imagination. They may display a limited range of imaginative activities for example only playing with trains or dinosaurs. They may appear to be creative but are often recreating scenes from television programmes or films which are often pursued rigidly and repetitively.

This is clearly focused on what we can't do and makes pejorative comments on the way we behave. But what if we reframed these behaviours as 'differences' rather than 'impariements'? We interact with people differently. We communicate, but maybe not in the way you expect us to. We use our imaginations in ways that neurotypical people no not. Let me quickly add what autism is not. It is not a learning disability. It is not low IQ. It is not a mental illness. These are common misconceptions but they are all separate things.

At the end of the day, the best thing to do to learn about autism? Ask autistic people! Talk us and our family and friends. Browse our blogs, follow us on social media, read our books. That will give you a lot more information than sterile definitions like the ones above.