By Brittany Neal
One of my favorite quotes about autism: If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. Autism is not a one-size-fits-all condition. It is an umbrella term for a wide range of characteristics held by various neuro-diverse people.
This wide spectrum is one reason autistics tend to prefer the rainbow infinity symbol over the puzzle piece. Autism represents an infinite number of possibilities; an endless pool of potential traits.
Levels of Autism
One way professionals differentiate between autism types is through levels. When a person is diagnosed with autism, they are also given a level between one and three. These levels are determined through factors such as social/communication skills and repetitive behaviors.
A non-verbal child who frequently exhibits self harm would likely be categorized as a level three, while a highly-verbal child who displays some rigidity and occasional sensory meltdowns would probably be determined a level one. Autistics are mostly opposed to functioning labels, but these levels can be best thought of as indicators of how much support will likely be needed for each individual.
Differences in Presentation:
Arguably more important than levels of autism, there are many different presentations. No two autistics are exactly alike in the way autism affects their day to day lives. Each reacts to stressors and stimuli differently. The amount and frequency and intensity of those stressors and stimuli varies, too.
Almost everyone on the autism spectrum has difficulty processing sensory input, but this plays out in different ways. Some autistics are sensory seekers while others sensory avoiders. Some people are even a mixture of both!
Sensory Seekers are usually hyposensitive. This means they are less sensitive to input than others. Sensory seekers may stand extra close to others during conversation, enjoy jumping, spinning, or walking heavy-footed, and seek out loud noises. Some have an unusually high tolerance for pain.
Sensory Avoiders are usually hypersensitive, meaning they find input more overwhelming than others. Sensory avoiders may prefer seamless clothing and be unable to tolerate scratchy or tight clothes. They may not like being hugged or touched, especially by people they aren’t very comfortable with. They might avoid crowds, loud noises, and things that lower their body awareness (such as playground equipment). Some have a low tolerance for pain.
Autistics with dual sensory needs are a mixture between these two. I fall into this category. Loud and/or crowded environments cause me a lot of anxiety. I have strong preferences with textures and clothing. I would rather not touch or hug people outside of my close circle, though I can tolerate it. However, I really enjoy things that lower my body awareness such as rollercoasters and swinging. I benefit from deep pressure touches, especially when I’m upset. I have a high pain tolerance. Most people I know with autism have a mixture of sensory needs, but have more traits from avoiding or seeking than the other.
You may be surprised to learn that everyone stims. Stimming is just a word for any repetitive behavior which brings comfort. So, when you pace back and forth out of frustration, you are stimming. If you find yourself slightly rocking when frightened or upset, you are stimming. If you’re twirling a strand of your hair because you’re excited… also stimming.
Autistic people just tend to do it more often and in more noticeable ways. Some use full body movements, like spinning. Some twirl their hair or flap their hands. Others have vocal stims and make the same noise repetitively or repeat a phrase. Though different, each stim is derived from a need to self regulate and/or self soothe.
Special Interests and Strengths:
One defining characteristic of autism is the presence of intense special interests. These vary greatly in their subject and longevity. Some autistics have a singular special interest for their entire lives. Others jump from one interest to another after accomplishing a certain goal.
Often, these interests play a role in what an autistic person chooses to do with their life. A lover of words may be a language arts teacher. A child who is obsessed with legos might grow up to be an architect. A person who has intense, short-term interests may spend their adult life traveling and career jumping. While they may sometimes create difficulties in day-to-day life and social interactions, these specialized interests provide an opportunity for personal development and widespread positive influence.
The Same at our Core:
Even with all of our differences, autistics are more alike than we are different. We each have neurological wiring which varies from our neuro-typical counterparts. One of us may respond to stress by becoming non-verbal while another responds by losing the ability to balance– but we are each affected for the same reason.
It is our brain’s neurology itself that causes us to behave and interact differently than the majority of the population. There is great Solidarity in this fact. From this Solidarity derives the ability and desire to help one another.
For this reason, while autism presents differently in each person– autistic voices should always be the loudest when considering how to treat, manage, and respond to autism. But, we need allies. Many of our struggles are just a natural consequence of being a tiny minority, and without allies, our voices are not being carried.
Please join us in the movement for autism acceptance, because we are willing to work hard to bridge the gap between neurotypes.