Defining Autism: It Gets Worse
Okay, so autism isn’t just one thing. It’s a spectrum. And the spectrum might be larger than we think.
I’m going to set aside most of the spectrum and focus on two specific forms of autism: Asperger’s Syndrome- folks who have that are nicknamed Aspies- and classical autism- to whom I refer as the Classics, because that makes them sound like a doo-wop group.
I use the words Asperger’s and autism interchangably, because Asperger’s is a form of autism.
Aspies tend to be more functional. Their social skills are less impaired, and it’s easier for them to understand how to function in the world. Classics come across as more otherworldly, and sometimes don’t talk.
So that’s simple enough. I mean, I wish I could define Classics in some way other than “more otherworldly”, but there’s really no better way.
Now here’s the part where it all goes to shit.
What we know as Asperger’s Syndrome may in fact be a couple of different disabilities.
For instance, some people with Asperger’s are really good with math, science, and music. I call them Mathpies, which is a term my sister’s Mathpie boyfriend invented.
Some people with Asperger’s are really good with language. I call them Linguistics.
That basic distinction leads to significant differences in personality and skill sets.
Mathpies tend to be more socially awkward, and often have a difficult time with humour, especially irony and sarcasm. That’s because these skill sets are linguistic. A lot of social skills are language-based, and if you read a lot- especially fiction- you’ll develop a feel for how conversation is supposed to work. And irony and sarcasm are shades of grey- colours which don’t appear in math. The Mathpie brain isn’t wired to handle such concepts.
Mathpies also tend to be more inflexible, and will often strictly follow rules. Basically, they behave like math.
Linguistics often find it easier to learn social skills, although they might be just as hapless as their Mathpie kin at diciphering body language and facial expressions. They are often very funny people, and their humour will usually be heavily sarcastic, ironic, or dark, disturbing and offensive in some way. They will be rigid, but less so than Mathpies. They will generally follow rules, while recognizing that situations are complicated, and they can adjust their behaviour accordingly. Basically, they behave like grammar, which is rigid except when it’s not, and follows basic rules and principles except for all the exceptions.
I’ll compare both of these groups to neurotypicals, who I would say are like avant-garde jazz. Their way of being has an underlying structure, and you can get used to it after awhile, and maybe even enjoy it eventually, but when you’re first confronted with it you think to yourself, “What the hell is that supposed to be?” There’s just too many notes, all over the place, and it’s so complex and chaotic that it can be overwhelming.
Basically, neurotypicals are driving me to an early grave, and they need to get their shit together.
This distinction isn’t the only one that exists within the Asperger’s community. I’ve also noticed that most Aspies are either hypersensitive or hyposensitive. This leads to a big difference in terms of personality and lifestyle choices.
Hypersensitive Aspies are more sensitive than usual to one or more of the human senses: stuff like taste, smell, and touch, but also things like proprioception (basically, the sense of personal space- sensitive Aspies have huge personal bubbles).
Personally, all my senses are more sensitive than normal. This leads to all sorts of interesting problems: for instance, I’m a picky eater, I don’t like most physical contact, and I have a hard time with crowds. Because I’ve been this way my whole life, I know how to navigate the world in this manner. I’ve given up asking other people to accommodate me, because there are so many different variables that affect what I need. I’m excellent at thinking on my feet and reacting quickly to a wide range of situations, and so I make my own accommodations on the fly.
The hypersensitive Aspies I know tend to be withdrawn and shy. They crave a quiet, predictable life. I’m no exception to this.
The other group are the hyposensitive Aspies. Honestly, I have a hard time understanding them. They crave stimulation, and actively seek it out. They are kinesthetic, exploratory people who lead bombastic lives. Hyposensitive Aspies often have little regard for boundaries of any kind, physical or emotional. They have huge personalities, and take up a lot of space.
Then- yes, there’s a then- then there’s the empathy thing.
There’s this bullshit rumour that autistics can’t feel empathy, like we’re all cat killing sociopaths or something.
Most Aspies I know feel a surplus of empathy, and a surplus of feelings in general. I belong to that category. I feel things so much that sometimes it hurts. There are so many feelings, and at such high volume, that they can be overwhelming, disorienting, and sometimes even painful. So I withdraw. I retreat into the cool arms of logic. The world is quiet there.
Unfortunately, when Aspies do this, it can make us come off as aloof, cold, or uncaring. But to a certain extent, we’re making a choice not to feel things, because sometimes that’s the only thing that makes us feel safe.
However, some autistics really do have difficulty with empathy, and are not particularly emotional. I suspect they’re in the minority, but it’s been difficult for me to ascertain this. Talking about feelings with other people is complicated, because everyone feels things differently. It’s hard to make comparisons. Maybe we shouldn’t even try. Maybe comparisons are meaningless when it comes to feelings.
You feel this way, and I feel that way, and these things mean different things to each of us, and that’s okay. Maybe that okayness is what we should be focusing on.
Anyway, my suspicion is that there are deep and significant divides within the diagnosis of Asperger’s. There are Mathpies and Linguistics for starters, and the hypersensitive and the hyposensitive, and people who feel a lot, and other people who feel a little. It seems arbitrary and foolish to lump us all together into one diagnosis, and yet we do have a lot in common, and as far as I can tell, we’re kin.
Maybe that’s what counts. Just don’t presume we’re all the same.