On Autism

I was formally identified as autistic at the age of 31, in 2010. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years exploring what it means, for me and for other autistic people, as well as for the rest of the world. In that time I’ve slowly been getting more open about being on the autistic spectrum, but until now I’ve never posted much about it here.

I have written a lot about autism, and links to my writings are collected at the bottom of this post. I have also linked almost all of them in the next four paragraphs, providing a whistle-stop tour of my thinking on this.

Fergus peers at the viewer through a macro lens acting as a magnifying glass.
Photo of the author by Alice Ross.

I suggest you start with these starting points for understanding autism. It is right to see autism as a natural aspect of human diversity, but to recognise neurodiversity is not to be in denial about autism as a disabilityAutistic skill sets tend to be highly uneven: some things are so much harder that most autistic people are disabled in any society. We often have many autism-related strengths as well though, and it’s worth thinking about autism when it’s not a disability. The right social and physical environment makes all the difference, but the way that autistic executive functioning is different from other people’s can still cause problems with work and home life.

The differences in the way autistic people function also lead to two-way failures of empathy at times, which explains why so much effort has gone into normalisation of autistic people, trying to squish stimming and other things that make us stand out, rather than making the most of our strengths. Failure to respect differences has been disastrous for our mental health, as it often has been for other marginalised groups. Arguing for autistic rights means learning some lessons from feminism and the politics of everything else

In order to work with our differences, we need to understand that not everyone is on the autistic spectrum; autistic spectroscopy is much more subtle than that. The way I understand it is that everyone is more or less monotropic, which is to say our processing resources are more or less focused on a limited number of interests at any time. Monotropism explains autistic experiences more coherently and in more depth than other psychological theories of autism have ever managed, but part of that is understanding the many different ways it manifests. The intensity of autistic interests directly gives rise to the spiky skills profiles I talked about earlier as well as the executive functioning differences, and the focusing of processing resources explains many of the social difficulties. Psychologists still have much to learn by listening to autistic people.

I co-founded the Autistic Mutual Aid Society Edinburgh because people have too often relied on non-autistic perspectives on autism, rather than taking the principle of Nothing About Us Without Us as their starting point. Lacking any understanding of autism from the inside, or even the right words to talk about it, people have often struggled to bring together theory and practice. I hope my autism tips for teachers, and everything else I have written on the subject, can help bridge that gap.

Those writings in full:

  1. Neurodiversity and Mental Health (10 minute read, Medium estimates)
  2. Autism and the Politics of Everything Else (5 min)
  3. The A Word (4 min)
  4. Autistic Glossary (for AMASE, with some input from Sonny and others)

Discussions (audio):

  1. The AMASE Research Podcast (with co-host Sonny Hallett and various guests)
  2. Arguing for Autistic Rights: the backlash against neurodiversity & how to overcome it (with Judy Singer and Janine Booth)
  3. A Better Way to Understand Autism (with John Harrison)

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