Autism: spectrum, but not linear

One of the greatest misunderstandings regarding autism is understanding autism spectrum as a line where people can be placed according to their ability to function. At one end are ”quirky people” and at the other end deeply autistic people with developmental disabilities. Linear model of autism spectrum is harmful to everyone and causes suffering. It obscures the fact that in a neurotypical society, also very intelligent and ”high functioning” autists have very real support needs in some things. Intellect and capability do not cancel traits such as overload risk or sensory issues. Overlooking these issues is marginalizing and even invalidizing, and appealing to ”high function”nothing more disguising blame as praise. Often, this happens quite literally. An autist defined as high functioning may find that their problems with executive function are framed as laziness, underachieving or sloppiness and the only ”help” available is advice to try harder. However, when attitude or motivational issues are not the root cause of problems, overlooking support needs by framing issues incorrectly only ends up hurting and marginalizing struggling people.

Unlike so-called high functioning autists ”low-functioning” autists live in supported housing and receive plenty of support services. They are further marginalized by the linear view because when a person is seen mostly via their difficulties and problems, it is easy to patronize and overprotect also their potential into hiding. Deeply autistic people can also be talented people, but these talents can not receive the visibility and recognition they deserve, when a person’s opportunities are seen through the lense of their limitations and disabilities. Instead of support enabling maximal participation these people face belittling and exclusion. Overall opportunities to achieve things may be very limited in a life where others are in position of ”knowing” in advance, what kind of things one might like or dislike, what they want, what they are or can’t possibly be capable of. The tragedy is deepened by the fact that a person’s communication capabilites and deviating from neurotypical norms of behavior (such as stimmings) can result as seeing people as far less intelligent and capable than they actually are.

Third issue is, that in linear thinking neurotypicality is seen as an ideal against which autists are compared. It is a common error of thinking to believe that a person is the more ”functioning” the more they resemble neurotypical people outwardly and less functioning the more apparent their autistic traits are. This is in many ways a problematic way of thinking, but for the purposes of this text, it is essential to just understand, that even an autist who appears very neurotypical may in fact suffer from serious overloading and sensory issues and therefore have significant support needs, and on the other hand, that autism traits such as noticeable stimming, inability to speak or other noticeable autism traits do not necessarily signal any problems in functioning.

So, in reality, autism spectrum is not linear but more like a color wheel where different traits can be in very different places and produce a wide variety of combinations. Support needs and noticeable autism traits offer a very limited perspective, and focusing on them makes it impossible to form a decent picture of a complex human being. Understanding autism is, therefore, understanding complexity.

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