‘What is Autism?’ is a question that’s asked over and over but actually, when you dig beneath the surface, it’s actually very rarely answered.
Most charities and professionals will say this:
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.National Autistic Society, UK
This quote was taken from the UK’s National Autistic Society but most professional bodies, charities and texts will have a variation of this, if they haven’t directly copied it.
It’s nice and succinct but what this doesn’t do is actually tell you what Autism is.
Most definitions, like this one, are very wrapped up in clinical, deficit based ideals that actually don’t explain the ‘what’ they just explain what Professionals ‘see’, but they don’t actually give you the answer.
One could argue that it’s never answered properly because nobody knows – but that really isn’t the case either.
The simple answer is this:
Autism is the name of a type of human neurological system.
The human neurological system looks like this:
Yes it’s a scary photo. And yes those are eyeballs!
This is actually a lady called Mary, who died in the US in the 1880’s.
This is her nervous system and brain laid out in whole, which is helpful to remind us that what we commonly think of as the brain, is not just held within our skulls, but actually extends out into every part of our body.
Our brain literally covers our whole body
Neurology itself is the process of the body taking in information through the senses, translating that information into electrical impulse messages, passing it around the nervous system to the brain, where it is translated, passed onto the correct area and the brain then tells the body to act accordingly.
In a very basic way it’s about input and output.
Autistic neurology does this process slightly differently to typical neurological systems, in that the filters that translate the information in Autistic neurology allow much more sensory information to be passed through.
Due to there being more information passed through, this can mean differences in how long it takes to process, differences in how the information is understood and differences in how the brain responds to the information it’s deemed important or relevant.
Steve Silberman, the Author of Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity uses this analogy:
A Neurotypical brain runs on Windows, an Autistic brain runs on iOS, neither is broken, they just work differentlySteve Silberman, Author, Neurotribes
Traditionally these differences have been seen as deficits or as something wrong, simply because there is an assumption that what is seen as the typical way to do things is the right way to do things.
Autism has been viewed through a medical lens for a very long time, understanding has changed immensely, but the outdated and misinterpreted social and cultural notions of what Autism is still perpetuate, as much in the Professional world as they do in the outside world.
The world we live in has begun to question many of the beliefs that we, in our hubris, previously took to be solid facts. We’re now realising that many of our beliefs are fundamentally not solid fact at all – this includes ideas about Autism and the historical Professional reasoning that things can be typical.
“The idea of typicality is a statistical one, based on the assumption that there is an ‘average’ way of thinking or being. Attachment of the label ‘impaired’ to anything outside of this average is a misnomer- we don’t say that people who run below the ‘average’ speed are impaired.”Dr Amy Pearson, Developmental Psychologist and Researcher, University of Sunderland
It’s now starting to be understood by more forward thinking researchers that previous ideas about what we think about the world is based on fallacies.
What we think about Autism, much of which prevails in current thinking and is very much the narrative loose in the world, is very mired in old stereotypes, that the diagnostic criteria is very narrowly defined and very flawed, the diagnostic process is hugely subjective, that too many adults and children are denied recognition and appropriate support simply because decades of research has been built on effectively a foundation of sand.
What has been described as The Neurodiversity Paradigm has helped us reframe much of this and given us a new understanding of how human beings work neurologically.
Context is a wonderful thing, it allows us to make more educated choices and definitions, but sadly, in the world of Autism much of the context has been and is still missing, too many Professionals are still caught up in old ways of thinking and discuss theories which have long been discredited and thrown out like they are still current thinking.
Meghan asked me what autism is at its core. What would it look like if you stripped away the co-occuring conditions? Here’s my answer: