Much of what we know about autism is theoretical.
Scientists theorize that autism is a difference in how the brain’s connections fire. They suspect that neural pathways fire more frequently and in conjunction with other pathways. This causes a greater intensity in the five senses, emotions, and thinking. This constant firing can also cause the body’s nervous system to be in a constant state of alert.
The combination of frequent and conjunctive firing of neural pathways and activated nervous system leads to a host of impacts on a person’s senses, body, emotions, and thoughts.
That is my best current summary of autism.
Does it mean it is absolutely correct? No, it is a theory.
Does that mean it will change over time? Absolutely. Our understanding of autism will continue to evolve.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of autism. From thinking it was a new disease brought on by some horrible external factor to theorizing it is a neurodivergence that has probably been present from the beginning of time.
We’ve also come a long way in our understanding of how autism presents. It was originally identified by the most extreme external behaviors seen in white cis-heteronormative middle class western boys. The symptoms most commonly connected to autism included limited eye contact, flapping of hands, and outbursts.
We now understand far more about how autism impacts a person’s senses, body, feelings, thoughts, and more. We know more about the internal experiences of autism, as well as the external.
We know that individuals can and do mask. We know that certain groups (such as women or BIPOC) are more likely to go undiagnosed.
We also know that our diagnostic tools need to evolve as our understanding evolves. It’s a constantly moving target.
When I found out I’m autistic, I wanted to understand more. My preferred method of learning is reading, and so I scoured articles and books. I still found the information I encountered murky. I decided to work with an autistic coach, desperately wanting a clear understanding of autism. While she was a wonderful coach and was able to help me with some things in my life, I didn’t walk away from our time together with the understanding I had hoped to develop.
I continued reading, taking courses, and gathering information. At this time, I was also seeing more and more autistic clients in my art therapy practice. I learned far more from my time with them, listening to their experiences and seeing patterns, similarities, and connections between my different clients.
My autistic essays are my attempt to synthesize the information I am taking in. It is my attempt to clarify and better understand what I feel is a very murky subject. The more I synthesize, the clearer and clearer it becomes.
While this helps me to understand my autistic self and my autistic clients better and better, I also accept that it means I am learning as I go. It means that my synthesis, my explanations, my writing will evolve with time. It means that what I write now may not be as relevant or accurate in two, three, or five years time. It means that I may get some things wrong.
At times, it can cause me to pause or hesitate to share my writing and my thoughts on autism. I don’t want to be contributing to confusion, misinformation, or the cacophony of noise that is on the internet.
And yet, I know I am not the only one feeling this way. I know I am not the only one trying to make sense of it all (you can read more in my essay We Need All the Autism Theories). I know I am not the only one dissatisfied with the current explanations. I know I am not the only one seeking to understand more of a topic that impacts everything about our daily lived experience.
And so I choose to accept the inherent risk that comes with writing on a murky topic that is largely based on theories.
It is my hope that the more we talk, synthesize, and share, the clearer and clearer it will become.
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