When you are autistic, you spend much of your life feeling very alone.
No one can understand why you are melting down because someone bought Old Dutch brand chips instead of Ruffles. People get impatient with you when you refuse to touch your shoelaces to tie them.
No one else in the room seems to be bothered by the two clocks ticking out of sync with each other. No one else you know cares about cats quite as much as you do. Everyone says you are wrong. Things aren’t the way you interpret them. Your feelings are ridiculous. Your priorities are incomprehensible to people.
“Stop it,” “get over it,” and “why can’t you…” are refrains that will follow you your whole life.
Until one day… you find a whole world of people who understand.
The internet has allowed autistic people– who might be shut in their homes, unable to speak aloud, or unable to travel independently– to mingle with each other, share experiences, and talk about our lives to people who feel the same way.
We were no longer alone.
Hashtags on social media have made it easier for autistic people to find each other, share experiences. “Does anybody else…” questions echo daily in Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, and Tumblr blogs using the hashtag #AskingAutistics. The answer is always a resounding, “Yes!”
As we developed a sense of community under hashtags such as #ActuallyAutistic, a unique culture has also arisen based on our shared experiences.
This culture includes new words and slang to describe autistic experiences, and places a heavy focus on sensory experiences– autistic people love to talk about sight, smell, taste, and sound whether it be good, bad, or “sensory hell.”
I’d like to share some of the coolest facets of autistic culture.
Whether you are autistic or not, you may find that you understand and identify with many of the experiences we share.
The term “samefood” refers to the autistic tendency to eat the same food very frequently or even exclusively for days, weeks, even months at a time.
Samefood can be used as a noun or a verb. For example:
“Sour cream and onion chips are my samefood right now.”
“I don’t usually samefood much, but this past week I can’t stop eating spicy ramen.”
A samefood often needs to be prepared in a very specific way, eaten in a ritualistic manner, or may only be a specific brand.
Anything outside of these criteria is Not Right and does not satisfy the samefood need.
It is considered upsetting and tragic when someone else in the household eats your samefood without consulting you, or if you ask someone to buy you a particular brand and they bring home a different one instead.
Autistic folk will commiserate with each other over tragedies like this because to us they ARE tragedies and neurotypical people just don’t understand.
If you have ever made yourself sick bingeing on whipped cream or discovered that yes, you CAN eat too many pumpkin seeds, you’ll find no judgement in the autistic community.
We welcome you and your samefoods.
SpIns and Infodumps
I don’t know who invented the phrase “special interest.” Probably some researcher. Autistic people don’t really love the term because the term “special” has become tied so closely with terms like “special needs,” which we resent.
Nevertheless, somewhere down the line “special interest,” commonly shortened to SpIn (“spin”), became the term for the characteristically-autistic tendency to develop an obsession with something specific and often obscure.
Some special interests are short lived, and some last the lifetime of the person; but, however long they last, they are intense, delightful, and a vital part of autistic culture.
So integral are special interests to autistic culture that autistic people will post about feeling depressed and unmotivated because they don’t have an active SpIn at the moment.
Other people will post seeking reassurance that they are “valid” autistic people even though they don’t have many, or any, SpIns. They are quickly reassured that yes, they are valid.
SpIns aren’t required for an autism diagnosis, although “restricted interests” is mentioned among the diagnostic criteria. They are extremely common, however, and the majority of autistic people have SpIns at least some of the time.
Having a special interest is like having a crush or being newly in love. It is consuming and delightful. We love to share our special interest,s and a common example of autistic empathy is encouraging others to talk in great detail– “infodump”– about their SpIns.
It is considered a sign of caring and friendship to encourage someone to talk to you about their SpIn– whether or not you actually share their interest– because nothing makes an autistic person happier than discussing, learning about, or sharing about, their SpIn.
It is also quite acceptable in autistic culture to “infodump” on a topic whenever it happens to come up. To autists (an insider short-hand for autistic people), the sharing of knowledge and information is always welcome.
Forget small talk.
Let me tell you about Giant Squid. Then you can explain the London Underground to me and we’ll both have a wonderful time.
Autistic people love to share their stims and will call something “stimmy” if it produces a pleasant sensory experience.
Stimmy things can be:
-visual, such as glitter in water or a hypnotic animation,
-textural, like a very soft item or slime,
-auditory, such as a particular song or sound– including ASMR videos, or
-whole-body, such as spinning or swinging.
Autistic people like to share stims and celebrate when they discover something new. Sharing stims is a popular form of autistic social engagement. For example, one autistic person on facebook talked about rubbing her feet together, and I tried it…and it is great! Now, I do it, too.
Gifs and videos created with the intent of being “stimmy” appear frequently on Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, with accounts like @stimthedayaway posting content for autistic people to enjoy.
Popular stim video content include soap-cutting, glitter in water or in slime, paint mixing, calligraphy, and more.
Try them out – you may be surprised to find out how much you enjoy stimmy things, too!
There are also autistic-centric stores that sell stimmy products to help satisfy people’s sensory needs.
Stimtastic is one of the most popular online stores, but many other autistic people sell stim products on Etsy.
Sensory Hell is the opposite of something being stimmy. It is utterly and totally unbearable.
Maybe you’re thinking of the classic scenario of the autistic person melting down in a busy grocery store, and it’s true that grocery stores are often considered tools of the devil by autistic people. But anything can be a sensory hell.
Dirt sticking to the bottom of your bare feet.
The sounds of people chewing food.
If just the thought of it sends shivers down your spine, then that is sensory hell.
I’m not the kind of autistic person who flaps much. I’m a rubbing-soft-fabrics kind of stimmer, a twirl-a-ring-around-my-finger kind of stimmer. But the first time I read the term “happy flap” I knew the exact emotion it described.
Maybe non-autistic people do. Maybe we all remember being a kid who flapped their arms up and down in excitement. Or maybe you have to be autistic to get it. I don’t know.
But I can assure you that the terms “happy flap” and “happy flapping” pop up frequently in autistic culture. Happy flapping is the best kind of happy. It’s the happiness that combines excitement and joy.
It’s the way you felt when you were a kid on Christmas morning.
It’s the way you feel when someone you are in love with says they love you, too.
It’s the autistic version of jumping up and down, which we also often do while we happy flap.
I knew what it meant instinctively, but I didn’t think of it as something I do. I’m a stealth autistic. I come across as socially awkward and somewhat useless, but not necessarily autistic.
I even felt sad about it. I felt like my lack of happy flapping meant I wasn’t a real autist.
…Then I caught myself doing it.
One of my SpIns is Giant Squid, and when I was about to do a VR simulation that would let me encounter a Giant Squid, I was so excited that I caught myself flapping.
So it turns out that I do happy flap. I just never noticed before, probably because I was too excited over whatever I was flapping about.
Maybe we all happy flap sometimes, but autistic culture celebrates it.
“Autigender” is probably the most controversial thing to divide the autism community since Autism Speaks.
“Autigender” is a term that some autistic people use to describe their relationship with gender. Specifically, it means that they feel that their autism affects the way they perceive and feel about gender.
Unfortunately, a lot of people interpret this as meaning that people think “autism” is their gender, which results in a lot of rage-filled posts on social media about how your gender cannot be a disability. Because, of course, it can’t. Autism is a neurotype, not a gender.
But this is a complete misunderstanding of the term.
No one who calls themselves “autigender” is going to write “autism” next to the word “gender” on a questionnaire.
The fact is that autism is a neurotype that specifically affects our perceptions and understanding of social conventions, norms, etiquette and mores.
Nor does it affect every autistic person the same way. One person may pick up on social norms easily but may struggle with small talk while another remains oblivious to social norms but can banter easily with strangers in line at the checkout.
It’s well documented that there is a significantly higher rate of gay, bi, trans, ace, and gender-queer people in the autistic community compared to the non-autistic community. What researchers haven’t figured out yet though is whether autism is in some way related to gender and sexual orientation or whether autistic people are just less brain-washed by society into following heteronormative stereotypes.
In other words, are there really more gay/trans/queer/ace autistic people, or do they just figure it out/come out of the closet more readily than non-autistic people?
We don’t know yet.
What we do know is that there are some people who feel that their ability to think of themselves as a particular gender is affected by their autism. This feeling is shared by enough autistic people that they have dubbed themselves “autigender.”
I don’t call myself autigender, but I get it. Gender is confusing to me, too.
I don’t feel offended by the idea of autigender. But some people really do. They feel it insults other non-binary and genderqueer people, that it mocks and makes light of their relationship with their gender. Autistic community leaders try to remind people that if you don’t like the term, you don’t have to use it.
But if it gives some people a feeling of belonging and helps them describe what must be a very complicated emotional response, then you should support them and let them call it what they want.
If someone feels their autism is affecting how they perceive their gender, let them call themselves autigender.
Considering how many LGBTQA+ autistic folk there are, I think there’s something in that one way or another.
If you have ADHD, you may have identified with so many of these that you may be wondering if you are autistic, too.
I mean, maybe you are… the two are heavily co-morbid with each other, but also ADHD and other neurodivergent folk are welcomed under the awning of “Autism Cousins.”
ADHD and autism have so many commonalities and overlaps that they share the neurodevelopmental disorders chapter of the DSM-V.
Other neurodivergencies accepted under the “autistic cousins” banner include sensory processing disorder, social anxiety disorder, dyslexia and hyperlexia, social communication disorder, selective mutism, nonverbal learning disorder, and more.
No, we aren’t “all a little autistic,” but many neurological divergences share certain characteristics that mean they can participate in and share in autistic culture because they get it, too. Solidarity.
…And maybe, so do you.
Interested in Learning More?
If you’d like to read more about autistic culture, spend some time on the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag of Twitter or Tumblr. You can also look up #AutisticCultureIs on these sites.
You can find stimmy Pinterest boards (sometimes called Stimterest) or you can join a Facebook group for autistic people and autism allies.
Word of warning – do not post using the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag unless you are autistic yourself. If you’d like to interact with autistic people or ask them questions about their culture, you can use the #AskingAutistics hashtag on Twitter, find an allism-friendly facebook group, or post questions to autism blogs on Tumblr.
And hey, nothing would make us happier than a non-autistic person discovering stims and happy flapping.
We like spreading the joy.