What Is Autism?

If you’re here, you’ve probably already seen all the checklists of traits about eye contact and repetitive movements and maybe even a lack of empathy. We won’t waste your time trying to repackage that narrative.

The truth is, autism has been poorly defined as only a series of deficits. Other characterizations romanticize autism as some magical superpower and existing on a higher plane of consciousness.

Here at NeuroClastic, our leadership team and contributors cumulatively bring to the table thousands of years of experience being autistic, and we’ve spent millions of hours interacting with other Autistics and those who work with and love autistic people to map out autistic lived experience from the inside and outside.

This page will give you a brief overview of where we are, currently, with answering the “What is autism?” question. Under each topic, you may see links to do a deeper dive into each topic. It’s important to note that there will be some generalization that will not apply to every autistic person.

What’s an autism spectrum?

Many people conceive of autism as a linear spectrum from “severe” or “low-functioning” to “mild” or “high functioning.” Often, autistic people are characterized as either having intellectual disability or giftedness.

Any characterization of people as complex as humans should have a lot of nuance and never be framed in binaries, as if only two ways of being exist. Truly, the autism spectrum is more dimensional, and there are as many ways of being autistic as there are autistic people who exist.

As an analogy, because Autistic people can be very good at analogizing, there are about 43 quintillion possible configurations in a Rubik’s cube. Imagine, then, that the brain is like a Rubik’s cube. Most people’s brains are relatively similar, but Autistic brains are different, structurally and chemically, from non-autistic people and from each other.

Image features a Rubik’s cube.

Is one configuration of a Rubik’s cube “severely cubed” and another “mildly cubed”?

What the spectrum really means is that each Autistic person has areas of strength or weakness due to “wiring” differences. While all people have areas of strength or weakness, these tend to be much more pronounced in autistic people. Beyond that, we may even process information in totally different– or multiple areas of the brain.

You may find this NeuroInclusive Story useful for helping children— and adults– to understand autistic brains.

The article below, by C.L. Lynch, explores the spectrum in detail.

And this article explains why the labels “Severe” or “Profound” autism are harmful and give no reliable information about an Autistic person.

Autism and Intelligence

A lot of people in the Autistic community find the notion of intelligence to be harmful and incomplete. It’s not that intelligence doesn’t exist, but that a test designed to measure an “average” mind will be biased in favor of the dominant class of people.

The truth is, autistic people may be both gifted and intellectually disabled. We call this the “spiky profile.” Other autistic people may have no areas of giftedness or intellectual disability. Intelligence is a lot more complicated than a sliding scale, too.

The article below explores intelligence as it relates to Autistic people– and of course, it has analogies!

While autistic people can’t be separated into “high” and “low functioning,” nor any binary, most autistic people have had one of two experiences: they have been believed to be unilaterally intellectually disabled or unilaterally gifted or talented.

Those who were believed to be unilaterally intellectually disabled, often due to motor planning disability that prevents them from being able to speak reliably or engage in purposeful movement, have been underestimated, treated like toddlers, and given an education way below their capacity.

This video from Nonspeaking advocate Trevor Byrd explains how people perceive him and his unruly body and what they don’t see.

Those who were believed to be unilaterally gifted were not accommodated for their areas of disability, often being characterized as lazy, unmotivated, entitled, and “not applying themselves” due to not being able to perform according to their perceived ability levels.

The article below is a heartbreaking but triumphant memoir about the experience of someone with a spiky profile who was penalized and under-accommodated and the nuanced ways those false binaries caused suffering throughout his lifespan.

The Identity Theory of Autism

Existing theories of identity often feel unrelatable to autistic people. At NeuroClastic, we have spent years interacting with hundreds of thousands of Autistic and non-autistic people and have developed a theory about what it means to be autistic.

After five years of development, in 2021 we released a new model called The Identity Theory of Autism. Of course, as with any construct, some autistic people may not find this theory relatable.

The identity theory posits that the way autistic people experience their core selves, or their identities, is different from the way non-autistic people experience their identities.

Identity is believed to be how much a person is similar to, or different from, other people in their same identity intersections: race, religion, socioeconomic status, marital status, political orientation, career, familial status, [dis]ability, etc.

As all people grow and develop and their life circumstances change, their identity shifts and what aspects of their identity are more dominant shifts as well. For example, a person may become a parent, or become more dedicated to their religious or spiritual practices.

For autistic people, we posit that their identity is more rooted in their values and their passions than in their social intersections. These identity differences explain many of the nuanced ways that social interactions can result in missed connections and communications.

This is not to say that non-autistic people don’t have passions and values, or that autistic people don’t have deep connectedness in their relationships, but that what defines a person and their sense of who they are may be different in autistic people.

Each autistic person’s sensory profile is different, and being “differently wired” is not enough to explain the difference between autism and other neurotypes.

You can read more about the identity theory below.

Autism and Communication

Weavers and Concluders

Like most things related to autism, communication styles are poorly defined or explored beyond conceiving them as “deficient.” NeuroClastic has developed a framework for two very different communication styles that are likely at the root of much of what is considered a learning disability and much of what precedes interpersonal conflict and misunderstandings.

 Even within the autistic community, there seems to be different communication styles. NeuroClastic has developed a model for identifying two of those communication styles: Weavers and Concluders.


Some people communicate like this. They go directly to their destination taking the shortest route imaginable.

Image is a map of a campground with a starting point and an end point. The path is the shortest distance between the two points.

Others are more like this. This person may use analogies and some clever anecdotes, but still gets to the point.

The same map, but the path takes a couple diversions.

Then, there are the people who take the scenic route. They tell lots of stories, use lots of figurative language, and go on all kinds of tangents– but they still reach a destination.

The same map, but with many tangents through recreation and going the long way.


Weavers, on the other hand, communicate more like this.

Weavers aren’t trying to make a point at all. They are simply stating a fact as if it’s an open-ended question to ask, “What do you have to add on to this?” Weavers often get asked, “So what’s the point?” People think they’re being argumentative, or they are simply not leaving room for more conversation unless the person wants to talk about the fact they threw out.

You can learn more about Weavers and Concluders below.

Selective or Situational Mutism

Mutism refers to people who can speak, but they can’t always speak in every situation. Many– if not most– autistic people experience mutism to a degree. Mutism is not the same as having nonspeaking or minimally speaking apraxia, but is an anxiety and/or trauma-induced condition.

Some people with mutism never, or rarely, speak at school or work, but they are very chatty with close friends or relatives outside of work. Others can go years without speaking a single word.

It’s possible for a person to go years, or decades, without realizing that they have mutism. Adults may self-medicate to reduce their anxiety, and many adults report falling into addiction because substance use was the only way they could speak.

You can read more about mutism and the lived experience in the article below, written by two teens.

Nonspeaking, Minimally Speaking, and Unreliably Speaking

As many as one-third of autistic people are nonspeaking, usually because of a motor-planning condition called apraxia. Motor planning is the ability to execute purposeful movement. Because speech needs multiple areas of the brain to make speech happen, having low connectivity to any of those parts may make speech unreliable.

Most Nonspeakers prefer the term “nonspeaking” over “nonverbal” because they have the capacity to understand and produce words, just not with speech.

Nonspeaking is an umbrella term to characterize people for whom speech is never a reliable form of communication. Nonspeaking includes the following three subgroups:

Nonspeaking: a person who never uses speech at all

Minimally speaking: a person who may have a few words and scripts memorized, but cannot communicate complex ideas with speech alone.

Unreliably speaking: a person who may be able to speak a lot, and may often vocalize words, but the words they say are not what they intend to or want to say. They may script long dialogues from movies, or may say “juice” when they want milk. This is called motor disinhibition, when a person does movements (including sounds and speech) that are not intentional– similar to tics. For the same reason, these same people may have difficulty with AAC because they want to point to “milk” but their hand touches juice.

Autism As a Diagnosis

The concept of diagnosis is itself a complex discussion point with a long and, at times, oppressive and problematic history within psychology. At present, there are at least two critical functions of diagnosis within the autistic community

1) Access to services and supports

In many countries, being formally diagnosed by the mental health system is a prerequisite of eligibility for certain services and accommodations. For example, in the U.S. school system, children receive services including communication-related, behavioral health, life skills, and learning support services.

2) External confirmation and validation of whether they are autistic or not

Some individuals will desire an external opinion on whether or not they are autistic.

Historically, certain populations of individuals have been especially prone to not meeting early and diagnosis procedures. These populations include…

  • Anyone over the age of 20
  • Women
  • Anyone able to make speak fluently, laugh at jokes, hold a job, or make eye contact
  • Black, Brown, and Indigenous people
  • Anyone not posessing complex communication barriers

Am I Autistic?

If you are questioning if you may be autistic, you may be unable to separate the traits of autism from the traits associated with trauma, ADHD, OCD, or a host of other diagnoses. In fact, you may have been misdiagnosed.

Frankly, if you’re reading materials produced by the mainstream, you will likely not be able to see yourself in many of the criteria associated with autism.

At NeuroClastic, we coined a term for people who are wondering whether or not they may be autistic, who are reading content from Autistic creators, and who are unsure about their neurotype.

After a social media interchange on Twitter, the term “NeuroLurker” kind of stuck. These were people who were reading, engaging in minimal ways, and tormented by imposter syndrome (a very autistic way to exist). The article below may help you to work out if you’re autistic or not.

And if you’re looking for a specialist who can diagnose adults, you can check the directory below:

Autism’s Correlation with Sensory Sensitivities

Humans exhibit a great deal of variety across all the major physical senses. Some people tolerate spicy food more than others. Some people are more sensitive to cold or warm temperature than others. Many senses arguably have a bell-curve shaped distribution of sensitivities with a smaller range of “typical” or “common” amount of sensitivity while others are outliers.

It is well-established that those on the more extreme end of heightened– or diminished– sensory sensitivity are often autistic, though sensory sensitivities can also be a part of other diagnoses.

Sensory sensitivity, if under-accommodated, can be intolerable and cause profound suffering and trauma. Many autistic people describe falling into learned helplessness after being accused to exaggerating or being too sensitive or even rude.

You can read more about sensory below:

Autism and All Things Movement

As many as 87% of autistic people have clinically significant motor (movement) disability. This can range from being clumsy, dropping small objects often, and maybe occasionally falling up the stairs to being unable to walk or speak.

Motor disability accounts for a lot of previously-misunderstood traits associated with autism. For more information, you can read the article below.

How Autistic People Experience Emotions

Autistic people are often accused of being hyper- or hypo-emotional, and while some of that may be true, largely, autistic people are really overwhelmed or in shutdown much of the time for being forced to tolerate sensory suffering.

Autistic people, because of motor planning differences, may not visibly express emotions the way one expects because they have less control over their facial expressions. Their smiles and eye contact may seem forced because– well, they’re working incredibly hard to force their face to do what comes easily to most people.

Different Types of Emotions

The article that put NeuroClastic on the map, that has been shared millions of times, is called Very Grand Emotions. Hundreds of thousands of autistic people have found this relatable. It suggests that autistic people experience as emotions what some people consider abstract ideas. To learn about Very Grand Emotions, you can read the article below.

Autism and Trauma

Many of the traits associated with autism are also traits associated with trauma spectrum conditions. They are almost impossible to parse out, primarily because they are the same. Regardless of how many words we have, we are unable to communicate with an audience who cannot empathize with our sensory, emotional, motor, and executive functioning differences.

Studies suggest that autistic people are ten times more likely to experience PTSD than non-autistic people, but we estimate that the number is likely much higher. Bullying, sexual and physical abuse, parental abandonment, relational trauma, and a billion subtle aggressions against us from early childhood throughout the lifespan, plus an often-overreactive nervous system, lend themselves to severe trauma.

Below, you can read more on the subject of autism and trauma.

Further Reading:

You can always use the search feature on this page to find a lot of articles on most topics related to autism. You are more likely to find nuanced, personal, first-hand accounts of being autistic than the cold, clinical, pathologized explanations from mainstream sources.

If you’re here, you’ve likely read all of that and hit a wall. Advice for parenting your child has gone awry, or maybe you’ve found yourself in a series of dangerous friendships and relationships. Teachers have failed to accommodate your child appropriately, or someone told you to check out this site to learn more.

We have over 1,000 articles on a wide range of topics we hope will be helpful to you. Below are some more topics you might find helpful for yourself, your clients, your students, or yourself.

Autistic Meltdowns

Autism and Therapies

Autism and Sex

Intersectional Identities

Nonspeakers and Communication Rights


Autistic Communication

Children and Parenting

Autism and Mental Health

Autistic Masking

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