How I Explain Autism to Someone Unfamiliar With It
I’m a late identified autistic woman who also happens to be conversational, a business owner, and a therapist. I’m not what most people expect when they envision the stereotypical norms of autism.
I feel grateful when I have the chance to explain autism to someone who genuinely wants to know more.
So for the rest of this essay, I’m going to pretend like that person is you and I’m directly talking to you. This is the easiest way to capture how I explain autism to new acquaintances or friends who are curious:
I conceptualize autism from a neurodiverse lens, meaning I see autism as a different neurotype instead of a disorder. The theory is that an autistic brain fires more frequently, rapidly, and in conjunction with other neural pathways than neurotypical brains. The result is a brain that takes in more information and then processes that information rapidly and in conjunction with multiple other pathways. It impacts how a person senses, thinks and feels.
This primarily enhances my life. For example, it enhances my creativity and interest in the world. I am extremely perceptive and can see details, patterns, and connections quickly. I love this about being autistic.
Being autistic also comes with challenges. Because an autistic brain is taking in so much information at once and multiple pathways are firing, sometimes it can be overwhelming. For example, sometimes a crowded, noisy environment is overwhelming to me because I can hear everything extremely well and it’s a lot at once.
For me, being autistic is primarily a lived interior experience. My five senses are more sensitive. I observe a lot and am hypervigilant to my environment. One thought can quickly explode into hundreds of thoughts. The intensity of thoughts can also lead to many feelings, which helps me to empathize and connect with others.
This is not how autism is normally explained, portrayed, or taught. The medical model frames autism as a disorder. Their criteria are based on negative external behaviors that differ from neurotypicals. Furthermore, the listed symptoms are primarily based on observations of white cis heternormative boys. So ASD completely misses the lived interior experience, as well as how autism presents in most women.
I like to explain how the medical model sees autism, because usually people like to google autism and try to learn more after they’ve met an autistic person. I want to provide context for the information they will encounter on the internet that conflicts with my lived experience and explanation of autism.
Inevitably, any explanation I offer about autism usually feels challenging or woefully insufficient. I’ve written dozens of essays about what it’s like to be autistic and it’s hard to synthesize all of my thoughts into a concise, clear conversation.
Typically I find the conversation goes best when a person feels comfortable enough to ask questions and I can fill in the gaps of their understanding.
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