I do not like the diagnostic name for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because it classifies autism as a disorder. The DSM-5 (the manual used for classifying and diagnosing mental health disorders) defines ASD by its “symptoms,” which are primarily negative external behaviors that differ from neurotypical behavior.
For example, the DSM-5 lists the “deficits” that ASD individuals experience. There can only be a deficit if there is a standard for behavior. That standard is based on neurotypical norms. Neurotypical norms are not the only valid way to be. Furthermore, there are many problematic and harmful neurotypical norms that are not beneficial for humankind (we’ll have to save that for another essay).
By listing the “deficits” and “symptoms” of ASD, the DSM-5 focuses on the perceived negative aspects of ASD. It implies “THIS is what is wrong with you.” It is harmful because it pathologizes autism.
For example, one of the symptoms listed is, “unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.” How is this a bad thing? I think it’s wonderful that autistic individuals are interested in the sensory environment around them.
The pathologization of autism is an inaccurate portrait of autism. It focuses solely on perceived negative external behaviors and misses the key internal experiences of autism. It does not address how autism is a difference in brain sensing, learning, and functioning that can lead to differences in how autistics sense, feel, and think. Many of these differences greatly enhance our lives.
For example, I love getting lost in a project or wandering into a forest and being immersed in all of the details and sensory experiences. I appreciate being highly perceptive and aware of others and the environment around me.
Many of these differences are things that others cannot externally observe, but I internally experience as an autistic individual. In my lived experience and therapeutic work with autistic clients, the majority of autism characteristics are experienced internally. For example, how our five senses react to stimuli, how our body feels, how our feelings fluctuate, how our thoughts can explode into a constellation of more thoughts, and more
Autism grants people a rich interior experience. ASD captures none of these things. How could it? It was created by neurotypical individuals observing the external behaviors of autistic individuals.
Even if ASD captured some of the interior experiences of ASD, it would likely only highlight and pathologize the negative ones. In reality, an autistic mind, just like a neurotypical mind, can impact a person in a full range of ways. My senses are wonderful for picking up the smells in my food and alerting me to danger (such as when a smell alerted me that my apartment was on fire). My senses can also cause me to develop a headache, such as when a light is too bright or I smell exhaust. For every autistic characteristic, I can think of a positive, negative, and neutral example.
For example, my constellation thinking helps me to write essays like this one and be an effective therapist. Sometimes, I have a hard time shutting off my constellation thinking when I want to sleep.
When we start to see the full range of autism, we can stop seeing it as a disorder. We can see that autism is a wonderful way of being. We can see that we are valid as humans and do not to be fixed. Just like any neurotypical person, there are parts of ourselves we need to learn to work with, but that doesn’t mean we are inherently broken or wrong.
This is why we need more atustic researchers, writers, creatives, therapists, and more to be at the forefront of autism. We need autistic people to share about what autism is like and for us to shape our understanding of our neurodivergence.
I think most of the challenges that autistic individuals face are due to living in a culture and ecosystem designed by neurotypicals for neurotypicals. It’s why we need more autistics sharing, creating, and brainstorming ways we can be more of our full selves in a neurotypical world.
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