Autism is a spectrum condition and affects everyone on the spectrum in different ways. This post is about where I am on the spectrum. Most of this I’ve posted about before – and will continue to do so – but I thought it would be useful to put it all in one place somewhere, as well as trying to be factual rather than emotional about the whole thing (just for once).
The three main areas of difficulty for people on the autism spectrum
Everyone on the autism spectrum has problems to some extent with social communication, social interaction and social imagination (they’re sometimes called the triad of impairments, although I personally find that term too negative). Here’s how they affect me:
I can’t read facial expressions. I can see, for instance, that someone is smiling but I can’t interpret what that means – are they happy, encouraging, sympathetic, forcing a smile, aggressive… I simply can’t tell. I also don’t read body language beyond very basic gestures, or if someone has very obvious ‘tells’ (but I have to know the person quite well before I can pick that up). I’m also oversensitive to tone of voice.
Unlike many people on the spectrum, I don’t have particular issues with small talk. And I don’t tend to talk about my obsessions too much (I don’t think I do, anyway!). However, because I don’t read non-verbal communication I can struggle to know when someone wants to talk and when they don’t.
I can be literal in what I say and understand, particularly when I’m anxious. I don’t always understand new metaphors or jokes before they’re explained to me (once they’re explained, it’s normally fine). But I’m good with sarcasm and like to use metaphors and other non-literal language where possible.
I think in pictures rather than words and can get frustrated when I can’t think of the right word, particularly when I’m trying to express how I’m feeling.
I like people and being around people. In fact, I would prefer to be around people than on my own (as long as I’m comfortable with the people in question).
I have difficulties in moving relationships / social communication on beyond the level of small talk. I can’t work out when it’s appropriate to move on to more personal topics. To get around this, I tend to mirror what other people do, which makes me very reliant on others to lead the relationship.
I understand social rules relatively well. I could almost write an entire book based on my observation of people and how they should behave in given circumstances. The problem is that people behave inconsistently and unpredictably, and don’t always abide by the unwritten rules themselves. This makes me anxious. But in most circumstances, I’m able to stick to ‘normal’ social rules. However, when I’m in a high state of anxiety or in sensory overload all bets are off. It’s not that I don’t know what the rules are – I just can’t always stick to them.
This isn’t about whether someone can be imaginative or creative. Actually, I’m quite good at both of these. It’s more about being able to predict what’s going to happen and cope with change.
I use observation and logic to predict how people will react in certain circumstances. This either works really well or really badly – unfortunately there’s no way of telling which it’s going to be in any given circumstance!
I’m almost unable to cope with uncertainty. I can usually cope with change, as long as I have time to process the change and understand the implications, but uncertainty is a whole different ball game.
I am aware that other people have different thoughts, feeling and actions to me, but I can’t understand what that is like – I can only understand this in relation to my own thoughts, feelings and actions. This doesn’t mean that I’m not able to empathise, but I may be empathising based on how I would react to a situation – or people may need to tell me what they are feeling. But I’m a good listener most of the time and think I can normally give constructive advice in a reasonably sensitive way.
I’m also not good in unfamiliar situations – I need to know what the rules are and what ‘script’ I need to use before I can cope well.
When I’m in emotional or sensory overload, I can lose any sense of danger.
I can be flexible about routines, but I don’t like things changing at the last minute. If things need to change, I need to know as soon as possible and an alternative put in place (e.g. telling me that a meeting won’t happen tomorrow but will happen on Thursday instead).
Other related issues
There are other issues than the three outlined above that are common for people on the autism spectrum. Some of the ones that affect me are:
I can be quite badly affected by sensory issues – sound and light are the biggest problems, but I have differences with most senses (I’ve taken the description of the senses from the National Autistic Society website):
- I sometimes find bright lights difficult to bear. I prefer natural light or lights to be dimmed where possible.
- I find it difficult to concentrate if there are a lot of pictures or graphics in a room
- I find it difficult to distinguish between background and foreground noise
- I can’t process what people are saying when more than one person speaks at once
- Loud sounds / harsh tones of voice can cause physical pain
- I find percussive sounds very difficult to cope with
- I like being ‘weighed down’ by heavy objects
- I need to have a physical connection with something in order to feel safe when I am anxious (e.g. I like to sit in a corner / against a wall)
- I find most physical contact with people calming / comforting – although I don’t like light touch
- I am oversensitive to certain textures – particularly creamy textures
- I don’t like very strong flavoured animal products
- If I don’t like something I am physically unable to eat it
- Not a particular issue most of the time, but I am sensitive to the smell of cigarette smoke and strong perfume / body spray
- Not a particular issue on a day-to-day basis
- Mainly manifests itself in a love of rocking chairs and rollercoasters
Body awareness (proprioception)
- I walk into things a lot and am generally clumsy
I find it difficult / impossible to control my behaviour when I become too anxious. This can, unless dealt with at an early enough stage, lead to meltdowns or shutdowns. These are not pleasant for me or anyone around me at the time and so best avoided where possible,
I have specific triggers for anxiety most of the time – but the thing that ostensibly sets it off may well not be the actual issue, so it is helpful if someone can assist me to work through what is actually the root cause.
I’m extremely bad at recognising people. I can’t recognise faces – instead, I memorise characteristics (particularly hairstyles and height) or, for people I see regularly, I have mental images of them unrelated to what they actually look like. I’m also not good at identifying people in real life if I’ve only seen them in a photograph.
This can mean that I don’t acknowledge people if I see them in unfamiliar surroundings. If I don’t acknowledge people, it normally means that I haven’t recognised them. So it’s helpful if people can speak to me first and let me know who they are if I seem to be confused.