Autism: singular or plural

The more I interact with people who share my diagnosis, or who have experiences with people with autism, the more I realise how different we all are. We can all use the same word to describe ourselves, but I’m increasingly unconvinced that we’re actually describing the same condition.

In some ways it may be more helpful to think about autism as a plural; a group of conditions under the same umbrella but with each individual condition having its own experience.

Consider the UK and USA – as the quote goes, two countries divided by a common language.

If you asked a representative sample of Americans, they would probably be very clear that the British are different from them. The British accent is different; they use words to mean different things; the buildings are different; even the perceived culture is different.

Of course, if you asked Britons about themselves you’re likely to get quite a different answer. There isn’t just one British accent, there are a vast number of them. Regional dialects, although not as diverse as previously, still exist (as an example, most of the people where I currently live, just 60 miles from where I grew up, would not know what I mean by a ‘cheeselog’*). The architecture of London is very different from that of Aberdeen, and the buildings in Milton Keynes bear few similarities to those in Stratford-upon-Avon. And there isn’t a single culture either: the experience of a university-educated person working for a political lobby group in Westminster may be very different from that of an ex-miner from Merthyr Tydfil.

It’s the same with autism. Living with autism, you realise that your ‘accent’ is different from others that you meet; that your cultural framework is also different; that you are made up of different building blocks and so your fundamental architecture and how you present yourself is also different. But for the neurotypical, metaphorically looking across the Atlantic, it’s hard to differentiate.

(This cuts the other way of course, although I think the differences between the American states are more publicised in the UK media than the differences in the British counties – or even countries – are publicised in the US. A bit like all the exercises designed to reflect the diversity of the non-autistic personality and experiences, but putting ‘autism’ into a single psychological box.)

And to take the analogy one step further: if you think about it, you might realise that a political lobbyist from Washington DC might have more in common with their counterpart in London than their nationality might suggest. They might even be able to find more common ground with that hypothetical alien than someone who holds the same passport but opposing views.

But if your view is based on a perception, and the perception is primarily one of difference; of an singular ‘otherness’ that does not reflect the reality of a spectrum condition; then it is difficult to move beyond the stereotypes and find common ground. After all, the dominant voice is not ours (even, sometimes, in our own community). It’s tempting to stay within one’s own ‘borders’; to find false similarities; to think that our experiences are universal and understood by our own compatriots, and that we understand theirs in return.

That may be true. But I suspect that I can more easily understand the experiences of someone without autism but who shares my background and interests than someone on a completely different part of the autism spectrum.

So maybe it’s time to start talking about autisms, not autism.

A spectrum, not a fixed point.

And although we may still be a different ‘nationality’ from the non-autistic world, I think it’s important for both sides to remember that we still have a common language – being human.




*In case anyone was wondering, a cheeselog is a woodlouse. And, no, I have no idea why.


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