Saturday, October 28, 2006

What's autism anyway?

This is something I wrote that was posted on jypsy and Alex's iRunman blog:

Autism is a neurological difference classified as a developmental disability. Autistic people have atypical behaviours in three areas: social interaction, communication, and restricted interests or repetitive behaviours. Autistics are different at the most basic level available: how we experience the world, and how we learn from it. Autism presents with measurable differences in perception, attention, memory, intelligence, etc. The autistic order and progress of development is different from the typical version as is autistic brain structure, allocation, and function. Autism presents strengths not available to the typical population, but the different pattern of strengths and weaknesses characterizing autism results in many difficulties as atypical needs and adaptive but atypical autistic behaviours are at odds with what is considered or expected as "normal".

Autism isn't a disease, or a bunch of behaviours, any more than femaleness is. Autism involves neurological differences, which are basic and comprehensive. Autistic neurology is no more or less valid than non-autistic neurology: both autistics and non-autistics are able to develop, learn, progress, and achieve things, but may do so in different ways and may require different kinds of help along the way. Progress is part of the natural course of development in autistics, as it is in non-autistics, but development in autism may not proceed in the same order as is considered normal for non-autistics. Autistics may, e.g., seem advanced in some areas and delayed in others. Seen in perspective, this means that in comparison with autistics, non-autistics are likely to be advanced in some areas and delayed in others. Non-autistics may need a great deal of assistance in learning things that autistics learn easily, and the reverse may also be true. Seeing as we don't declare non-autistics to be "succeeding in treatment" or "less severely non-autistic" or "recovered" when they develop and learn, it should be clear that describing autistics in these kinds of terms is misleading and prejudicial.

Autistics are alert and aware of what is happening around us, even though we may not be able to show this or respond in expected, typical ways. Autistics also may not communicate in typical ways, and in some situations, will find it difficult to communicate at all. However, this does not reflect a fundamental inability or unwillingness to communicate. Autistics want to communicate, and can do so when provided with a context in which communication is both possible and responded to. This is also true of non-autistics, but non-autistics are much more likely to be provided with contexts in which they can communicate successfully.

Dividing autism into "severe" and "mild", or in similar ways, is misleading and harmful. Autistics may differ in the extent to which autistic traits are or are not obvious, and this may vary in individual autistics from hour to hour, day to day, and year to year, depending on many factors, including on what kind of context an autistic lives in. The extent to which autistic traits are or are not evident in any individual autistic is unrelated to our intelligence and our outcomes as adults. However, societal prejudices against autistic traits may prevent autistics whose traits are more obvious from being considered able to learn, to communicate, to make decisions about our lives, to walk around freely, to be employed, etc.


n. said...

Welcome to Blogger!

I have read a lot online about you (and some online from you) over the recent past and was pleased to see an article about you & Mottron, in French (which I promptly downloaded and then forgot to read) with a photo, because it's good to be able to put a face to a name.

I like this text from when I read it before, and so I am saying the "welcome" at this post.

Michelle Dawson said...

Hi Natalia, thanks for the welcome. I'm still trying to figure out where to put the furniture...

Dr Mottron has a book in French, "L'autisme: Une autre intelligence". I did a bit of work on that book too.

srngln said...

Much Shalom Michelle.

Thank you for this explanation.
I would like to ask for your permission to translate and post this in Hebrew. With your name as the writer and a link to here of course.

Thank you.
Sharon G.

Michelle Dawson said...

Hi Sharon G.,

Thank you for asking--I'm delighted to give you permission.

srngln said...

Hebrew version posted here
I'm glad Hebrew readers can have access to this information now.

Many thanks.

Margaret Adam said...

Hi, Michelle.
This is an empowering blog for those of us on the spectrum. I grew up in an era when no-one knew what Asperger's or Autism was, and my daughter and two of my grandsons are on the spectrum. It has been a huge struggle to find our own 'normal'.

Thank you for the clarity of this post. For the insight and understanding of how we fit into today's society. I am doing a blog on loving and accepting yourself as a person with autism, and will mention your name and this blog (

I hope you have a wonderful Valentine's Day. MJ