For the last three posts (Myths about Asperger’s & autism Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I droned on and on about the various stereotypes and misconceptions the general population has formed about people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. I’ve debunked every myth I can think of (or at least, all that I’ve thought of so far), and I’ve done my best to do my part to set the record straight.
I’ve info-dumped (sorry 🙂 ) a lot about what Asperger’s/autism aren’t, but less is truly known about what it is. The truth is, no one knows what “causes” spectrum classifications, and no one actually knows what they really are.
But I’ve self-analyzed throughout my entire conscious life, and in the last few months, I’ve gotten to know plenty of other (awesome!) Aspie/autistic people and read several (equally awesome!) books on the subject.
During this time, I began to pick up on some common characteristics that aren’t discussed much–if at all–in the “official” diagnostic manuals and criteria, and I slowly realized, “I’d better write about this.” So after being honest with myself and listening to the other ActuallyAutistic people around me, I began to compile a list of common characteristics that I’ve noticed.
That intro is the best I can muster in terms of small talk, so let’s jump right in…
Theme #1: Neurological Hyperexcitability/Hypersensitivity / Sensory Processing Issues:
That’s a fancy term for “our nervous systems are amped up, bro.” We perceive each and every stimulus. The non-spectrum/neurotypical (NT) population has no problem filtering out the non-important stuff; if they walk into a crowded room where a bunch of conversations are taking place simultaneously, the NT person can zero in on the conversation they’re involved in, and usually ignore all the others pretty easily; their brains chock it up to “background noise” and shove it aside.
Our spectrum brains don’t do that. Everything gets through; the dripping faucet, the air dehumidifier, the rattle of the air conditioning unit, the footsteps in the apartment upstairs, the TV commercials (no matter how low the volume is), the cat meowing, a dog barking outside, and any other conversations that are happening within earshot (thus, hearing loss almost becomes a slight advantage when it comes to maintaining one’s sanity). None of these stimuli jockey for priority, either; it’s “y’all come”–an “equal opportunity” situation.
But we’re also only human; the human nervous system can only take in so much before it becomes “overdriven”. Overdriving a nervous system is not pleasant. Having your own nervous system overdriven downright sucks. It’s also not healthy; it can actually cause some physical/physiological problems.
When neurons (brain/nerve cells) are forced to respond to stimuli more often than they are able, they can die. When they die, they give off a little electric “burst”, kind of like a “last gasp” of static, which affects the clusters of brain cells surrounding the dying cell. If those surrounding brain cells were also irritated, weakened, and standing on the brink of death, then that might be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” and they, too, might die, sending their little electric “last gasp” to the cells surrounding them.
This effect can self-perpetuate like a shockwave or a ripple in water, expanding outward; it just depends on how healthy (or not) those brain cells are. Often, these cells are less-than-healthy (just look around at the average health status of the rest of the population at large), so it doesn’t take much to do them in. If this “shockwave” expands to the point where it affects enough cells, this can cause seizures, which explains why such a high percentage of us on the spectrum (10%) experience seizures.
A less-severe-but-still-devastating effect of an overdriven nervous system is the meltdown or shutdown (not implied to be interchangeable terms). In either situation, a common cause is that we’re “spent”; our brain is telling us it’s had enough.
Theme #2: Different Neurological Wiring:
I’m still wading through the vast sea of information out there about this topic, so please forgive my lack of specifics; I don’t want to make a claim that I’m unsure of or can’t substantiate, only to end up to be incorrect, and have potentially misled or misinformed others seeking information. I promise that I’ll elaborate more on my findings when I’m able to piece them together more confidently and coherently.
Suffice it to say, so far, however, that those of us on the spectrum appear to have different neurological wiring. Theories abound; some of these theories involve brain lobes–their size, weight, development, and function of different brain lobes, the connections between them, the maturity characteristics of the cells themselves that make up these brain lobes. Other theories mention neurotransmitters–their levels, ratios, and transportation/movement around the brain, etc. Others involve genetics–different individual genes, variants of these genes, or combinations of these genes or their variants. Still other theories mention the in utero environment–the mother’s health status, immune function, stress levels, hormone amounts/balance/ratios, nutrient supplementation, health concerns such as autoimmune conditions, etc.
Regardless, our brains are wired differently, which may influence our thoughts, feelings, talents and skills, thought processing, memory, and much more. The rest of the “themes” sort of build on this premise.
Theme #3: Anxiety:
One very common theme I’ve noticed throughout my own life, as well as when listening to other Aspie/autistic people, is anxiety. It’s not that we’re worry-warts who make mountains out of molehills or succumb to over-dramatization. The reality is quite the opposite; we would usually rather–and frequently do, often at our own risk–marginalize a lot of the stress in our lives: our worries, our needs, and how we feel (physically and psychologically/emotionally).
Some of the anxiety may come from that neuronal “overdriving” I mentioned above. Some of the anxiety may come from the different neurological wiring discussed earlier.
But some of it may stem from a different source. I’m not exactly sure what that source is. I do know that personally, I’m no stranger to anxiety at all. I’ve been anxiety-prone as long as I can remember, and that’s pretty far back. I also know I have a genetic variant in which I process adrenaline a lot more slowly than people with a normal version of that gene. (That gene isn’t exclusive to people on the spectrum, though; a lot of NTs have it as well–it affects at least 30% of the population, if not much more.)
Theme #4: Different Thought Patterns:
I haven’t found much specific information in this area, either; this knowledge, for me, is more intuitive than it is scientific. Of course, it stands to reason that since Aspie/autistic brains are wired differently, we’re also probably going to think differently. And in real life, we certainly seem to.
A lot has been written lately on multiple blogs about what the world would be like if it were built for us, or if we were the ones engineering it, or if we ran the show. Every post and Tweet on this topic has certainly generated a head-nodding motion from me. I yearn for such a world.
We, the spectrum people, may all come from different political persuasions, socioeconomic backgrounds, nationalities, ethnic groups, professions/specialties, religious/spiritual persuasions (if any), and family backgrounds, but we do come together in unity on a surprising amount of common ground. This indicates, to me, that our thought processes are different from the rest of the world, yet similar to each other.
Theme #5: Different Priorities:
Specific priorities and values differ within the spectrum community; one Aspie/autistic person’s life mission may be to save the animals, whereas another’s might be to save humanity, another’s might be to save the planet/environment, another’s might be to invent something revolutionary, and yet another’s might be to learn or travel or write books or open a one-of-a-kind store or other business.
What most of us have in common, though, is the sharing of ideas and ideals, an uncommon compassion, a knack for problem-solving and analyzing, a larger global or universal vision, a desire to serve humanity in some way, and a desire to fulfill a deeper life purpose, usually by making a unique contribution of some kind to the world. By contrast, we often shake our heads at the rest of the world’s preoccupation with empty socialite celebrities, or the daily stock market yo-yo, or sports scores, or which fashion trends are “in-style” this season, or who got kicked off the island in last night’s reality TV show.
Theme #6: Different Abilities:
I get that not all of us are genius, we’re certainly not anything like Rain Man, and we can’t all be Temple Grandin (don’t we wish sometimes, though?). But seriously, a lot of us are pretty smart, and/or we have some other uncommon talent. Maybe that talent is a superb long-term memory. Several of us have been prolific inventors. Others have excelled in a variety of other areas, such as math, writing, philosophy, chemistry, photography, microbiology, teaching, technology, astrology, psychology, painting, medicine, marketing, sculpting, gardening, medicine, business, sewing, leadership, acting, astronomy, charity work or helping the suffering, finance, law, design, real estate, research, marksmanship, music, martial arts, comedy, animal care, physics, fundraising, parenting, mechanics, astronomy, interior decorating, agriculture, bodybuilding, psychic ability, statistics, woodworking, history, cooking, engineering, biology, political science, etc…whatever our special interest(s) may be.
Alternatively, our special interest and contribution to the world might be to improve upon an already-existing product, service, or system. We can hyperfocus on our interests for hours, barely coming up for air in the meantime. We perceive things in a different way, from a different mental angle, and we can either tweak a current system to function more efficiently, or we can invent something new (be it a physical object, a less-tangible service, or a conceptual niche) of our own.
Theme #7: A Different Kind of Empathy:
We don’t usually score all that impressively on the Empathy Quotient questionnaire. But is that a bad thing? Questions like “I would tell my friend I liked her jeans even though they look hideous” or “I can separate my emotions from the movies I watch”, followed by a multiple-choice gradient of different levels of agreement/disagreement “burned” me (if a low EQ score is considered a bad thing).
So, maybe we don’t have a lot of empathy by society’s conventional (shallow?) standards.
What we do have is a different kind of empathy. I would venture to say that it’s deeper and more difficult to define. Many of us have a sixth sense about people, animals, objects, places, or events. We might not be able to tell what someone is thinking by their facial expression alone (that’s what the universe gave us spoken language for anyway), but we might be able to tell that harboring a physical or emotional pain that they’re not saying anything about.
Or we might be able to tell that they’re on the spectrum, too, even if they haven’t said much. This could also occur with animals; my cats and I have an unspoken Thing between us; I know when one is lonely, even if he’s sitting in his usual spot. I know when my girl-cat is dejected and I know how to make her feel better, and it works.
A huge proportion of us have a deep, strong torrential emotional current flowing constantly through us when animals are involved. We may also have unspoken, almost telepathic dialog with a partner, close friend or family member.
Theme #8: Complexity:
All one has to do is read through the little “bios” on Twitter (you know–the brief informational blurb under the username/handle), or read a blog post or two, or simply interact with one of us for any length of time, and it becomes pretty obvious that we’re quirky and multidimensional. A lot of us are pretty complex. I’m not saying that the average person isn’t, but I’m venturing to say that most Aspie/autistic people might be more so. Our thoughts and emotions can be extremely complex–so much so that it might be tough to identify them, define them, and/or express them. Our special interest subject areas can be unusual, as can our level of knowledge about them.
Theme #9: Self-Consciousness:
Although we get accused of lacking “Theory of Mind” (and empathy), we certainly can be self-analytical, self-conscious, and even self-critical. We often beat ourselves up on a regular basis for saying something awkward, saying something that came out wrong, saying the wrong thing altogether, doing something strange, or even failing to say or do something in particular.
I’m not sure, but I don’t think the rest of the (NT) population sits in a quiet place for hours, micro-analyzing an event or conversation for a few hours after it has already taken place. I don’t know a lot of NT people who spend all evening practicing how they’re going to walk, talk, write, dress, etc, every school night, just to fit in with the other kids. I don’t know a lot of adults who agonize over a misspoken phrase during a conversation with someone at the office that day. But, I’ve done all of the above, many times. And I’m sure I’m not alone.
Theme #10: Different Needs:
We’re human, so we have the same basic human needs as anyone else: food, water, air, sleep, and shelter. The rest of the world has also declared that sexual intimacy is also a human need; I beg to differ; I’ve never needed it, and I’m still quite alive. I also know plenty of people on the spectrum who are asexual.
The rest of society also places high values on fame, fashion, money, beauty, social order/control, gender roles, shopping, child-rearing, social norms, excess, religion, competition, socializing, and material objects. I hang out with my friends and buy well-fitting, decent-looking clothes, too; I’m also not going to deny that I like material objects or would like to be prettier or more financially comfortable, but they’re not as high on my priority list…
…as some of my other needs. Needs that society doesn’t even consider and doesn’t seem to value like I do. I need my alone time, quiet time with no or minimal stimuli. I need nonsexual affection. I need my special interests. I need to be handled semi-delicately. I also need to be dealt with straightforwardly. I need to create. I need to imagine, to let my brain wander off on an all-afternoon safari. I need my books. I need my sunlight. I need time with my cats.
Sure, other people need these things, too, but they’re not as high on the priority list as the items on society’s higher-value list. I seriously need them…a lot, and often.
Aspie/autistic people have other types of needs, too. We may need NTs to be more patient. We may need something communicated in a different way. We might need something designed, configured, or set up in a certain way. We need our time apart from the rest of the world, that all-important “recharge” time.
We need support and accommodation. We may need a different type of education or instruction. We may need a procedure explained more thoroughly, and further in advance. We may need particular efforts made, such as music turned down, light bulbs changed out, or a schedule set a certain way. We usually need our routine, our familiar objects and activities, our daily structure.
And with that, I probably “need” to get some sleep. 🙂
Thank you for reading ❤