From my earliest memories, I recognized that I was different from most of the people around me, and that difference was sometimes hard to characterize. While all autistics are different, from each other and from the majority of people, most would relate to feeling so different that they wondered if they were even the same species.
There really aren’t many autistic people who would argue, “But I feel just like everyone else. I’m normal!”
In the years since my diagnosis, I have been investing all of my hyperfocus on autism. Having the answer to so many questions of “difference” or “other” about myself was so validating, but other questions lingered or are imperfectly answered.
Chiefly, what exactly does it mean to be autistic?
Sure, there are differences in sensory processing, there’s the DSM criteria with regards to repetitive movements and social deficits, and there are a host of traits that have been identified and documented by various scholars and content creators… but that’s still not enough to explain exactly why we are so similar to other autistic people and so different from non-autistics.
When I had the epiphany about Very Grand Emotions and how autistic people experience emotions differently, that helped to put some of that relational difference to words. For people who experienced Justice, Truth, Mercy, and Work as primary emotions. But, there was something that underscored Very Grand Emotions that I hadn’t fully grasped.
There was, too, something about the way autistic people experience empathy that was different.
And somehow, those differences were part of another truth I just couldn’t grasp.
Why do all the greatest epiphanies happen in the middle of an argument?
My first published article on PsychCentral was written just a couple months after I realized that I was autistic. I wrote about how everything I ever read about how “people” are didn’t describe me, leaving me to feel like I wasn’t “people.”
Then, in August of 2017, shortly after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, I found myself in a heated disagreement with someone of similar political views but who was definitely not autistic. I felt like they were parroting party politics without seeing how they were contributing to racism. They thought that I was “causing division” by not following party lines.
Then, it hit me.
Autism was a difference at the level of identity.
Identity as a Construct
One can get lost in anthropological and sociological theories about what exactly an identity is, or a person’s core self. Distilling all the existing theories, though, an identity can be summarized as how much one is similar to, or different from, others who occupy the same collective, or social identities.
- Socioeconomic class
- Sexual orientation
- Political orientation or party
- Language[s] spoken
- Parental status
- Family size
In my research about identity, I realized exactly what it was that made me, personally, so different from most people. The more I explored this thought, the more it made sense. It explained just about everything at the source of all my conflicts and misunderstandings with others. It explained autistic empathy and Very Grand Emotions.
Before I go on, it is important to establish that:
- Everyone has values, interests, and experiences
- Everyone has social needs and degrees of relatedness to how similar and different they are from others occupying the same intersections
- Autism is still a neurological (“wiring”) difference that impacts multiple facets of existence that can be incredibly disabling, even physically. Identity is not the only difference between the autistic neurotype and other neurotypes.
- This is a theory that is not empirically proven. Further research and community feedback can improve upon, discredit, expand, or clarify this theory further.
- Some autistic people may not relate to this at all.
- This is being published as a theory and not as a fact. Autistic people are invited to share their thoughts and engage with this theory, even if to disprove it.
A Social Experiment
I’m known for my impulsive social experiments. I first started performing and re-visiting one specific experiment in 2017 to test this identity theory.
Since the initial “trial run,” I’ve made adjustments to the experiment and ran it in multiple places. I tried to think of groups where the population would not have many autistic people, and I joined as many as I could.
I used an alternate social media profile with a pen name and joined several groups or boards on different social media platforms. There were groups for getting rich, groups to show support for law enforcement officers, groups for fad diets, dance moms, and more.
I joined groups where there was likely a mix of autistic and non-autistic people, especially some for mental health and some for various professions that are likely to have a lot of autistic people. Then, I did the same experiment in autistic-only spaces.
Finally, I did the same experiment as myself using Survey Monkey to collect responses.
No matter what I did to change the experiment, the results were consistent.
I asked people one question: Who are you?
Almost unilaterally, non-autistic people began describing themselves in terms of their relationships to others– if they were a parent, a spouse, what their career was, where they lived, what their religion is, and what their roles were related to others (sister to a Senator, military brat, pastor’s wife, soccer mom, etc.).
And, almost unilaterally, autistic people described themselves as what they loved to do, what their values were, and what they had experienced. Many even said this, having intuited the basis of the theory. Among the answers were, “I am a verb,” or “I am what I love,” or “Who I am is what I do.” Autistics would answer, “Lover of Justice,” or “Dreamer,” or “One who values autonomy.” Some would describe themselves as a “lover of” or “obsessed with” an intense passion, like trains, lichen and fungi, or theoretical physics and black holes.
Of course, there were a few outliers from both neurotypes.
It’s also worth noting that many, many autistic people just answered, “I’m who I am,” “I’m me,” or “I don’t know who I am.”
I have theories about why many autistic people struggle to put words to who they are. Some of that could be that they do not experience identity the same way that the world describes identity, and so they struggle to understand themselves within the neurotypical context. Others may have been shamed and over-therapized and gaslighted to the extent that they have never had permission to explore their passions and truly meet their authentic selves.
How does having a socially-constructed identity impact relationships?
Having a social identity means to have an identity that is based on how much belonging– or, conversely, how much exclusion– one experiences among others of the same collective social identities. People with a socially-constructed identity seek belonging in their identity intersections, maybe focusing more on advancing and cultivating certain aspects of their identity that are most meaningful or prosperous for them.
For example, Rita non-autistic Latinx woman who is an EMT, heterosexual, middle class, a spouse, a mother, a musician, and a Christian may focus mostly on cultivating her identity as an EMT and a Christian. This may mean that she finds the most relatedness among other EMTs and first responders and among other people of the same faith.
For those social identities that are the most important to her individually, Rita may protect the health of those collective social identities passionately. Because her identity is invested in those social intersections, challenges or threats to the collective identities of first responder and Christian are challenges to her individual identity.
Further, Rita may place higher levels of respect, empathy, and loyalty to people in those collective social identities who are in leadership positions and positions of authority within collective social hierarchies, as supporting the hierarchy maintains the stability and honor of her collective identities.
How does having an experientially-constructed identity impact relationships?
We know that autistic people can be “hyper focused” with their interests and passions and can have extreme dedication to their values. But what we don’t know is why those traits are present in autistic people or the implications about how that relates to autistic identity.
An autistic person can have the same social intersections or collective identities as a non-autistic person. For example, Lis is an autistic Latinx woman who is an EMT, heterosexual, middle class, a spouse, a mother, a musician, and a Christian.
Lis, like Rita, also most identifies with being an EMT and Christian.
But, even though Lis, on paper, looks to be very similar to Rita, she is likely to live a very different life. As an autistic person, her dedication to her values and experiences influences her individual identity more than her station of belongingness within her collective social identity.
Imagine that both Rita and Lis work as EMTs in the same precinct. The local news reported the results of a citywide financial audit and proposed budget change that would dramatically reduce the budget for emergency services. The audit suggested that too much money had been spent on emergency services and not enough on community supports. The article highlighted the amount of time emergency personnel were on the clock but inactive, often working 48-hour shifts but only being on call for 2-4 of those hours.
The audit report suggested that similar cities had divested funding from emergency services to community support initiatives aimed at supporting teens and young adults to learn vocational trades, putting mobile health clinics in low-income neighborhoods, and increasing access to free mental health and crisis services. Having access to these supports reduced crime and preventable health emergencies.
Rita and Lis both became EMTs because they wanted to save lives. Both read the article and comments, but how they responded is quite different.
Rita (non-autistic) feels attacked and undervalued. She has watched her co-workers rush into dangerous and unstable situations and risked their lives to save others, and she has done the same. Allegations of laziness, wastefulness, and poor service flood the comments. People claim to have experienced racism, gaslighting, and medical mistreatment from emergency services, several noting that their calls for help during a mental health crisis resulted in arrests, involuntary hospitalization, and thousands of dollars in bills.
Rita feels personally attacked. Attacking her collective identity is to attack her core self. She organizes a fundraiser and appreciation dinner for first responders through her church. She wants to improve the morale of her most meaningful collective identity.
Lis (autistic) is more dedicated to her values than her collective identity. She researches the impact of improving community services and realizes that community lives are saved by having more access to support services. She reads the comment section and recognizes ways that her department can improve services to avoid causing undue and lasting hardship to those who are vulnerable.
Lis organizes a fundraiser and arranges for a food pantry for those struggling with finances during the pandemic. She wants to improve the morale of her broader community.
During the next department meeting, both Lis and Rita have ideas about responding to the audit. Rita suggests a public relations campaign that demonstrates the work that first responders do and highlights stories of lives saved by the heroism of first responders as the city council plans to meet about the budget.
Lis suggests that during downtime, employees can engage in online training courses in crisis intervention and that they work with other first responders to find ways to support healthy community engagement.
Rita is praised by her colleagues and superiors and is seen as a team player. Lis is seen as a divisive traitor who agrees with the antagonists. Co-workers accuse Lis of not caring about her job, of supporting defunding of first responders, and of not believing in the value of first responders.
The Consequences and Implications
While research into autism and identity construction does not currently exist, to my knowledge, research does exist that substantiates this theory.
One research study from 2020 looked at autistic people and non-autistic people making decisions about how to spend money donating to a cause. In private, non-autistic people chose the option that benefited them more financially; however, when the decision was public, non-autistic people chose the option that most benefitted their reputation. Autistic people chose the option that contributed to the Greater Good both in public and in private.
Ironically, the research study unintentionally validates the Identity Theory of Autism. The researchers, who were non-autistic, concluded that Autistic people over-value their individual impact on the world, painting this behavior as a deficit and not as an asset to humanity. The researchers maintained and solidified their authority (oppression) over autistic people by continuing to paint autistic existence as broken and a pathology, reinforcing their power differential and ensuring that funding that maintains autism as an “epidemic” continues to be diverted to researchers.
Autistic people will find the above example of the autistic EMT highly relatable. As adults, most of them have been accused of “hating” collective identities to which they belong. Their presence and their dedication to their values threatens the group stability of their social collective identities.
Challenges from someone perceived as being on a lower “rank” in a collective social identity will be seen as rude and disrespectful by non-autistics. Their individual identity is contingent on the power of their “team” identity. Conversely, an autistic person is likely not aware that most people perceive themselves as important parts of “teams.”
Many autistics who loved their identity communities– professional, religious, racial, LGBTQ+, etc.–were shunned from them for not being a “team player” or for “causing division.” Autistic people don’t see relatedness or find their identity as a player in a team sport.
Being primarily a person whose identity is more value-centered and experientially-driven frees an autistic person up to make decisions based on research, prior experience, and the net value of contribution to the Greater Good.
The Identity Theory of Autism explains why autistic people empathize by relating their closest lived experience or by challenging someone to reframe their perception because the autistic person assumes others also want to conceive of themselves and their relationships as being established on common values rather than on common social identities.
Autistic people may air their grievances with problems within an identity to which they belong, setting the stage for the other person to confirm if they share the same values. For example, a Christian autistic may express their discontent at the church’s focus on prosperity and financial “blessings” as being a reflection of greed or of contributing to morality being associated with financial privilege.
Non-autistic people are likely to communicate by indicating invisible identities to which they belong, setting the stage for the other person to confirm whether or not they belong to that collective identity. For example, a non-autistic Christian may insert clues into their communication that indicates their social identity. They may use the word “blessed” or mention prayer to indicate they are Christian, too.
Autistics are perpetual whistle-blowers.
Autistic people– even those who don’t realize they are autistic– are often discouraged by people within their shared social identities because the autistic people feel others are hypocrites. Autistics see people upholding the reputation of their collective identity over the values the identity purports to espouse and feel that the others are being inauthentic. Autistic Leftists are often discouraged by people who identify as progressive but refuse to acknowledge how their allegiance to partisan lines and left-leaning politicians harms the people they claim to represent.
Non-autistic family members of autistic people often feel the autistic person is embarrassing them or is in some way being a traitor or disloyal to the family when an autistic lives differently or challenges the values and attitudes of family members. Because autistic people do not see identity as a station on a collective identity’s hierarchy, they do not automatically assign value to mainstream authority and social rank– which is immediately regarded as disrespectful by those who benefit from those hierarchies being in place.
Autistic people often feel that whole society-wide groups are complicit in believing social lies. That is because whole collective identities do, in fact, assent to lies and neglect to address behaviors and attitudes that contribute to harm. Half of the United States can deny that police brutality disproportionately impacts Black people or that systemic racism exists because their social identity’s security is threatened by observable facts.
NeuroClastic once asked the Autistic community to finish the sentence, “Being Autistic is…” Many of the responses— and certainly responses people most agreed with— reinforced the premise behind the Identity Theory.
Autistic people do not feel a team loyalty to their identity intersections because their values define them more than their social identities (“teams”). They may be passionate about their individual identities, like being Black, or Trans, or Deaf, but they would be much less likely to uphold their collective identity over their values. Those individual identity intersections are so important to autistics because they represent Authenticity. Autistic people believe in individual autonomy to make and define oneself, but not at the expense of the interconnectivity of all things.
They lean on and embrace their individual identities because they love justice, and they advocate for equity. They monitor and adjust their own behavior– publicly– and often ask others to hold them accountable. The Autistic community that interacts online are mostly people for whom being Autistic is a major part of their identity. Other Autistic people never interact with or care to learn about autism because it’s not a substantial part of their identity.
Without the innate pressure to establish one’s position in social pecking orders, Autistic people may go through a series of metamorphoses forever, folding in new experiences and passions into their core self. In essence, they continue to author themselves in perpetuity.
Those Autistics who are less invested in their identity as an Autistic person are likely to engage in communities built around their passions. They may invest their lives in these passions and find a way to use them for contributing to their values. For example, an autistic sports physicist may try to use sports to find an avenue to help the general population better understand and find science practical and relatable so that their information literacy improves– empowering them to make important decisions about things like climate change and vaccine efficacy.
Disclaimers and notes
I have talked about this theory with many Autistic advocates and Autistic researchers who have helped to clarify and hone the theory and provide additional context for how it explains so much about what it means to be autistic, the conflicts Autistic people have with broader society, and what it really means to be so different.
It’s important to note that autistic masking is likely to subconsciously influence the degree to which autistics are in touch with their identity and how well they know themselves. This theory may resonate more with people who have been working on unpacking and removing their social masks.
It is also important to note that while autistic people may be more individually defined by values, this does not mean they are inherently morally superior; in fact, an autistic person can have values that align with harmful ideologies like fascism, religious extremism, trans-exclusionary radical feminism, or white supremacy. Autistic people are often highly justice-oriented, but convoluted values, like for any person, can mean that their interpretation of what is just is actually harmful and toxic.
The Identity Theory is just a theory, not a model or scientifically-proven fact. Further exploration and validation– or invalidation– would help to better define what autistic identity means and how it is experienced by Autistics. Community commentary is welcomed.
Non-autistic people are likely to reject this theory as it disempowers their privilege as the superior “default” neurotype. Autistic people challenging the social hierarchies non-autistic people subconsciously maintain are likely to cause immediate rejection of anything that paints autistic existence as anything other than burdensome.
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