Asperger’s / autism vocabulary 101 ~ an introductory primer

Today marks six months since I’ve known I’m Aspergian.  Life certainly makes more sense now.  And it certainly won’t ever be the same again, for me.

Finding out about my spot on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum has certainly opened my eyes, to a world that had been, up until that point, largely unrealized.

My eyes are open now.  Maybe not open fully or wide yet–I’m still learning, after all, and I will be for a while–but I’m (slowly) getting there.

Once I found out that I was on the spectrum and started to research intensely, I came across words and phrases I hadn’t heard before.  I looked up each one separately.  While this was a valuable exercise, it also took quite a bit of time.  Sometimes, a website (to its credit) contained a PhD-level discussion on a subject, although all I needed was a quick word/phrase definition and maybe a real-life example.

So, what I’ve done here is list most of the basic Asperger’s/autism-related words and phrases that were new to me; I won’t launch into a full-on academic discussion, but hopefully it might serve as a convenient quick-reference page.  True to Aspie form, the terms are all categorized 🙂

Entry-level vocab, global:

Neurodiversity (noun) – the term used to describe the wide variation in neurological orientation among the entire population.  I fully support this notion.

Neurodivergent (adjective) – this word refers to someone who has a neurological or neurodevelopmental variant of any kind.  Although in my experience it most often refers to people on the spectrum, it’s an umbrella term that also includes anyone with a mental “illness” or “abnormality” (such as depression, bipolar, borderline-personality, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, or intense phobias, etc…)

Neurological variant – a non-pathological variation in the structure or function of the brain, of any kind, and for any reason.  The neurodiversity-supportive community generally holds the belief that what conventional society classifies as “illnesses” or “disorders” indeed make up the mental/emotional/cognitive/personality backbone of who we are and without those variations, we would not be the same.  In these communities, the variations–however uncommon they may be–are not generally considered “pathological” or necessarily a “problem” that needs intervention or “cure”.

Neurotypical (noun or adjective) – this term describes people who have no cognitive or mental “abnormality”/variant of any kind.

Allistic (usually adjective, but may be used as a noun) – this term is used to describe people who are specifically not on the spectrum (although they may be neurodivergent in another way).

Ableism – generally, this word means discrimination against people of any type of handicap or disability; for some, the disability(s) is/are visible, whereas for others, it’s/they’re not.  This discrimination could be overt (obvious, such as the use of the “R” word to describe those with lower IQ) or covert (more subtle, such as the use of the phrase “dealing with” in the context of autism).

Co-morbidity – the term for other health conditions that are not included in the diagnostic critera for Asperger’s/autism, but are often experienced by people on the spectrum.  (I personally don’t like this term; “co-” means “with”, so if the person on the spectrum has only one other health concern, that would imply that their spectrum-hood is in itself an ailment, a notion that I disagree with.)

Armchair diagnosis (AKA “armchair-Dx”) – used to define the retrospective supposition of the presence of autism in people who, for whatever reason, can’t currently be observed (usually pertains to those who have passed away or live far away, etc); to the best of recollection, they may have exhibited characteristics that resemble or align with those on lists of Asperger’s/autism traits.  This concept/activity remains controversial among the community.

Vocabulary related to traits/characteristics of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum (as per the CDC criteria):

Motor movements – this is actually kind of a redundant term; movement, by its very definition is motor, and vice versa.  The motor cortex of the brain initiates movement.  This term can refer to any type of movement; within the autism spectrum context, it usually refers to repetitive movements.  Real-life examples might include: wiggling your foot, shaking your leg, flapping your hands, picking through your hair, rocking back and forth, etc.  Personally, I have a small callous in the middle of the palm of my right hand where I (painlessly) scratch, over and over again.

Special interests” (AKA “focus areas”, “primary interests”, etc) – this is a subject or topic of intense interest and possibly exquisitely detailed knowledge that often extends beyond that of an allistic person with the same interest.  The possibilities are infinite; they can include anything from history to machines to bugs to neuropsychiatric conditions to model cars to music theory to firearms to a foreign language.  If this interest involves material objects, chances are that the person probably has a collection of these items.  My own primary interests include: rainbows, Legos, music, biochemistry/physiology, and astrology.

Sensory processing/reactivity/perception – the word “sensory” involves all of the information our brains receive from our five special senses.  Processing/perception refers to what our brains do with that information.  This is largely involuntary; we can’t control how strongly a sensory stimulus (such as a smell, light, sound, texture, etc) influences us or what kind of effect it has on our brains.  Usually, the term is used within the context of an abnormality in sensory processing, such as “hypo-” or “hyper-” sensitivity; either the person has an exaggerated (too much) or blunted (too little) reaction to a “regular” stimulus.  My personal examples include: inability to tolerate flickering fluorescent lights, the “feel” (texture) of mashed potatoes in my mouth, scratchy tags inside my shirt, or the odor of a trash dumpster.  (I’m hyper/extra-sensitive to these.)

Global developmental delay – a developmental delay that affects every part of the body, including mental and physical; organs, systems, and other parts are slower to form and mature.

Vocabulary related to traits/characteristics of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum (other than the CDC criteria):

Empathy – this refers to the ability of someone to put themselves in another person’s position.  There appear to be two types: emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.  Although Aspie/autistic people are frequently accused of “lacking” empathy, recent evidence shows (as do dozens–if not hundreds–of firsthand accounts) that those of us on the spectrum actually do have quite a bit of empathy; we often simply express it differently, or we may lack one type but have sufficient (or even extra) existence of the other type.

Emotional empathy – this refers to the ability of someone to understand (either firsthand, or at least to imagine) how someone else might be feeling.  For example, when a friend suffers a loss, we can usually think back to when we’ve suffered a loss of similar magnitude, and if we can’t, then we can do our best to imagine how we’d feel if we lost someone/something.  If we can put ourselves in that friend’s position, this helps us support them more effectively (at least, by conventional standards; individual opinions may vary).

Cognitive empathy – this refers to the ability of someone to understand (again, either firsthand, or at least to imagine) how someone else might have arrived at a particular thought.  If we’re good at this (which I’m not–at all), we can anticipate what someone might think or how someone might react to something we say or do.  Personal example: I’m not good at this; a major clue is that I find myself asking (internally, and usually in response to an allistic person): “what were you thinking?” or “how did you even arrive at that thought?”

Systemizing – this involves the ability to see patterns in otherwise-seemingly-unrelated things, make connections/links/associations or draw analogies, organize things (according to many different metrics, such as color, alphabetization, size, style, weight, etc), or some other thought process desiring to progress linearly from “A” to “B”.  This fits under the cultural “left-brain” concept.  Personal examples include lining up toys (in the past LOL), color-coding my calendar according to activity type and its corresponding stress-induction potential, organizing my clothes according to not only the appropriate setting (“dressy-ness”) but also color and style, organizing the DVD collection according to genre, and much more.  (I’m a big systemizer.)

Stimming (AKA “stim activity”, “self-soothing”, “focus activity”, etc) – these are the spectrum community’s preferred terms (although preference varies among individuals) for activities described in the CDC criteria under “repetitive motor movements”.  The whole idea behind these “repetitive movements” is to bring some kind of calming effect to the person (who may or may not even realize they’re anxious or otherwise agitated in some way), by releasing tension or giving the person something to focus on.  “Stereotypical” “stims” could also encompass a wide range, including flapping one’s hands, rocking back and forth, etc.  Lesser-realized (by “official” experts) may include a more endless variety yet: twirling ones hair, listening to music, drumming on a desktop with one’s fingers, even playing computer games.  Repeating words or phrases (even mantras or sounds), playing with Rubix cubes, or fidgeting are other possibilities; the list goes on.

Task-switching – The CDC criteria, to paraphrase, mention an agitation or confusion whenever one’s routine is broken or otherwise disrupted.  Suddenly, that person must stop doing one task (or step out of the routine), and begin engaging in another.  Task-switching involves the smoothness of that transition; impaired, difficult, or delayed task-switching indicates a slow and challenging disengage-reingage process.  Personal examples include having a tough time driving somewhere new, when I’m used to going one place as a matter of habit.  Or perhaps beginning to take a new medication or supplement that I’m not used to taking.

Hyperfocus – this refers to what many of us experienced when engaged with our “special/primary” interest (the subject area of intense focus).  We can “dive down deep” and “get in the zone”, so intensely that we may forget to eat, drink, or do anything else; we may not even sleep.  During this time, it’s interesting to note that personally, I become more hypo-sensory; my previously extra-sensitive sensory ability drops and I may not even realize I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, or in need of a restroom.  Time may go by very quickly, and we may lose sense of it, sometimes failing to realize that the sun has set (or risen Lol).

Social exhaustion/fatigue – this phenomenon describes what many of us feel after we’ve been “out and about” for so long that we become drained.  This may or may not result in the craving/need for sleep, but at the very least, we have a strong desire to return to our comfortable, familiar environments, and relax.  Even lunch with a good friend or two can bring this on.

Hyperlexia – this refers to the ability to read at an early age; a love for–and much time spent on–reading may also be experienced.  This concept isn’t global/uniform, but may be more prevalent among specifically the Asperger’s population (from what I’ve seen and read).

Meltdown – this looks similar to a tantrum, but make no mistake: the two phenomena couldn’t be more different.  The word describes the emotional/behavioral manifestation of an involuntary neurological response, usually to one major stimulus/stressor, multiple minor stimuli/stressors within a short time period, or an unrealized stimulus that is subconsciously endured for prolonged periods of time.  Eventually, the nervous system gives out and the person must release/push-back (my terms; other people describe it differently).

Shutdown – this is similar to a meltdown, except that instead of an outward expression, it’s an inward implosion.  Various people within the autistic community describe it differently.  For me, it’s an inward retreat and intense desire to be alone in a quiet, peaceful place, with no demands or interruptions, and no interactions with anyone.  This may last for several days (for me), during which time, I can’t carry out my usual day-to-day functions. goals, or thought processes.

Mutism – an umbrella term that is often a “comorbidity” in people on the autism spectrum, characterized by being non-verbal/non-speaking.  There are different types: Selective (formerly known as Elective) Mutism, a more-involuntary flavor of Selective Mutism, etc; these seem to be quite common during a shutdown.

Selective Mutism – a phrase typically defined as a general anxiety disorder that renders someone who is usually able to speak, temporarily unable to speak.

Elective Mutism – a phrase that describes the voluntary choice not to speak, by a person who is usually able (and willing) to speak.  This usually occurs in specific situations or environments.  Personal examples include large crowds (even family gatherings of more than about five people, including myself, especially if at least one person is an extrovert), or being around extroverts in general, etc.

Some sources unite Selective and Elective Mutism under one term, asserting that Selective was formerly known as Elective.  In my personal experience, however, the two are different; I experience Elective Mutism very frequently and strongly (and always have), but not Selective Mutism.

Synesthesia – a common phenomenon in which there is a blending of the special senses; for example, one might “hear” colors, or “see” sounds.  For people of the autistic community, the blending may be vivid, or often, more subtle; days of the week or months of the year or perhaps numbers might have their own color or “vibe”, or certain words might have a particular internal texture that the person feels when saying those words.  Personal example: “enamel” brings about a cool sensation.  Weekdays and months have their own certain vibe.  And I vastly prefer even-numbered years over odd-numbered ones; my Aspie partner is the same way, with little difference between us.

Echolalia – this refers to the unsolicited repeating of words, phrases, or sounds.  There are two main types: immediate (words/phrases repeated right after they’re said) and delayed (repeated after a time delay of minutes, hours, or even days).  Personal example: sometimes, I’ll be thinking back over a previous conversation that induced stress, and I’ll start repeating words (either mine or the other person’s) out loud, before I realize I’m doing it.  Other excellent examples can be found here.

Dyspraxia – this involves impaired or uncoordinated motor movements (as opposed to merely repetitive, as discussed above); these movements don’t have to be repetitive.  Rather, this involves a general (constant or varying) difficulty coordinating motor movement, often labeled “clumsiness”.  Personal examples (I experience this significantly) include: inability to open jars, trouble walking across rocks, tripping up the stairs, hitting the wall with my shoulder as I try to round a corner, stepping–and tripping–on the outward-spreading feet of an office chair, etc, etc.  May also have mild or temporary trouble speaking, in terms of forming the words (the thoughts and voice are there, as is the ability to speak, if only the mouth would move properly).

Executive function – this phrase refers to an umbrella of higher cognitive skills, such as attention/focus, inhibition (the ability to control oneself), working memory, cognitive flexibility, reasoning, problem solving, and planning.  People on the autism spectrum may experience challenges in these ares; real-life examples include meltdowns (which might be associated with inhibition issues), poor short-term memory, or agitation when routine is disturbed (which may relate to cognitive inflexibility).  Personally, I have issues with several of these, although not all.  I can reason and problem-solve fairly well, but I might fail to plan properly, like forgetting to put down my mobile phone before starting to dish up my dinner (lol).

Parts of the brain you might see mentioned, defined:

Prefrontal cortex – center for higher conscious thought processes.  Includes our personalities, humanity, competent critical thinking and higher decision-making, judgment, etc.  Inhibits primitive urges or infantile behaviors or reflexes.  Considers others beyond oneself.  Matures around age 25.

Amygdala – processing center of potential threats.  Center of emotions like fear, anxiety, and anger.  Could be considered an antithesis to the prefrontal cortex, in a way.

Hippocampus – in charge of our short-term memories, as well as converting short-term to long-term.

Cerebellum – coordinates movement (as opposed to initiating movement, which is done by the motor cortex of the brain).  The cerebellum keeps movement smooth and controlled.  Also involved in balance.  Newer research suggests that it may also influence mood.

Insular cortex – involved in several important areas like consciousness, perception, self-awareness, cognitive functioning, and interpersonal experience.  Also another key player in motor control.  Dysfunction may be involved in psychopathology.

I hope this helps anyone who can use it! 🙂


  1. Very good list. Many of the terms I either already knew or had picked up over the last few months, but definitely a helpful list. And yes, I agree that involuntary selective mutism is different from elective mutism since I experience both. The former occurs without warning when I’m under stress and had always intensely bothered me. I never understood why I couldn’t get the words out. I don’t know that there’s anything more I can do than I’ve already done to manage it, but my diagnosis finally gave it a name and a context — an explanation. That alone helps a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

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