Rhi, a self-advocate, discusses being on the spectrum, especially how she differs from other people with autism. Rhi astutely states that the stereotype society has for people with autism is ill-defined and incorrect; she writes this post to illustrate that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and suggests ways to embrace one’s talents. This was originally posted on Rhi’s website.
NOTE: Rhi prefers to describe people with autism as “autistic people;” OAR prefers to describe people with ASD as “people/person with autism.”
Neurotypicality is a spectrum.
Neurotypicality: a brain that works like most of the population’s, i.e. not autistic or epileptic or any other kind of neurodivergent brain type.
It’s not something that you usually have to state, because nobody expects people with brains that work in expected ways, to all behave identically. That would be ridiculous.
A spectrum condition is a condition with many possible presentations, that all have the same reason behind them. An autistic person may be incredibly tactile and love to be hugged, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions. An autistic person may hate to be hugged, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions. An autistic person may only like to be hugged by those they know well, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions. An autistic person may only like to hug when they are happy, but loath physical contact when under stress, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions.
The important bit there is the reason behind the behaviour. If a non-autistic person doesn’t like to be hugged – perhaps because they have a fear of intimacy – then the behaviour isn’t an “Autistic Spectrum” behaviour, it’s a “Neurotypical Spectrum” one.
It is a myth that we are all on the Neurotypical Spectrum. Sometimes I make eye-contact, but I’m doing it fleetingly, to scan for reactions to my actions and make sure that my analysis of words and body language are correct. I’m not doing it because my social processor has suddenly kicked in, and I now love eye-contact and can’t get enough of your baby-blues.
Spectrum conditions can be very confusing. Particularly if you boil them down to a list of behaviours and tick them off. I wrote recently about how I had never thought of myself as literal, but I am a very literal person, I just have little routines I have written to deal with the figurative. I struggle when someone uses imagery that doesn’t work with where my mind wants to take me, and when I’m tired I cannot work beyond literal statements.
I am also sarcastic. Sarcasm is supposed to be difficult for some autistic people, because it’s not being literal, but actually it’s only a single simple step away. Sarcasm is literal turned upside down to show its ridiculous, pink, underbelly. It is not lying, it is stating the truth by holding up a mirror to it.
I love using sarcasm, because I have full control of my expressions, and my deadpan humour is utterly convincing. My sarcasm can vary from subtle (where the absurdity of the statement carries the humour) to the intoned (where tone of voice needs to be added to be sure sarcasm is recognised).
I love to create a juxtaposition between the ridiculous and the genuine. It’s a pattern that I have carved into my communication. I love to laugh and make jokes. I have even made an egg-pun that I am proud of, and that’s no small achievement, eggs are a hard cell at the best of times (I’m so sorry).
My sarcasm’s roots are in my autism. I grew up watching The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Blackadder and Red Dwarf. British comedies steeped in sarcasm. My language littered with echolalia, I stole phrases and intonation that I still use today. Too slow, chicken Marengo, too slow for this cat.
I learned to answer the obvious non-question with sarcasm,
“Is that a cigarette you’re smoking, Listy?”
“No. It’s a chicken.”
I learned to deflect my mistakes, to become eclectic, to use language as a shield. It became my pattern and my problem solving and my game. It’s source? A social communication condition. I mirrored phrases and intonation, because I was learning ways to connect and to keep my distance, and that’s how I built my social-self.
I am fragments of everything I’ve ever watched and thought, “I like that!” I am sarastic because its simple form appeals to me, not because I’m neurotypical. Before I got a hold of the reins of sarcasm, I broke all the rules. I took it too far, I was more Sarcastic Ray than Rhi. What a personal disaster.
As a teen I often immersed myself completely in a new communication style, obsessively repeating the same patterns, until something settled inside and I was able to bring my own personality to bear on my new skill. I have no doubts about how infuriating I must have been during these stages. I repeated the same things ,with the same intonation, over and over and over until my family despaired. Why wouldn’t I? It brought me the same joy each time and repetition is routine, routine is safety.
I can find “symptoms of neurotypicality” in me, but the reasons behind them are always rooted in my autism. It’s an important distinction to make. We are not all “a bit neurotypical” we just all share some visible behaviours. We are not all “a bit on the spectrum”, because that ignores what the spectrum is actually trying to explain.
Whenever anyone says something like, “We are all a little bit autistic”, I wince inside. You either process social communication automatically, or you don’t. My conscious processing of social communication is not the same thing as your automated perception. My brain can still see you, and I can use all the things I have learnt in every communication I have ever had, to match your body language and subtleties to your meaning. I can do that, but for autistic reasons and with an autistic brain.
I can never be a little neurotypical. I can keep perfecting my conscious processing until it is fast, efficient and mostly correct, but that doesn’t mean I will reach a point of altering my brain to take over the function for me. I can never hand it the keys to the car and say “You drive, you’ve got this”. It will always be something I have to do alongside all the other conscious communication everyone has to do. It will always take up space.
We need to get away from this idea that there is a line from ‘Really flipping Autistic’ to ‘Couldn’t be more Neurotypical’. That line doesn’t exist, and it never has. Your brain works one way or the other. Aspects of autism will affect you more or less. Your sensory issues may be so profound that they interfere with everything you do, or you may have little to no sensory issues at all. You may find eye-contact painful, or it may be a pattern that you like.
When people’s autistic presentation appears in a pattern that matches more closely the world that is before us, we say that their autism is mild. When people’s autistic presentation clashes with the world, when it stands out and is un-ignorable, their autism becomes more visible. Most autistic people will have some aspects that clash, and others that work.
Our lives are made easier when we are able to find techniques to minimise the clashes (ideally through accommodations rather than bending ourselves), and accentuate our strengths.
There is no point in me working against myself, I have many strengths, and working with my autism makes them stronger. My problem-solving, my ability to see the detail within the whole structure, my pattern-thinking, my non-judgemental logic, my yearning to understand, my hyper-focus, my honest communication, my belief that the world can change for the better, my pragmatism, my creativity that I bring to everything I do, my strong empathy for others. Rooted in my autism is everything I need, to be who I want to be.
My sensory issues need to be minimised (noise cancelling headphones, dark glasses etc), I would ideally be able to keep communication purposeful and away from smalltalk, any changes to routine or plans would be presented as early as possible to maximise my efficiency. I will never remove all my clashes from the world, but the aim would be to reduce the energy drain to a bare minimum.
‘I’ve got a plan so cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel.’ This is not about denying difficulties and focusing on strengths, it is about dealing with each autistic person as a whole. How can we make your environment work for you? How can we improve things? How can you work to your strengths, and how can we support the things you find more difficult? These are the questions we need to be asking. Though perhaps we need to narrow them somewhat; no one likes an open question with a billion variables rushing at you, clamouring for attention.
Only when we understand what the spectrum means, can we begin to understand how to support people on that spectrum. Only when we start seeing the individual within the pattern, can we support that person to be who they want to be.
I’m not a dreamer, I’m an optimistic pragmatist. Whenever the future starts to look bleak, I look back on how far we have come. Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, even in the last five years we have come so far. Neurodiversity is making a space for itself in this world. It is firmly taking its place at the table, and it is here to stay. Now let’s work together and see what happens next.
Rhi is a multi-media blogger: she uses her personal website (http://autistrhi.com/), Twitter (@outfoxgloved), and Facebook (AutistRhi). In addition to blogging, Rhi is a poet, playwright, and public speaker.