Whenever I explain a specific characteristic about autism, someone inevitably mentions, “But I experience that too, does that mean I’m autistic?”
Here’s what I tell them.
When we diagnose someone with autism, we are looking for characteristics that show up across many categories. Autism impacts how a person perceives, feels, and thinks. When I meet with someone to assess if they are autistic, I’m looking to see what sensory, body, emotional, thinking, and personal interest characteristics are present. Furthermore, I’m looking at how these characteristics then impact social interaction and daily behavior.
It is inevitable that for every singular autistic characteristic (such as rumination), there is a neurotypical person who also experiences that. However, they likely do not experience autistic characteristics in all of the other categories. That person is therefore not autistic.
Secondly, an autistic person typically experiences a characteristic with greater intensity, fluctuation, and frequency than individuals in the neurotypical population.
Let me explain with an example. An autistic person may have a sensory characteristic of being averse to chemical smells. A neurotypical person might proclaim, “But I also don’t like chemical smells!” While both of these people don’t like chemical smells, it is likely that the autistic person’s body has a stronger reaction due to the neural network within their brain. A chemical smell may give an autistic person an instant severe headache (intensity).
An autistic person may also be able to pick up on far more faint smells since they have an enhanced sensory system. This means they will be impacted by a greater range of chemical smells more frequently (frequency).
Furthermore, how much that chemical smells impacts them will depend on what else is happening in their mind and how overwhelmed their nervous system is at that point in the day (fluctuation). If an autistic person is well-resourced and feeling energized, the smell may barely impact them. If that same person is feeling drained and just came from an overwhelming social event, that smell will likely give them an instant headache.
Lastly, an autistic person’s mind is constantly in a state of hyper-arousal. This means that the brain is on alert and thinks that every piece of information could be important. It therefore struggles to discriminate between what is important and what is not. A neurotypical person might notice a smell, but their brain will eventually habituate or tune it out because it knows it is not important. In contrast, an autistic person will constantly notice that smell.
If someone asks me if they might be autistic because they have a singular autistic characteristic, I explain the above. Given so many autistics make it into adulthood undiagnosed, they might very well be autistic. However, there is a small statistical chance that they are. I want to provide a full picture of what it means to be autistic so they can choose whether to explore autism more for themselves. I also hope it helps them to understand the lived experiences of autistics better.
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