How All Autistics Are Different… and How They Are the Same4 min read

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.

Sensory Needs:

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.

Stimming:

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.

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