The Identity Theory of Autism: How Autistic Identity Is Experienced Differently

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.

They kept telling me who I was, and they were wrong. In my frustration, I yelled, “Whatever you are, I am not that!

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.

Social identities

  • Gender
  • Socioeconomic class
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Neighborhood/region
  • Nationality
  • Religion
  • [Dis]ability
  • Career
  • Political orientation or party
  • Language[s] spoken
  • Parental status
  • Family size
  • Ethnicity
  • Education

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.

Autistic people’s identities were derived differently, not an amalgam of social intersections, but of the intersections of their values, interests, and experiences.

Before I go on, it is important to establish that:

  1. Everyone has values, interests, and experiences
  2. Everyone has social needs and degrees of relatedness to how similar and different they are from others occupying the same intersections
  3. 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.
  4. This is a theory that is not empirically proven. Further research and community feedback can improve upon, discredit, expand, or clarify this theory further.
  5. Some autistic people may not relate to this at all.
  6. 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.

Image reads that being autistic is telling the emperor his ass is showing. Many autistic people feel they live inside a dystopian version of The Emporer’s New Clothes.
Image reads, “Being autistic is being hired for your values, integrity, and persistence… then being considered a troublemaker for persistently upholding said values with integrity.
Image reads, “Being autistic is being told to just be yourself… but as long as it doesn’t cause anyone discomfort.

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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52 Responses

  1. Re: “As adults, most of them have been accused of “hating” collective identities to which they belong.”, that brings to mind what sometimes happens when I say that the US’s Pledge of Allegiance is very strange to me, first you first pledge allegiance to a couple yards of fabric “and” then to the nation like some kind of afterthought before you forget to do it. Why would I, why should I, feel anything for inanimate fabric, a dead, non-living, symbol, before I feel for the living breathing people who are the nation? It’s like the symbol of the nation is more important than the reality of the nation. Wait a minute … symbol is more important than reality … say, isn’t that a pretty on-point description of common neurotypical values and priorities?

    1. I almost got detention in middle school for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance.

      1. Yay propaganda for the nationalistic indoctrination of children!
        Screw you first amendment & personal freedoms!

  2. I have absolutely no doubt that this is correct. Though, of course, new evidence could change my view.

    I’m lucky enough to work for myself, and at this point I don’t think anything else would work for me, given the excessive numbers of allistic people in organizations. I have been the whistleblower many times; I generally won, but left the “community” disliking me because they cared more about mindless conformity than about following their principles and didn’t like being called on their hypocrisy.

  3. Whoa! Nail on the head! I was at church yesterday and we sang ‘Amazing Grace’. At coffee afterwards I said that references to blindness and spiritual lack needed to be removed from the hymn as they are ableist and was faced initially with a mixture of dismissal, incredulity and an attitude that you don’t mess with something iconic. It did, however start some interesting convos that developed into more of a shared understanding about oppressive language and why it matters. I suggested changing ‘blind’ to ‘unaware’ and ‘see’ to ‘perceive’. It’s not rocket science is it and now the song is out of copywrite, we can chop it up as we like. Or not, if collective tradition is valued higher than marginalised groups.

    1. Given that Jesus himself and several times in the Gospels, as well as Moses, David, and Isiah, used their languages’ word blind in the figurative sense as well as the physical sense; and given the way Isiah 43 is written even God himself uses blind in the figurative sense, therefore, why is it wrong for us to use blind in its figurative sense?

      And for example from Deuteronomy, “The Curses of Disobedience
      …28The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind, 29and at noon you will grope about like a blind man in the darkness. You will not prosper in your ways. Day after day you will be oppressed and plundered, with no one to save you. ”

      In Matthew, one of several, “…13But Jesus replied, “Every plant that My heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by its roots. 14Disregard them! They are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” 15Peter said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.”…”

      And God himself in Isiah, “6“I, the LORD, have called you for a righteous purpose, and I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and appoint you to be a covenant for the people and a light to the nations, 7to open the eyes of the blind, to bring prisoners out of the dungeon and those sitting in darkness out from the prison house. 8I am the LORD; that is My name! I will not yield My glory to another or My praise to idols.…”

      1. I don’t think Jesus spoke English. So there’s that. Everything in scripture has been translated over and over and OVER. Quoting English translations does little to prove your point.

        1. That logic is flawed because for a thing to be translated you have to know the meaning in the original language or no translation would be possible.

        2. And then there are the questions of: Is God, God, as asserted? Is God sovereign as asserted? Is God omnipotent as asserted? And does such a God have enough power to overcome human imperfections and cause his words to be accurately recorded and translated, this being the same God of whom it is asserted that he created differing human languages?

      2. It’s wrong because it’s ableist. I don’t believe in the God of the Bible (or any other god, for that matter) but did He ask the blind in Isaiah whether they *wanted* Him to give them sight? Your Deuteronomy example has the Almighty using disability as a punishment, reinforcing the idea that people are or become disabled ‘because they deserve it’ which, apart from the fact that THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING DISABLED, just demonstrates that the Bible is fundamentally ableist, regardless of how the original text was worded.

        When a member of a minority group tells you that specific language is harmful, you don’t get to decide whether they are correct or incorrect.

        1. So “members of minority groups” have the privilege of being unchallenged when they make assertions? In your dreams….

  4. To use language that connects physical blindness to spiritual lack is ableist, damaging and reinforces bad theology that associates disability with sinfulness. I appreciate the effort you have gone to in replying, but for me, having biblical ‘proof’ texts that were written in a time and context very different from our own shows that Disability Theology, like Liberation Theology, needs to be taken much more seriously. Scripture can, and should be, robustly re-examined and challenged. Fairly sure that God is big enough to take a few questions. Thank you for your response.

    1. Though not connected in the blaming the victim way that a portion of church people have connected it throughout history, disability is connected with sinfulness, it is because of the curse of the original sin and the resultant fall that physical disabilities like I have, others have, even exist.
      And back to the people I mentioned, I wonder if they ever actually read the book they believe? For instance, Jesus settled the issue, “Now as Jesus was passing by, He saw a man blind from birth, 2and His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God would be displayed in him.”

      1. I respectfully disagree. I, as an autistic, neurodivergent, multiply-disabled, fully human person am fearfully, intentionally and wonderfully made in God’s image. I am not any of these things because of sin or a curse. I would recommend taking a look at the Doctrine of Original Righteousness instead of Original Sin. Have a blessed day, knowing that you are loved unconditionally.

    2. Re: “I appreciate the effort you have gone to in replying,” given my body’s condition with endocrine, autoimmune, mitochondria, musculoskeletal, defects and disease going on, and how they affect both my physical and mental energy levels that statement has more meaning than you can know, so, Thanks!

      1. You are very welcome, and I also appreciate you sharing your situation. It’s a privilege when someone dies that.

  5. Wow. I never conceived that anyone could have an identity that *wasn’t* consisting of one’s values, interests, and experiences. I thought that’s what identity was! This explains 90% of my social misunderstandings, and I can get a glimmer into how very confusing I must be to others! No wonder my only friends are gamers, most of whom are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, and all of whom share the same interest!

  6. As much as I feel inclined to welcome any dissenting experience in order to make space for it, I find myself relating to all of this.

    *heavy sigh*

    At a support group I was assumed to “not want to collaborate” when telling an ally in position of power (that until then i had valued greatly, and still do outside this context) that I had no idea there was a meeting – and a person B who was supposed to be there, like me, didn’t know either, confirming that the previous notice wasn’t given, or else I’d write it down for fear of missing out on it. I felt baffled by that assumption, because I was giving the notice to seek for solutions for it to not happen again. Not to antagonize or to make the higher up feel questioned.
    (It didn’t help that person B did react in a hostile way, so i was probably put on the same category by default regardless of my respectful way to approach it).

    And so on with other instances I brought into attention some issues happening, just to be unlistened, accused of causing ruckus (pretty much like Lia in the example) or nodded to just to politely ignore me after. It’s been only fellow NDs so far (though not necessarily autistic) who have understood my definition of team playing – that is, making sure no one gets left behind and caring about being on the same page on values (rather than optics, that people like Rita usually prioritize, and it’s something I can’t find other than dishonest).

    This also brings to my mind a bit Temple Grandin has written in one of her books – i don’t remember which one, sorry – about discovering how, in instances where problem solving is much needed, she found out it’s best when you make the higher ups think the solutions and other good things are their idea. Regardless of what one can think of her, that assessment is as depressing as it is accurate. (Hence Rita focusing on “being seen as heroes” rather than understanding the dissent).

    This article was “I’m going through all stages of grief on loop” level of relatable. Thanks for finding a breakthrough in this differentiation, even as subject to fallibility as disclaimed, even if it means it’ll still take me longer to have faith in bridging fundamental differences. At the very least, knowing to not be alone in this somehow helps.

  7. 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.

    It is the only part I disagree with. The “I’m who I am” and “I’m me” is not, or not only caused by struggle to understand oneself and trauma but can be genuine. Even thought I am quite bad at knowing myself, I think the reason I would answer that way come from note being able to summerize myself and any answer I could give would miss part of who I am.

    1. “I’m me” was my first reaction too, I wasn’t able to figure out why but you’ve explained it so clearly. ‘I contain multitudes’…

      A great article that feels very true. I’ve never understood the need to ‘flock’ and am baffled by people who project their social identities as more important than their actual personalities.

  8. Having had my most fundamental sense of ‘self’ identity dismantled, or demolished, several times throughout my life, I feel as if the older I get, the more ‘nothing’ I become. I often feel I am just a thing that happens, a consciousness floating untethered in space. Notions of personal history or identification with any description feel irrelevant. There is nothing transcendent or liberating about it, and it can be very discombobulating. What interests me more than identity is what remains in its absence….

    1. I can really identify with this. You are the first person outside of myself who has mentioned the idea of people being more like events—-things that happen. I totally agree. And, beginning to realize extremely late in life that I might be autistic, your comment about not knowing who you really are really rings true. I have had a million different identities. For example, when I worked at a fancy store with friends who were preppies, I dressed like a preppy. When I stayed with a relative who was a biker, the next thing you know I’m hanging around with the bikers and dressing in black leather. and when I worked with some evangelical Christians I tried that for a while and even got baptized. I try the identities on and then later I put them down. I’ve been learning about masking so I thought perhaps that’s what that was. Or it’s just that I’m curious and interested in everything and I don’t feel any allegiance to one social group and I like variety and all that. I don’t know….it’s a real head-scratcher.

  9. This explains my unease with concepts like “community” so well it’s a little scary. People always seemed to give it this “no dissent or criticism or even looking at things from another angle allowed” connotation that never sat right with me.

    I can still take pride in things like “I work here”, but to me making it central to my identity is like putting on a band shirt and introducing myself as Korpiklaani.

  10. Huh! Excellent thinking. I feel very excited by this. This explains something I’ve been trying to explain in a much better way that doesn’t pathologise the entire neurotypical population. (For the record, I am autistic and do relate to what you described as autistic).

  11. As an autistic person, I really struggle with semiotics — I don’t recognize the power of symbols and cultural markers on non-autistic types until it’s too late.

  12. I think the distinction Terra makes in the article, of two different sets of ‘identity’ motivators, makes perfect sense as yet another expression of autism’s lateral intelligence. I’d be interested to see how this extends to people who feel the need to ‘identify’ as autistic, and who declare themselves members of the ‘autistic community’ – isn’t that a group identity?

    I participated in a peer support group training a few years ago (everyone there was autistic, including the trainers), thinking I might experience at least a sense of acceptance; and yet, because I was so far removed from the group’s shared middle-class reality (cultuaral group identity), and because I directly addressed deeper emotional dynamics within the group, I came away feeling even more isolated than I already am, even among so-called ‘peers’. (I suppose this is where non-autistics insert ‘irony’.) It was evident that being in a room of other autistics was no guarantee of ‘belonging’ or even shared understanding – and in being prepared to ask more difficult questions of the group, I did not fit with the group’s desire to keep things within the superficial parameters of their middle-class values – and their familiar autistic ‘tropes’.

    In scanning the autistic ‘landscape’, I get the impression that the ‘autistic community’, as a group identity, is still largely intolerant of any autistic voices that question, critique or deviate from certain ‘autistic identity’ frameworks. For any identity to persist, it necessitates attachment to definitions that will ultimately become rigid, and I’m sure many autistics would agree that any rigid system will generate strain and ultimately collapse. We can learn so much about our shared human experience through the lens of autism, provided we don’t succumb to (‘believe’) the predictable human tendency toward attachment.

    When I tell someone I’m autistic, it’s only to point to a specific context – eg in dealing with hospital staff, communicating that my autism means highly-amplified sensitivity to pain, and if they want me to cooperate (while I’m in pain), my autistic sensitivity requires trust, feeling listened to, and very thorough explanations of any procedure, process or potential outcomes. I use it as a functional, contextual directive, because just saying ‘I’m autistic’ isn’t communicating anything. My core impulse is to communicate as a human being, and to appeal to the shared human experience beyond any social constructs. We are all biological units, consciousness housed within a nervous system, complex beyond comprehension, and all our realities held tenuously together by symbolic representations ie whatever assumptions we agree to. What if we were to communicate beyond identity?

    1. Well I use Autism as a short hand reference to how my brain works relative to others. I know who I am without the ‘autistic identity’ but it’s useful in categorising people who’s brains function similar to mine, as well as a stepping stone to understand how neurotypicals differ from me so I can better understand & communicate with them.

  13. Well Terra, you’ve certainly woken some readers up. As a former English Teacher, you do a wonderful job of writing details of the psyche. Congrats!

  14. Deeply insightful. I think you’re truly on to something here, Terra.

    Two things: “I am a verb”, I suspect, is a reference to Buckminster Fuller’s “I Seem to be a Verb”. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Fuller is thought to have been autistic.

    The other is my OCD side noticed you listed “gender” twice in your bullet points at the top.

  15. It’s an excellent hypothesis and one I agree with; I think it explains my bafflement at nationalism and football team or music fans. Among other things. It gets me into so many arguments that I think my values are more important than ‘teams’, especially around things like history and nationality.

    We’re programmed by education to always support the collective identity, e.g. you’re nationality, even in historical contexts where it’s inappropriate, for example because said nationality didn’t exist at the time, to believe in national myths, and questioning that is somehow treasonous? If I question the behaviour of the French in colonial Vietnam in the 20th century that’s fine, but heaven forbid I question the behaviour of the English/British (context of place and time) in India at any point and especially during the 1940s, I’m committing a grave sin with extra sins because there was a war on and somehow that makes questioning assumptions of superiority worse. For the record, the French and British were all awful, and the Dutch weren’t much better in Indonesia. (I’m using ‘heaven forbid’ and ‘sins’ in the colloquial sense of ‘doing something bad’, not the religious sense. I’m not a Christian.)

    Side Note: To be pedantic, this a a hypothesis, not a theory. I know you probably know this and I’m being a pain in the arse for pointing it out, but you’re using ‘theory’ in the colloquial rather than the scientific sense, while saying it isn’t a scientific fact. A theory is a scientific fact, tested and tested until breaking, which doesn’t break and receives community consensus. It’s a contradiction and it upsets me when people use the wrong word. This is a hypothesis: you have some data, and formed an idea about why that data exists. Then you have extensively tested the hypothesis. You are at the stage where you have published your hypothesis for wider discussion and replication or falsification by others. If, in the fullness of time, no one manages to falsify the hypothesis, it may go on to be a theory, which is scientific fact. I’m allowed to be pedantic, the clear and informative use of words is a passion.

    1. I may be way off base but doesn’t a hypothesis become a theory when said hypothesis can predict the outcome of something untested correctly? For instance, in the case of evolution, we cannot prove it. Yet it is a theory because the theory does explain current observable phenomena such as adaptation. However, it cannot be considered a fact.

      To be further pedantic, theory does not unilaterally mean scientific theory. Look up the definition of theory and you will see it is not “colloquial” to use it in a sense other than rigorous “scientific theory”. Therefore, he is not incorrect in his usage in my opinion.

  16. This is fantastic! I agree with this 100%. I’m a recently self-identified autistic and as I was struggling to explain autism to my family, the descriptor I came up with was sort of similar–that autism is like an inability to assimilate into one’s own culture (or any culture.) Or, from a strengths-positive framing, resilience to the corrupting or limiting influences of social assimilation…Basically, autistic people belong to a culture of one–we are who we are.

    Thank you for articulating this so beautifully. (And wow–the 2020 study about private versus public giving–it’s amazing what lengths researchers will go to to paint autistics as the ones with the disordered neurotype.) This was a brilliant piece.

  17. Thank you for the article I found very interesting. I am speaking as a male OT working with some persons with autism. I am curious to know why is it that Autism Speaks is related to your article. I would like to know since I am aware the this organization is powerful and not always in tune with the autistic community.

  18. What a fascinating idea. Like many people commenting, I too am ‘on the spectrum’ and many of the descriptions of how autistic people relate to themselves and the world ring very true.

    I’d like to know how this can help people like me. I keep on pissing people off, annoying them, making them ‘feel unsafe’ because I talk about stuff that NTs don’t talk about. I really don’t understand how people can intuitively work out what not to say in certain circumstances. I don’t have a filter, and if I think it, I say it. Gets me into a whole heap of bother. But, also friends and fans!

    Being autistic is……. difficult, complicated, wonderful, amazing, extraordinary.
    Who are you, John? I’m a deep Green but don’t really fit into my Party or communities very well as I have views based on science and evidence which don’t chime with the majority, I’m a keen cyclist, low carbon living proponent, climate change expert and science communicator, composting expert, very ‘out’ polyamorist, massive extrovert, entertainer, hedonist, psychonaut.

    How can I help you? I love helping, contributing, participating.

  19. This article is very informative and impressive for me as a student who found this page by looking for research papers for my own university study. The argument of identity is particularly interesting, well done!.

  20. This explains so much. Just yesterday I was responding to a relative’s comment about pronouns, and I realized that her anger and discomfort at non-binary people wanting to be referred to as “they” stems from feeling that her personal identity as a “she” is being attacked, because “she” and “he” rely on a collective social/group identity, and asking for something different therefore comes across as an attack on her personal sense of self, even though she has nothing to do with it.
    All of this makes me wonder how American society can ever move beyond white institutional privilege and supremacy, since the majority perceive their racial identity as team loyalty, and might therefore (think?) that they will lose a sense of self and feel attacked when they are asked to view race more critically and make changes to better society as a whole for all.

  21. I consider my self both hard left and hard right. I am disillusioned with a left that has gone off the rails and allowed their partisanship for the sake of partisanship hurt those they want to help. I am increasingly disillusioned with the radical right which wants to help the people, but let their hatred get in the way. Both radical rightism and radical leftism are inhumane ideologies that will happily throw you off a cliff if ti got them closer to the end goal. The right wants to preserve everything, even that which is unjust, and the left wants to tear down everything, even that which is good. On leftist issues, I support workplace republicanism and taxing corporations at 100% unless the pay their employees, spend on investments, donate to charity or spend on research and development. I oppose corporate personhood and think that all publicly traded companies should have 50% worker representation on the board so that the shareholders and employees have to work together or else. On hard right issues, I want an absolute morality that applies in all circumstances to protect people from consensual exploitation. I want to strengthen marriage and support mothers to have many children. I want to ban corporations from donating to politicians and support robust public banking infrastructure. I also want to destroy the federal reserve. There is no camp for me.

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