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What Is Autism?

Autism is a form of neurodiversity.

  • Neurodiversity: The idea that there is no one ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ type of human brain, and that variation in neurological styles and functioning is a natural and valuable form of human diversity.
    • Defining “neurodiversity”
      • “The range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders)”
    • Defining “neurotypical”
      • Not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically diverse patterns of thought or behavior”

What Is Autism Not?

  • Autism is not a disease in need of a cure.
  • Autism is not contagious
  • Autism is not a defect
    • It is a natural variation of the human genome
    • Individuals vary in their abilities and non-abilities, and are each able to make their own valuable contributions to the world around them
  • For more information, check out this great article by autistic writer and advocate John Elder Robison, where he explores The Controversy Around Autism and Neurodiversity.

Dispelling Myths

MYTH: Autistic individuals want to be left alone.

REALITY: Many individuals who are autistic absolutely do want friends, however some may be less able to communicate their desires for a relationship or friendship in the same ways other people do, which may be misinterpreted by neurotypicals.

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MYTH: People who are autistic do not feel, express, or understand emotions.

REALITY: People with autism may perceive and express emotions differently. They may be less able to interpret emotions based on social cues such as facial expressions or body language, and may be less able to pick up on sarcasm.

By communicating about feelings directly , emotions will be better understood.

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MYTH: People who are autistic are usually either intellectually disabled or extremely intelligent

REALITY: People on the autism spectrum are extremely diverse in a variety of personal traits, just like people who are not on the spectrum. It is not accurate or fair to make assumptions about people’s intelligence based on whether or not they have autism, even if they communicate in ways that are unfamiliar to you.

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MYTH: If you know one autistic person, then you know them all.

REALITY: As mentioned above, the characteristics of autistic individuals vary from person to person along a spectrum. (Hence the term “autism spectrum!”) Every autistic person has their own individual characteristics and may or may not express the same traits as another autistic individual.

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MYTH: Vaccines cause autism.

REALITY: Research has found no link between vaccines and autism. The idea that the MMR vaccine caused autism was first proposed by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor and researcher. Dr. Wakefield’s research has since been widely “debunked.” His findings were not only shown to be inaccurate, but his research methods were found to be dramatically exaggerated and unethical, to such an extent that Dr. Wakefield lost his medical license over the controversy. Still, this idea persist in popular culture, and many parents continue to believe that autism is caused by vaccines, leading to an increasing number children and adults who are unvaccinated against deadly diseases. Children with autism are particularly at risk by such false beliefs about the dangers of vaccines.

 

Common Traits & Experiences

IMPORTANT NOTE: There is as much diversity in the autistic community as there is in the neurotypical community. As such, autistics may or may not exhibit any of the characteristics listed below. The intention here is to educate about experiences that some autistics might have. There is no single list of traits that can define the experience of autism for all autistics.

 

Experiences shared by some autistic individuals may include:

  • Social challenges
  • Sensory sensitivities
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetitive behaviors

 

Social challenges:

  • May have the inability to maintain eye contact
  • May misinterpret social cues
    • May not be able to interpret another’s emotions from facial expressions or understand the use of body language
    • May not react in the expected way
      • For example, some people may not show anger when upset, or cry when sad
  •      May be less able to communicate verbally, or respond when spoken to
    • May unintentionally challenge social norms
      • For example, some people may have different views on how to match clothing, about what type of clothing to wear, when to engage in particular activities (like when to listen to loud music)

Sensory Differences:

Autistic individuals may experience intense sensory sensations which can cause them to avoid situations which are difficult to process.

  • Individuals may experience hyper or hypo sensitivities:
    • Hyposensitivity: Lower than normal sensitivity to stimuli
    • Hypersensitivity: Acute and intense sensory experiences
    • These sensitivities can affect any or all of the senses, including:
      • Sound (Individuals may have to wear ear muffs which block out sound in noisy environments)
      • Light (Individuals may have to wear special glasses to block out light)
      • Touch (Individuals may be overwhelmed at being touched, or may need human contact in order to respond)
      • Taste (Individuals may experience tastes more intensely than neurotypical individuals, making some foods difficult or even impossible to eat)
      • Smells (Individuals may become overwhelmed at scents which do not seem to affect most people)

Restricted Interests:

  • Unusually intense or focused interests
  • May be extremely focused on one subject (e.g.):
    • Fascination with trains
    • Enjoys memorizing facts and/or numbers
  • Note: For some people on the autism spectrum, hyperintensity of focus on one particular subject or skill may enable an autistic person to acquire a greater level of skills or knowledge in a particular subject than neurotypical people. This intensity of focus and/or other character traits may be misunderstood by neurotypical individuals.

Characteristic Behaviors:

  • Insistence on sticking to routines
  • Repetitive use of objects
  • Staring intently at moving objects
  • People who are autistic may engage in “stimming
    • Stimming (self-stimulation): repetitive motions or other behaviors which the individual engages in for self-soothing purposes
    • Different types of stimming behaviors:
      • Flapping
      • Rocking
      • Echolalia (repeating phrases heard on tv)
      • Tasting/smelling objects
  • Why do autistic individuals engage in stimming?
    • Overstimulation: Stimming can help block out excess sensory input.
    • Understimulation: Stimming helps provide extra sensory input when needed.
    • Pain reduction: Repeated banging of the head or body actually reduces the overall sensation of pain. One hypothesis is that stimming causes the release of beta-endorphins in the body, which then causes a feeling of anesthesia or pleasure.
    • Management of emotions: Both positive and negative emotions may trigger a burst of stimming. We’ve all seen physical reactions to joy or excitement, such as jumping or hand-flapping. Frustration or anger may intensify a stim to the point that it becomes destructive.
    • Self-Regulation: Some stims serve the purpose of soothing or comforting. Many infants learn to suck their thumbs to relax themselves.

 

Just like neurotypicals, people with autism may also experience:

  • Psychological disorders
  • Learning/developmental disorders
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Communication disorders
  • Physical disorders
    • Gastrointestinal/food sensitivities
    • Motor coordination