Autism is a genetically-based human neu­ro­log­ical variant that can not be under­stood without the social model of dis­ability.

Members of the autism civil rights move­ment adopt a posi­tion of neu­ro­di­ver­sity that encom­passes a kalei­do­scope of iden­ti­ties that inter­sects with the LGBTQIA+ kalei­do­scope by recog­nising autistic traits as nat­ural vari­a­tions of cog­ni­tion, moti­va­tions, and pat­terns of behav­iour within the human species.

Autistic people must take own­er­ship of the label in the same way that other minori­ties describe their expe­ri­ence and define their iden­tity. Pathologisation of autism is a social power game that removes agency from autistic people. Our sui­cide and mental health sta­tis­tics are the result of dis­crim­i­na­tion and not a “fea­ture” of autism.

Major goals of the autism rights move­ment include the fol­lowing:

  1. Liberation from the socially-constructed pathology par­a­digm
  2. Acceptance of autistic pat­terns of behav­iours
  3. Education that teaches neu­rotyp­ical indi­vid­uals about autistic cog­ni­tion and moti­va­tions, including com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills for inter­acting with autistic peers; as well as edu­ca­tion that teaches autistic indi­vid­uals about typ­ical cog­ni­tion and moti­va­tions, including com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills for inter­acting with neu­rotyp­ical peers
  4. Creation of social net­works, events, and organ­i­sa­tions that allow autistic people to col­lab­o­rate and socialise on their own terms
  5. Recognition of the autistic com­mu­nity as a minority group

In the absence of a com­pre­hen­sive neu­ro­log­ical and genetic descrip­tion – which may for­ever remain elu­sive, the best way to describe autism is in terms of first hand expe­ri­ence of autistic cog­ni­tion and autistic moti­va­tions.

The fol­lowing def­i­n­i­tion of autism reflects a col­lec­tive effort of the autistic com­mu­nity. Focusing on common first hand expe­ri­ences leads to a rel­a­tively com­pact descrip­tion that can easily be val­i­dated by autistic readers, and it also avoids get­ting lost in end­less lists of exter­nally observ­able behav­iours. Lists of external diag­nostic cri­teria offer very little insight into under­lying autistic sen­sory expe­ri­ences and autistic moti­va­tions.

The pur­pose of jointly devel­oping a com­munal def­i­n­i­tion:

  1. Full acknowl­edge­ment of the rel­e­vance of first-hand per­spec­tives and of the internal states and needs of autistic people, offering useful expla­na­tions to people who are won­dering whether they are autistic
  2. Allowing people to dis­cover their autistic iden­tity in a safe envi­ron­ment that intro­duces them to autistic peers, rather than to the neg­a­tive pro­jec­tions of non-autistic people
  3. Enabling the autistic com­mu­nity to push back on behav­iourist pseudo-science that is full of invalid assump­tions about the internal states and life goals of autistic people, and edu­cating the public about the myths that stand in the way of gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion of neu­ro­di­ver­sity

The cur­rent ver­sion of the def­i­n­i­tion has been extracted from this call for action, which in turn reflects obser­va­tions made by a range autistic people from all cor­ners of the planet in online con­ver­sa­tions about the core of autistic expe­ri­ence.

What is autism?


Version 1.01 (15 October 2019)

All autistic people expe­ri­ence the human social world sig­nif­i­cantly dif­ferent from typ­ical indi­vid­uals. The dif­fer­ence in autistic social cog­ni­tion is best described in terms of a height­ened level of con­scious pro­cessing of raw infor­ma­tion sig­nals from the envi­ron­ment, and an absence or a sig­nif­i­cantly reduced level of sub­con­scious fil­tering of social infor­ma­tion.

Autistic chil­dren tend to take longer to learn how to decode non-verbal sig­nals from the social world, in par­tic­ular sig­nals related to abstract cul­tural con­cepts related to the nego­ti­a­tion of social status.

Many autistic people are also hyper- and/or hypo-sensitive to cer­tain sen­sory inputs from the phys­ical envi­ron­ment. This fur­ther com­pli­cates social com­mu­ni­ca­tion in noisy and dis­tracting envi­ron­ments. With respect to autistic sen­sory sen­si­tivity there are huge dif­fer­ences between autists. Some autists may be both­ered or impaired by a broad range of dif­ferent stimuli, whereas others are only impacted by very spe­cific stimuli.

Individually unique cog­ni­tive autistic lenses result in indi­vid­u­ally unique usage pat­terns of the human brain, and often in unique levels of exper­tise and cre­ativity within spe­cific domains of interest and in related autistic inertia and per­se­ver­ance.

Autistic inertia is sim­ilar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do autistic people have dif­fi­culty starting things, but they also have dif­fi­culty in stop­ping things. Inertia can allow autists to hyper­focus for long periods of time, but it also man­i­fests as a feeling of paral­ysis and a severe loss of energy when needing to switch from one task to the next.

Autistic cog­ni­tion shapes the human expe­ri­ence of the world across mul­tiple social dimen­sions, including social moti­va­tions, social inter­ac­tions, the way of devel­oping trust, and the way of making friends.

The autistic experience involves the following set of cultural artefacts

  • Language(s), including var­ious idio­syn­cratic forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but largely excluding an under­standing and appre­ci­a­tion of abstract cul­tural status sym­bols
  • Written rules for inter­ac­tion, in par­tic­ular in rela­tion to inter­acting with the phys­ical and bio­log­ical world, but largely ignoring rules in rela­tion to status sym­bols
  • Tools of all kinds, espe­cially tools relating to per­sonal areas of deep exper­tise
  • Knowledge related to the making and use of tools, often to an unusu­ally deep level

Autistic social motivations

  • Acceptance – acknowl­edge­ment as a living human with basic human needs, in par­tic­ular love, access to food and shelter, and autonomy over own mind and body, as well as unique needs
  • Truth – as it appears through the lens of our cur­rent level of human sci­en­tific under­standing
  • Recognition – attri­bu­tion of cre­ative agency

Autistic social moti­va­tions are intrinsic and nav­i­gate the ten­sion between mutual assis­tance and the acqui­si­tion of new levels of knowl­edge and under­standing, including access to spe­cific objects of study and any required tools.

In sum­mary, autistic people are unable to main­tain hidden agendas, which makes them vul­ner­able to exploita­tion in com­pet­i­tive social envi­ron­ments.

Autistic social interactions

Autistic col­lab­o­ra­tion involves sharing of knowl­edge and working towards a shared goal of gen­er­ating new levels of knowl­edge and under­standing. Those who iden­tify as autistic operate on an internal moral com­pass that does not place much if any value on social status and related cul­tural rules. The moral com­pass medi­ates the ten­sion between the desire to assist others vs the desire learn about the world.

  • These incli­na­tions are reflected in the cul­tural trans­mis­sion of new dis­cov­eries from chil­dren to par­ents
  • Education of par­ents by the chil­dren focuses on teaching about the focus and bound­aries of indi­vidual areas of interest
  • Sharing of knowl­edge and asking probing ques­tions is seen as a nat­ural human behav­iour
  • Adolescence is a period of inten­sive knowl­edge acqui­si­tion, where indi­vidual areas of inter­ests are explored in great depth, and where in the absence of autistic peers with com­pat­ible inter­ests new knowl­edge is often shared with par­ents

The autistic way of developing trust

Is based on expe­ri­enced domain-specific com­pe­tence. Autistic people:

  • (when young) assume everyone is telling the truth;
  • (when older) can become very cyn­ical;
  • can be fooled by people who appear to be log­ical but who have no scru­ples fab­ri­cating evi­dence;
  • are slow in learning the cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of social cues, and can’t reli­ably read social cues in an envi­ron­ment of sen­sory over­load.

This article on autistic col­lab­o­ra­tion and the NeurodiVenture oper­ating model pro­vide fur­ther details on the ways in which autistic people develop trusted rela­tion­ships.

The autistic way of making friends

To con­struct trusted rela­tion­ships and friend­ships, autistic people apply an explicit goal ori­ented approach:

  1. Search for people with shared inter­ests, usu­ally online
  2. Confirm a shared area of interest
  3. Start having fun by openly sharing knowl­edge, per­sonal expe­ri­ences, and related gaps of knowl­edge and ques­tions
  4. Explore what can be achieved with joint capa­bil­i­ties and capac­i­ties
  5. Embark on sig­nif­i­cant joint projects (exam­ples) to have more fun

Social energy management

In all social con­texts that relate to one or more of the group iden­ti­ties of neu­rotyp­ical people, autistic people will be iden­ti­fi­able by their atyp­ical behav­ioural pat­terns, and by the level of exhaus­tion they suffer by attempting to blend in to the local social con­text.

When autistic people attempt to blend in (by masking) it is to avoid suf­fering the con­se­quences of non-conformance – and not to gain or main­tain social status.

Autistic people are the most pro­duc­tive if allowed to self-organise in teams with a clear autistic / neu­ro­di­ver­gent majority, such that inter­ac­tions with typ­ical teams are lim­ited to the mutual exchange of knowl­edge and tools in accor­dance with the agreed pur­pose of the team, and such that autistic people are not expected to con­tin­u­ously con­form to the social expec­ta­tions of the sur­rounding cul­ture.

This definition is an autistic community project

Autistic readers are encour­aged to val­i­date this def­i­n­i­tion against their own expe­ri­ence and to point out any aspects that

  • don’t seem familiar, and which there­fore should per­haps not be con­sid­ered part of the core of autism,
  • or that seem to be missing from the def­i­n­i­tion, but refer to expe­ri­ences made by the majority of autistic people, and there­fore should be added to the def­i­n­i­tion.

You are invited to submit feed­back and spe­cific sug­ges­tions for improve­ment below. This def­i­n­i­tion can also be val­i­dated against the growing number of indi­vidual expe­ri­ences that are col­lected and pub­lished as part of the Mosaic of Autistic Lenses project. Please con­sider con­tributing to this impor­tant project.

It would be fan­tastic if the Mosaic of Autistic Lenses project could over time develop into a repos­i­tory of sev­eral hun­dred (and pos­sibly many more) autistic lenses. The Mosaic of Autistic Lenses project has the poten­tial to develop into a rich source of valu­able infor­ma­tion for the autistic com­mu­nity, in par­tic­ular for young people who are in the process of finding their way into the adult autistic com­mu­nity, and for researchers inter­ested in devel­oping a deeper under­standing.

An autism test by autistic people for autistic people


Instead of a diag­nosis, the fol­lowing test tends to deliver very reli­able results. It does not cost any money, it only takes some time. For anyone who relates to the above descrip­tion of autism, this invest­ment of time may be the most valu­able invest­ment imag­in­able:

If you are won­dering whether you iden­tify as autistic, spend time amongst autistic people, online and offline. If you notice you relate to these people much better than to others, if they make you feel safe, and if they under­stand you, you have arrived.

Suggestions for improvement

Please use the fol­lowing form to submit spe­cific sug­ges­tions for replace­ment, addi­tion, or dele­tion of text seg­ments within this com­munal def­i­n­i­tion of autism. If you would like to dis­cuss ideas for improve­ment, but don’t yet have spe­cific words in mind, please pro­vide an email address to enable a dia­logue, to allow us to jointly arrive at a con­crete sug­ges­tion for improve­ment.

On a monthly basis, all sug­ges­tions received will be posted for review and endorse­ment by the Autistic Community Loomio group – which you are invited to join, using a trans­parent and demo­c­ratic voting process.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Jorn Bettin and for doing the work to solicit the input from the autistic com­mu­nity to develop and update this def­i­n­i­tion.

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