'Traits' refers to the distinguishing qualities and characteristics that make autistic brains think and experience the world differently to non-autistic brains, or brains that are neurodivergent in other ways. This is what our autistic brains are all about.
Autistic traits are also normal, basic human traits, which means that anyone - autistic or not - experiences one or more of them from time to time. The difference is that autistic brains have a specific collection of traits that together, form the autism spectrum condition.
In diagnostic terms, several of these traits must be present in order to diagnose autism. However, it's important to point out that, most autistic people themselves, see these traits as differences - rather than deficits, which is unfortunately the preferred term used in diagnostic manuals.
Visible traits (those which observers can see) vary across cultures, which makes it all the more confusing when the diagnostic traits of autism have traditionally only been observed in young, white males.
In addition, there are many very positive autistic traits which are not mentioned in diagnostic guidelines, nor when professionals talk about autism. I wish they were! But I will certainly be mentioning these throughout this site. I call this 'autisticness'.
Autism or ADHD or both?
Autism shares many traits with ADHD, but there are also significant differences between the two. A high percentage of autistic people will also have ADHD and a significant number of people with ADHD will also be autistic. It is not always easy to differentiate between the two, but if ADHD is also present, it's important that this is recognised because there are treatments which can greatly help ADHD traits.
Below, I talk about each of the main areas where autistic people have specific differences. You can either read through them all in order, or you can click on one of the pink buttons to go straight to a particular section.
The sensory aspects section opens on a new page because it is such a BIG part of autism!
To return to this menu, click on the black cat icon, between each section:
1. Executive function
Executive function refers to our daily planning and organisational skills. Although it's not included in the diagnostic manuals, it is a very important and significant part of autistic life.
Executive function skills are needed for:
self-regulation and inhibition
All very important stuff! Also known as executive dysfunction.
One area of executive function is called the working memory. Basically, this is like a ‘short term holding area’ where thoughts and information must be quickly processed.
A good working memory needs to be able to hold many different pieces of information all at the same time, then separate them, acknowledge each part, process it, work out what it means, and decide what to do with it. And all this needs to be done in an instant.
The working memory needs to be able to remember one piece of information whilst working on something else at the same time, and in order to perform all this magic effectively, it also needs to be be accessible and in full working order, at all times. No mean task!
Autistic working memories (like some other neurodivergent brain types) struggle to hold onto information, whilst manipulating and processing it at the same time.This causes a wide variety of difficulties with mental tasks, thoughts, and memories, which can affect both our verbal and non-verbal skills.
But the working memory isn't only about organising and managing short term information. It is involved with the long-term storage of information too. Autistic brains can easily misfile information or organise it in a jumbled-up way. Possibly even forgetting to store some of it at all, especially when there are other tasks, emotions and sensory experiences to deal with at the same time.
Some examples of working memory difficulties:
When we need to quickly jot down a piece of information, such as a phone number or name, we may have difficulty remembering it for long enough in order to put pen to paper. Especially if we need to go grab a pen or paper first. In my case, if I pick up a pen and it's 'clicked off', the act of having to 'click it on' actually makes me forget what I needed to write down! So sometimes, there are simple solutions to help, such as leaving pens ready to use. (Family, please take note!)
Trying to do mental maths but not being able to keep the numbers in our minds in order to do the workings out.
Difficulty copying down information from a blackboard or screen, and difficulty with note taking.
Difficulty paying attention and being easily distracted.
Needing to re-read passages of text multiple times or taking longer to write essays due to having to read and re-read sections.
Answering questions wrongly in class, even though we know the correct answer. We may have missed part of the question, misinterpreted it, forgotten some, or even forgotten that a part of that question has already been answered.
Difficulty following a list of instructions or directions. We struggle to keep these in our working memory and may need them written down as a list or as pictures. We may only be able to keep one instruction in our minds at a time.
Finding it difficult to follow conversations, especially when there is more than one other person, or background noise. A strong preference for one-to-one conversations.
Difficulty with phone calls. On a telephone call there are no visual clues to assist us, plus information needs to be instantly processed. Emails and messaging are much easier options as they can are adaptable to the individual's processing speed.
Having difficulties learning a second language or other skill as an adult, especially when the teaching is not designed for autistic people.
Underachieving when learning something, despite having all the necessary skills to do so.
Seeming 'less intelligent' than we really are.
Being a good listener, yet finding it difficult to control our own flow of conversation.
Being accomplished at writing, yet struggling with spoken language.
Needing to do something NOW, otherwise it will be forgotten.
Needing to see things in order to remember they are there.
Losing or misplacing everyday objects frequently.
Difficulty organising ourselves, our time, our life, our finances, our homework...
Difficulty remembering people’s names or faces. This is called prosopagnosia.
Difficulty following the plot or events in a film.
Not necessarily processing information when it is received, but doing so at a later time or date - or perhaps like me, at 2am in the morning! In other words, revisiting past conversations in our minds, because we were unable to process them at the time they occurred.
A strong reliance on sticky notes!!!
listening to music
cutting out distractions & background noise
a separate room or area in the classroom
not having to make eye contact
running or walking
one task to process at a time
time to process information and respond
a quiet space
emails or messaging rather than phone calls
assistive technology such as Google Classroom
being allowed to research and study what is going to be taught in class, before it is taught
THINGS THAT HELP
Executive function is also responsible for something called cognitive flexibility. This is our ability to start and stop tasks, as well as switch tasks. It also impacts whether or not we are able to do something in a different way to that which we expect or are used to doing - in other words it's about mental flexibility.
For autistic people, this means struggling to get our brain to begin a task. We will probably procrastinate. A lot. (Procrastinate = put things off, or postpone them.) Or we might literally be unable to start a task, such as getting dressed in the morning, despite wanting to, and despite being reminded. Or it might mean being asked to do something in class but being unable to get going on the task.
Likewise, we can find it difficult to stop what we are doing. This is particularly difficult to do when we are in ‘hyper focus’ mode, or really enjoying a task - which we autistic folk tend to do a lot. Speaking of hyperfocus, many of us consider this to be a superpower! It allows us to focus on a job until it is done, and deep dive into a subject until we have learned almost everything there is to know about it.
Hyperfocus can come with some challenges of its own, of course. We can get so totally and utterly engrossed in something, that we can do it for hours on end with no awareness of what is happening around us. Often even forgetting to eat, drink and attend to other important daily needs.
Still on the topic of focus, many of us are naturally very detail orientated, often paying more attention to details than non-autistic people, who may instead be focusing on the so-called bigger picture. And some of us (sadly, myself not included!) have amazing memories for facts or a particularly niche skill with numbers or something else.
Of course, it needs to be something that interests us, and we don't all become experts in everything we learn about, but it is an autistic advantage that more and more employers are becoming aware of.
As well as getting going and stopping, it can also be extremely difficult for us to ‘change gears’ or to switch tasks. This is an area in which we often find ourselves particularly inflexible!
Changing gears, or being interrupted uses up a lot of our energy. Therefore, simple everyday tasks tend to be far more time and energy-zapping for us, than they are for neurotypical people.
Sometimes these difficulties can be so severe that we need someone to help us to start, stop or switch a task, or to simply help us to take comfort breaks, eat or drink. It's really important to realise that we are not being lazy, stubborn or defiant, but that these are genuine difficulties for us.
Another of our ‘flexible thinking’ challenges is dealing with change. This can be really hard for many of us. But contrary to popular belief, it isn't necessarily all change.
Most autistic brains hate unexpected change, because this often includes unwanted surprises. Quickly adapting or 'flexing our brains' to meet these unexpected situations is not generally an autistic talent. However, some of us might still enjoy certain surprises, or we may suddenly decide to change things up and do something unexpected. Others prefer a very strict, reliable and consistent way of life at all times.
Unexpected or unwanted change causes us much distress, anxiety, frustration, and anger and this in turn contributes to mental overwhelm.... and that overwhelm means that all our mental processing capabilities (and in fact all our autistic traits) become a great deal more challenging.
Flexible thinking also impacts the ability to see things from other people’s points of view. This means we might find it difficult to imagine being in someone else's shoes, when we do not have a personal reference for their experience. Although, I have to say, I have met many neurotypical people who are far worse at this skill than I am!
We are sometimes rather black and white in our thinking, and even rigid and fixed. But again, it's important to realise that we aren't all the same. Nor does this mean that we have no imagination.That's another golden myth about autistic people.
This might be a good time to point out (as I often do) that many of these so-called challenges can actually be hugely advantageous under the right circumstances. For example, many jobs need people who are highly focused, detail orientated and reliable.
So as you can see - whilst executive function challenges (both working memory and flexible thinking) can be a right-royal, pain-in-the-wotsit for many of us, they can also make us better at certain tasks than non-autistic people might be.
Some examples of 'flexible thinking' challenges
Difficulty with controlling inhibition of impulses and emotions.
A strong need for structure and routine.
Signs of distress when plans change, or seemingly small things go wrong. For example, increased stimming, anxiety, extreme frustration, upset or anger.
Struggling to take on new or more complicated tasks.
Having trouble starting, stopping or switching from one activity to another.
Difficulty accepting other people’s views and ideas.
Black and white thinking, or rigid thought patterns.
Arguing the same point over and over.
Repeating the same mistakes and perhaps not learning from them as much as we would like.
Getting upset when others don’t follow rules.
Finding rules difficult to accept, when they are seemingly pointless.
Difficulty making decisions. Much worse under pressure of expectation or time.
Avoiding having to make decisions.
Taking a very long time to come to a decision that involves choice. Perhaps researching all the pros and cons in depth first.
Knowing the correct steps to take in order to get something done, yet being unable to sequence them in the correct order.
If you add these difficulties to those experienced because of working memory, you are left with a significant barrier to managing everyday tasks that non-autistic people find intuitive.
Important note:All of these difficulties are intensified by stress, anxiety, tiredness, overwhelm, pain, unexpected change, pressure, lack of sleep, sensory sensitivities, hormonal fluctuations and illness.
THINGS THAT HELP
Get help for the things that the autistic person finds difficult.
Learn tips and tricks to help with organisation, creating helpful routines, assistants, reminders, colour coding and lots of other stuff.
Seek professional support or advice, specifically for executive function difficulties.
Create the most suitable sensory environment possible - this will make all executive functions easier!
Avoid unnecessary rules and restrictions. Life needs to suit the autistic person, not other people.
Allow time to process and to stim. And any other techniques which the autistic person personally finds helpful, no matter how 'unconventional' they seem.
Due to these brain differences, both children and adults are frequently mislabelled with an array of negative and unhelpful adjectives, such as: lazy, sloppy, careless, dumb, stupid, disobedient, not paying attention, not listening, not trying hard enough… Not only are these inaccurate character insults, but they are damaging and traumatising, especially to a developing child.
Imagine... a world where autistic brains were the majority
As you look through the list above, I wonder if you have considered what life would be like as a non-autistic person, in a world where autistic people were the majority? Let's think about that for a moment and maybe these challenges won't seem so uniquely autistic after all. They will almost certainly be more relatable.
Imagine then, that you, an earthling from Planet Neurotypicus, are picked up one day, bundled into a spaceship, and whisked away at warp speed to an unknown planet called Planet Autisticus. There, you are dumped and left on your own, without any fellow Neurotypicalings for company. This is where you will now have to fit in and live, for the rest of your life.
You have been dropped into a completely alien environment. The Autisticalings are still human and look like you. They speak your mother-tongue, but they use a weird, alien social language and follow rules that make zero sense to you. Your senses are constantly bombarded with unbearable stimuli, that really don't suit you at all. You are acutely aware that you are very, very different from the locals. And no one left you with the instruction manual or guide book!
Your differences are not accepted here, and you are expected to conform. No one wants to make even small adjustments for you to make you more comfortable. No one allows you patience as you try to communicate your feelings and thoughts, or when they talk to you. You are constantly berated for simply being you, bullied, teased and taken advantage of.
Everyone here seems to understand each other and know the rules, except you, and you are constantly told that YOU are the problem. YOU are weird, odd, too sensitive, stupid and not trying hard enough to fit in and conform. YOUR skills are not appreciated and not wanted. And worse still, everyone either excludes you or treats you as though you are stupid.
You soon realise that in order to survive on this planet, you must hide your true self at all times and spend all your energy on doing so. Any slipping of your mask will not be tolerated. You must do dull and tedious work to survive, but you will be exploited and barely paid a living wage. Everything is chaotic and disorganised with others forcing their own way of doing things onto you. It's exhausting.
You frequently get upset and angry, and waste a great deal of energy doing things counterintuitively. As a consequence, all your energy will be spent on your work, and on maintaining your mask, leaving no energy for any thing else.
How would all this make you feel? You know that you are just as normal a human as everyone else, yet you think and experience things differently to them. They simply don't get you. Ask yourself, what might you do to comfort yourself and make your life easier? You can't do things the same way as the majority, so what do you do?
Create your own very strict structure and routine to help you get through your day and do what you have to do.
Insist on sticking to that structure as a comfort and aid, to help you not to forget things and help you organise your brain better.
You might find ways to calm or self soothe - known as stimming in the autism world. The only way to control your inner self is by these self soothing methods. (You might even find them actually enjoyable as a bonus!)
You may have difficulty accepting that your way of doing things and experiencing the world is not 'normal' to those in the majority here, but they would consider you blinkered, narrow minded, rigid in your beliefs or just plain wrong.
I could go on. One day someone needs to write a book about an alternative world, where the neuromajority is neurodivergent, and neurotypical people are seen as a disordered minority. Hopefully someone will. It will be an eye-opener methinks!
2. Social communication and interaction
This is a critical diagnostic criteria in both the DSM-5 and the ICD-11. But as I am talking about our traits on this page, not the clinical diagnosis as such, I will take this opportunity to make an important distinction between the lived experience of autistic people and the 'deficits' observed by non-autistic observers of our behaviour.
According to diagnostic manuals, we autistic folk have 'deficits' in our social-emotional skills and conversational skills as well as the sharing of common interests and emotions. We are also, apparently, unable to initiate or respond to social interactions.
And there's more (this subject is a big factor in diagnosis terms). We also have 'deficits' in non-verbal communication including abnormal eye contact and body language, and possibly even, a total lack of facial expressions and non-verbal communication.
The manuals go on to say that we have 'deficits' in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships, including difficulty with 'imaginative play' or making friends, and no interest in our peers.
After reading this, it may be possible to understand the inspiration behind the character, Rain Man.
Now I will translate this medical, deficit-based jargon, into actually autistic experience. Yes, we certainly do have different ways of socially interacting and communicating -no doubt about that, and in fact many of us describe feeling like aliens from another planet when it comes to interacting with neurotypical people.
However, I use the term, differences. Not deficits, or dysfunction. That's because autistic people should never be considered dysfunctional, broken or somehow less-than. We are simply different to non-autistic people. It really is as simple as that.
And when we look at our differences from this angle, it is obvious to see how behavioural conditioning techniques, such as ABA therapy, designed to make us behave more non-autistic, are not only cruel and damaging, but a waste of time. But before I go off on a mini rant about that particular subject, let's look at how these differences might look in real life:
Examples of social communication
& social interaction differences
Taking things literally and not understanding abstract concepts, sarcasm or metaphors.
Needing extra time to process information or answer questions. (Working memory issue!)
Having a strong preference for email or messaging over telephone calls.
Repeating what others say to us, or phrases that we have heard. This is called echolalia.
As children, we might prefer to spend time with adults, older children or animals. We may prefer talking to animals rather than humans or have a deep connection to animals and nature in general.
Many of us have a deep dislike of social gatherings, particularly if they are formal or uninteresting to us.
We may have trouble initiating a conversation, and don’t tend to enjoy (or even understand) the point of social ‘chit chat’.
We can find it difficult to know when to speak in a conversation, because of difficulties reading non-verbal signs such as facial expressions and subtle nuances. We are sometimes accused of ‘butting in’ or ‘talking over’ other people.
We can seem overly talkative or the contrary - shy and quiet.
We can often be blunt or honest in a way that some non-autistic people consider inappropriate - preferring to ‘say it like it is!’
We might have great difficulty hearing speech in a noisy environment, despite having perfect hearing. Following conversations in groups is often very tricky.
Needing a lot of ‘alone time’ to recharge ourselves after social contact.
We might monologue - perhaps about one of our highly focused interests.
At times we can automatically assume that other people have the same thoughts, interests and opinions as us.
We don’t always pick up on signs of boredom or lack of interest from others.
Our reactions and emotions may be considered unusual or socially inappropriate to others. For example, laughing at sad news or crying when happy.
We may show empathy in different ways to that which is expected. This does not mean we do not have empathy!
We can sometimes come across as insensitive or dismissive. (This can be due to our communications differences, or simply because of working memory or processing difficulties.)
We may not always need or seek comfort from other people when they think we should.
We might behave in ways that non-autistic people may think as strange, weird, eccentric or socially inappropriate.
Our intended meaning is often misinterpreted.
Some of us find it difficult to form friendships. Some of us make friends easily, but find it difficult to keep them, yet not know why.
We may enjoy being in the company of others and completing activities with them, even if we do not appear to be interacting with them. Also known as 'parallel play'.
Many of us (but not all) do not like eye contact. It is very uncomfortable, painful and distracting - so much so that we avoid it altogether. Or the opposite may be true - we may stare too intensely. Many of us say we can concentrate, listen and understand much better when we are not expected to make eye contact.
We are often accused (wrongly) of not having empathy. It is both insulting and dangerous to suggest that being autistic means lacking empathy. We have as much or as little empathy as any other human.
In fact, many of us have far too much empathy.
These differences can lead to a communication mismatch and make us more vulnerable.They are also frequently misdiagnosed inappropriately.
One of the problems that these differences can lead to, in a neurotypical society, is our increased vulnerability when compared to our non-autistic counterparts.
For example, because some of us tend to take things literally and answer literally, we are vulnerable to manipulation and misunderstanding. Not only when it comes to relationships and at work, but worryingly, in judicial systems, where forms of questioning are worded in ways that can be very misleading or confusing, even for neurotypical people. We might interpret questions differently to the way they were intended, and this can get us into all sorts of difficulty.
Another not-so-minor danger from these differences, is that they leave us wide open to teasing, bullying and social exclusion. Not to mention, going against us at job interviews and in the work environment itself. For many of us, growing up undiagnosed or unaware of our autistic differences, leaves us with a constant feeling of being somehow wrong. We are very much aware that we are different in some way, but because understanding and acceptance is usually lacking, we suffer psychological damage and trauma instead.
Still another unfortunate outcome of these differences, is being misunderstood, or our autism being misdiagnosed as other conditions. It's easy to judge us and assume we are of low intelligence, when we are not, or that we have intellectual difficulties, rather than communication differences which could easily be accomodated. And those of us with additional sensory processing difficulties, may be misdiagnosed as having vision or hearing problems.
For women and girls, there are more sinister implications. Our different ways of communicating and interpreting human behaviour, leave us very much open to abuse, especially when we aren't aware of our autistic differences. In addition, we tend to remain undiagnosed, misdiagnosed and consequently mistreated. I talk about this and much more in great detail on this page here.
If you just want to read the gist about social communication and interaction traits, you might want to skip this bit. But I do encourage you to read on - to learn what being autistic is actually like, and why the language around social 'deficits' is demeaning and ridiculous.
When I look through the list above, I can relate to almost every single difference.
As I mentioned before, these differences can make everyday life in a neurotypically-minded world, very difficult indeed. Even dangerous. So it is often necessary to seek help from autistic professionals, in order to better understand our differences in the context of a non-autistic society.
For some autistic people, many of these skills can be learned (or at least faked) in order to better 'blend in'. I did this for 46 years and was pretty damn good at it, even if I do say so myself. But this ability comes with an important caveat. Having to constantly make our brain behave in an unnatural way, at the same time as constantly monitoring our own behaviour, is utterly draining. Just as it would be for a non-autistic person, being forced to think and behave like us all the time. Surely it's preferable to allow us to be our authentic selves rather than struggle with something so unnatural?
I think about how hard I tried, before my diagnosis, to 'fit in'. To be socially appropriate, follow the 'rules' (even though I wasn't sure what they were) and generally act as 'normal' as I could. Of course, there is no such thing as normal on a planet of over 8 billion people, but pre-diagnosis, I assumed I was abnormal, and therefore, the opposite of me must have been normal.
But why are so many of those societal conventions so important to non-autistic people? Are they important to survival? Are they vital in the functioning of society? Are they deeply meaningful?
The answer, more often than not is, no. So, if I don't want to sit and talk about something that bores me to tears, and no one else wants to listen to a monologue about cats or autism, why force the situation for either of us? What is wrong with me disappearing from a party to go somewhere quiet with a good book, or some colouring pens, or the neighbour's dog? Who, exactly, is that upsetting?
Why are we expected to socialise at work at every opportunity? Why are we seen as the oddballs because we don't join in with the office gossip, or talk about the weather for the fiftieth time that morning? What is wrong with hyperfocusing so much, that often I don't know when someone is talking to me or that the sun has gone down? Apart from the fact that I need to look after my own bodily needs (thanks for reminding me Alexa!) who am I actually hurting?
We aren't generally fans of social chit chat, seeing it more as pointless, and preferring people to get straight to the point. I personally hate social chit chat and it is one of the things that my autism diagnosis has given me 'permission' to avoid. In fact, for me, and many other autistic people I know, the chore of washing up, or peeling onions for three hours, would be preferable to sitting at a formal 'dinner gathering' having to make and listen to small talk or polite chit chat. Unless the subject up for discussion is cats or autism, then I'm out!
Now, I'll admit, that laughing when I should be crying, or crying when I should be laughing isn't ideal. It's annoying and pretty weird - I have to admit. But then again, it's also a normal human reaction. If millions of people have the same reaction then it can't be classed as unnatural. It's just my brain's different way of processing emotions, and generally it does OK at that most of the time.
Yes, we may be blunt. And yes, sometimes we do benefit from a little coaching to help with that sort of thing, but it's not a crime. And surely, it's better than taking a whole ten minutes just to tell someone you were late to work that morning because you overslept.
Personally, I would have no problem whatsoever, telling someone that they've got their skirt tucked in their knickers, rather than let them walk through the entire airport with their undies on display. (Ok, so that might of actually happened to me, but I'm not admitting it.)
Eye contact. Yes, that old gem. What a load of fuss over nothing. Look guys, (but not into my eyes, please) it's OK not to go eyeball to eyeball. Many autistic people say they can concentrate better, listen better and remember more, when they don't look directly at someone when they are being spoken to. And many will tell you that making eye contact is uncomfortable and exhausting at best, and even actually painful.
In the six years, since my diagnosis, this is one of the learned habits that I have still not been able to break - forcing myself to look at people when having a conversation. For me personally, I can at least pretend to be looking in your eyes when you talk to me, but what I do have difficulty with, is stringing a coherent sentence together whilst doing so. Just keeping my eyes open is difficult enough, let alone focusing them on someone else.
And besides, what a numpty piece of social etiquette! Does anyone tell a blind person off for not looking them directly in the eye? In some countries it's rude to stare into people's eyeballs, so why am I expected to do so? And if I wear dark glasses, you can't tell where I am looking anyway. I could be asleep for all you know! So this so-called 'deficit' seems mighty unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
A lot of autistic people do not like phone calls. This should be easy for businesses to get around these days, so why is it still not acceptable for so many?
Once upon a time, back in the dark ages (for those who are as ancient as me), there was only letters, telegrams, pigeons, fixed line home telephones and two cups on a piece of string. Most formal correspondence was done by mail and most chit chat done over the phone or in person. Then along came email...then sms...then Whatsapp and social media and video calling and so on and so on.
We have oodles of choice nowadays. So why do so many companies still refuse to add email addresses to their websites? Why do they insist on phoning me, even if I email them a question? I don't want to talk on the phone! That's why I emailed you and said, 'please email your reply.'
No, I am not a fan of phone calls, at all. I not a wiz at reading social cues and expressions face to face, so how is that going to be easier over a telephone? But more to the point, why should I? Email is quick, easy, reliable, safe, secure and can be dealt with when convenient for both parties. From an autistic point of view, it allows for our much needed 'processing time'.
Moving on to our apparent deficits in friendships. There's the D-word again. This time, it comes from non-autistic people's interpretations of the ways we socialise. It may be different to their way, but our way is perfectly normal for us. That doesn't mean it's in any way faulty.
We all have the same basic human needs of community and social contact. But we may need them in a different way, or to a lesser degree. Do you remember the pre-COVID-19 days, when no leader would have dared to give a fist bump, or an elbow to another? I mean, heaven forbid!!! Well, just look at many of those leaders now - elbowing each other like old school chums. Something that was previously unacceptable is now seen as perfectly acceptable. Why should our autistic ways be any less acceptable?
It's often the case that we grow up feeling obliged to socialise even when we don't want to. We are often made to feel ashamed or called 'lonely larries' and teased if we prefer a library to a party. There is such a high expectation to be sociable and friendly; to network constantly and gather a following of millions of 'friends' on Facebook. Personally I shiver at these concepts, and I don't believe they are even healthy.
All societies and cultures have particular social rules, which are generally instinctive to them. And these rules and accepted behaviours differ around the world. Different neurotypes should be seen in the same way. You could call it, our 'neuroculture'. We don't find neurotypical social rules intuitive. But we do tend to find more common ground within autistic communities, because we share the same neurotype.
This 'neuro-language' actually works both ways. Generally speaking, autistic people have fewer communication difficulties with each other, and feel more at ease with each other in general, as if we speak the same neuro-language. (Is that a word yet?) And likewise, non-autistic people, generally have fewer communication whoopsies with their own neurokin.
But put the two groups together and there is far more chance of mis-firing of communications and much misunderstanding. It's not a right or wrong kind of situation - both are right. Both neurogroups understand their own better, just like people from different cultures understand their own more easily. Or perhaps I should say, more naturally and intuitively. Damian Milton explains this very well in his Double Empathy theory.
It is indeed a fact that many autistic people simply don't care about following non-autistic social convention. If I am to be perfectly honest here - which I am - it's something that makes little sense to us and in which we cannot see a great deal of importance.
When speaking, our conversation style and manner can seem strange to non-autistic people. This can be compounded by the fact that we tend to be rather literal thinkers who can seem blunt - preferring to 'say it like it is'. None of that wishy-washy round-the-bush nonsense. No, that's not for us. This is also why metaphors and sarcasm can be difficult for us.
Having said that, we do live in a world designed for non-autistic people, and we are still expected to notice invisible signs and non-verbal body language, monitor barely perceptible expressions, accurately decipher tone of voice, understand cryptic nuances and read 'between the lines'. So our challenges are very real.
Above all, having to constantly try to decipher non-autistic communication or mask our differences in order to 'pass as normal' is exhausting. Terribly and harmfully so.
Many of us have done just that for years - if we have been able to - but at great cost to our own health and energy. And actually, we mainly do it because we have always had it drummed into us to do so. For many of us, it was the only way we have been able to fit in, function, and be accepted in society in general. For those of us who are not able to 'fake it' life can be even more isolating.
My final word on this subject: blowing your nose in public is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in many countries, yet in others, it is positively taboo and insulting. You see? Different cultures, different neurotypes - difference is OK 👍.
3. A very strong need for structure & routine
Another autistic trait which is linked to our executive functioning challenges.
Due to our different ways of seeing, experiencing and processing information, the world can be a very unpredictable and confusing place. This contributes to us having a strong need for routines, rituals and structure, in our everyday lives. It is a necessary part of our must-have survival tool kit, which helps to keep us on track throughout our quest to navigate the mysteries of the non-autistic world.
We become heavily reliant on our personal routines and daily rituals, suffering distress and anxiety when they cannot be followed. We do not appreciate change and hate new routines being imposed on us. We have a strong need to have things organised in a way that works for us and we may seem inflexible to alternatives. Like many of us, I am a fan of symmetry and a tidy and organised workspace, even though, in my case, it rarely stays that way. A lot of us enjoy lining objects up, sorting them, alphabetising them or filing them - it may even be a need that we have in order to self-regulate or focus on a task. Consequently, we might well get upset or angry when our personal belongings are re-arranged or moved, needing them to be 'just so'.
Autistic people prefer, or even need, to know exactly what is going to happen before going anywhere, especially somewhere new. For example, a day trip or holiday may need to be organised down to the fine detail. We can experience intense distress, or even meltdowns or shutdowns in response to seemingly minor changes such as a traffic diversion, a bus or train delay, train timetables changing, a different food or taking a different route to school or work.
Although we have a strong need for structure, this does not mean that we are inflexible. On the contrary: many of us do like surprises or changes to routines, but only when we are in control of those decisions and of ourselves. And sometimes we can adapt to change as long as we know exactly what is expected and are allowed to do so in our own time. In fact, as we live in the neurotypically organised world, many of us have had to become very flexible indeed, - in order to ‘fit in’. In order to accommodate the rules and ways of others we have to behave in ways unnatural to us.
We may only ever eat a limited selection of foods or even eat the same meal every day. We might insist on wearing the same brand or texture of clothing, or even the same outfit every day. We might buy three pairs of our favourite shoes, or six of the exact same T-shirt, in three different colours, and then wear nothing else. And many of us will have our wardrobes sorted by colour!
4. Restrictive or repetitive movements
The world is set up in a way that is not intuitive to autistic brains. There are so many unwritten rules that we are expected to follow, but which are not natural to us. Our senses are frequently overwhelmed.
Our differences make life unpredictable and stressful. Small or large changes can have dramatic effects in a world where we may need a very strict, reliable and predictable routine at all times, to keep us comfortable.
One of the ways we try to cope with this discomfort and unpredictability is by repetitive movements, known as stimming. Perseveration and tics can also occur. Stimming and perseveration are similar, but tics are movements or vocalisations which are entirely involuntary, sudden, repetitive and non-rhythmic. These (and all the other terms in the website) are explained in the glossary here.
What is stimming?
Stimming is a word used to describe movements or vocalisations, that are self-soothing or stimulatory.These are natural human actions, movements or verbalisations, which are under our voluntary control.
All humans stim at times, such as when we are bored, nervous or tense. Repetitive actions such as nail biting, bouncing our knees, rocking on chairs or pacing when on the phone – these are all stims. Autistic people however, stim more often and our stims may be more obvious and observable. Most of us would argue, that stimming is a vital human need for autistic people, as much as it is for humans to eat and drink.
For those who are hypo-sensitive to certain sensory input, stimming can help to provide much needed stimulation.
Stims can simply be fun and enjoyable! They are, after all a form of movement or vocalisation, just like dancing and singing.
Here are some examples of common stims:
Playing with fidget toys.
Movements such as rocking, spinning, pacing, walking, tapping, jumping or running.
Waving fingers in front of eyes, flapping hands or arms, walking on tiptoes or opening and closing hands.
Biting and chewing objects or material.
Humming, repeating phrases, film quotes or song lyrics over and over.
Picking material, noses, ears or skin.
Opening and closing doors.
Our stims are many and varied - they could be any movement or any vocalisation. Stims help us to regulate our emotions, calm us, reduce anxiety, stimulate us, give us joy, prevent boredom and reduce overwhelm. They can improve our sense of proprioception or balance, or even communicate excitement or emotional distress. They are super important to us.
Should stims be restricted?
Stims are necessary for us and highly beneficial to our wellbeing. They should never be suppressed unless they are causing harm in some way.
Unfortunately, however, society often views these movements as odd or inappropriate, which causes great problems for many of us. Until such time as society changes, it may be easier to try and find less obvious stims when we are in public and delay certain stims, if at all possible, until we are in a safe place. However, when in the company of only autistic people, most of us revel in the freedom that being allowed to stim freely gives us.
If a particular stim is causing harm or preventing development or progression, help may be needed. The first action should be to find out the reasons behind the harmful behaviour and adapt the environment accordingly. Alternative stims can be encouraged but it may be necessary to seek professional help. Many occupational therapists are trained to assist families and autistic people in finding alternatives for harmful stims.
Not so long ago, these behaviours were considered by non-autistic people to be so utterly undesirable, inappropriate and harmful that ‘therapies’ were developed to eliminate them.
At school, children who flapped their hands, or wriggled their fingers in the air, would be made to sit on their hands - or worse still, tied to their chairs.
Both children and adults were locked away in institutions, where electric shocks and anti-psychotic medications would be used. In more modern times punishment has been, at least in part, replaced by reward based conditioning. Sadly, the institutional route continues in some countries today - as unbelievable and distressing as that may seem.
Thankfully, these barbaric methods are less common, and many clinicians are, at last, questioning interventions at all. But there are still organisations who get paid to train stims out of children. Not just dangerous stims, but anything considered socially unacceptable to non-autistic adults.
The methods used may be more humane, but most autistic adults would still tell you that they are wrong. Many of us have had first-hand experience of this neurotypical desire to change our behaviour, and I am pleased to report that our voices and experiences are now becoming part of the conversation around this highly controversial topic.
One particular form of therapy, still popular amongst non-autistic parents of autistic children, is the extremely controversial, ABA therapy.
ABA stands for Applied Behavioural Analysis. Despite the harmless-sounding name, it is a form of behaviour modification, and one which has a dark history. These days ABA has evolved and adapted somewhat to modern times, where several organisations have relabelled it, advertising their 'new' therapies under different names. Each has a fluffy-sounding mission statement. ABA therapists are not bad people by any means and often truly believe they are helping us, but there is no denying that all these spin-offs continue to have the fundamental goal of behaviour modification.
The biggest concern that autistic people have, is that the 'target behaviour' is anything but therapeutic for the child. It is designed to eliminate 'undesirable' behaviours - in other words, those which are considered undesirable by non-autistic adults and carers.
It is a full time and expensive therapy, involving around 40 hours a week of one-to-one 'therapy'. It trains the child to behave more like a non-autistic child - which is an ableist point of view at best, and unnatural, energy wasting and cruel at worst. It's like western colonisers telling indigenous people to act more like the white man, eat like the white man, and basically give up their own human identity.
None of this is beneficial to the autistic child themselves - only from an outsider view, with a non-autistic interpretation. It may well make parents’ lives easier, or perhaps even help the child to fit better into societies expectations, but that doesn't make it OK.
It is important to stay vigilant around therapies that are claimed by non-autistic adults to be of benefit to our children. As James Charlton says in his book of the same title, ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’.
What can I do to avoid harmful stims?
Everyone agrees that harmful stims need to be avoided, but what help is available? Autistic adults and autistic professionals are a wonderful resource and will often be able to come up with alternative methods that can be tried, in order to help someone avoid harmful stimming.
Read through the lists of 'things that help' on this page, but above all, try to find the cause of discomfort or distress for the person. From there, you will be on the right path to finding ways to avoid the cause of the harmful stim. Don't look at the autistic person through your own neurotypical glasses - try to see the world through their eyes.
First, ask yourself - is the stim that is bothering you, truly harmful for the person in some way?
Try to see the world from the autistic person’s view and become a detective on their behalf. Get to the root of the problem – what is causing the harmful stim? Was there a trigger? Is there something in the person’s environment that is uncomfortable for them? Is the room too bright or too noisy? Have they got a pain that they cannot communicate, or even identify?
Are they expressing pure frustration at not being accurately understood? Or are they perhaps seeking sensory stimulation?
Once possible causes have been established, then the goal is to help the person find other ways to fulfil that sensory need or to find ways to prevent the overwhelm that led up to it in the first place. Get to know your child or your loved one. Create structure, provide predictability and plan carefully. Where possible, involve them in decisions and allow them to help you provide an environment that is as comfortable for them as possible. One which helps them to regulate their senses and emotions. Remove as many harmful sensory stressors as you possibly can. Make sure they have all the downtime, sleep, enrichment and sensory stimulation that they personally need, in order to keep them comfortable. Avoid unnecessary stress and demands.
Utilise the person’s interests and passions. If someone is deeply into a certain topic, find ways to incorporate that into everyday life skills. Use it to help with self-regulation, to boost self-esteem and confidence, assist with social skills and improve overall enjoyment of life.
Harmful stims may well be indicators of a communication need not being met, so we need to find ways to improve the communication channels. Like all humans, when others don’t understand what we are trying to communicate, it is frustrating at best but unbearable at worst. Finding ways to help us communicate our needs, wants, preferences, emotions and feelings is absolutely vital. Sometimes this involves a great deal of trial and error, as well as endless patience. Sometimes professional help is needed.
It is entirely possible that stims will naturally change over time and some will disappear as children grow, but they are likely to increase in frequency in times of stress or uncertainty.
Families can help in many ways too:
Sensory sensitivities are a major cause of pain and reduced functioning for autistic people. If we can’t escape from it, we need to stim in order to cope with that pain.
It wasn’t so long ago that we forced left-handed children to write with their right hand, and tortured gay people in institutions, in an attempt to ‘cure’ them.
Perseveration thoughts and movements are similar to stims and can occur for similar reasons. But while stimming is usually within a person’s control (even if unconsciously), perseveration is involuntary - the person is literally stuck, despite wanting to continue. It may even be interfering with development or progression.
Perseveration can be saying the same thing, asking the same question, or doing the same behaviour over and over again, beyond the point where it makes any sense or serve any function. We can get stuck in an emotion, a thought or an action, and we cannot simply stop or move on from it unaided.
Examples of perseveration
Repeating words or phrases (echolalia), which unlike stims, are not under our voluntary control.
Talking about our current favourite topic – and nothing else – morning, noon and night. Listing facts and figures to anyone who will listen (willingly or not!)
Banging objects, throwing objects repeatedly, not being able to let go of objects (for example when handshaking), spinning things and rubbing parts of the body.
Fixating on an upcoming appointment.
Ruminating on a past conversation or event that we fear may happen again or that we feel was badly handled in some way.
Facial movements or grimacing.
Sometimes we humans can get stuck or fixated on an idea or a particular verbalisation, movement or activity. But in autism, as well as some other neurodivergent conditions and many neurological disorders, it seems to happen more often.
Like stimming, perseverations are a way of calming an anxious, bored or overactive mind, or one which is suffering from sensory overload. They are probably more common in autistic people because of our already struggling executive functions. Our difficulties with flexible thinking may make it more difficult to consciously alter the way we react to something.
A slower processing speed can cause difficulty processing a thought, emotion, problem, sensory experience or anything else. Difficulties with emotional control and our tendency to hyper focus can lead to getting stuck. We do not choose to perseverate, and we aren’t doing it to annoy, rebel or to be defiant. We aren’t just being plain old stubborn either.
Perseveration is not the same as obsession or compulsion. The word obsession is easily overused, while true obsessions and compulsions can be part of a mental health condition such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
It may not be necessary to intervene if the perseveration is not harming anyone. But if it is a problem for the person, what can be done to help?
For harmful perseverations, it may be possible to discuss the subject in a safe place (with empathy) at a time when the person is open to doing so – not in the middle of an episode of perseveration!
The autistic person themselves may be able to suggest ways in which others can help in moments of perseveration. If you or a loved one is frequently feeling stuck or out of control, it may be helpful to agree on a signal so that those around you know that you are stuck on an activity. For example, you could agree a specific hand sign, or that you will raise your arm when you need help to move on from an activity.
Like stims, children will often grow out of a particular fixation, but if it is in response to something negative or overstimulating in their environment, then a new and different fixation may well develop to replace it.
5. Highly focused interests
This autistic trait is sometimes called ‘intense interests’ or ‘special interests’. Whatever the terminology, it's certainly an integral part of autism.
Intense interests are more than 'simply hobbies and interests'. We experience them much more deeply and they give us immense pleasure, comfort and a much-needed opportunity to de-stress and recharge our batteries.
Additionally, we often become ‘experts’ in our favourite subjects and are capable of deep diving into anything which interests us. And it could be literally anything: studying art or learning everything there is to know about spiders or highland cows; having an intense interest in postcodes, languages or autism (!!!) Anything goes!
Collecting things is another favourite pastime for many of us, and could be anything imaginable – objects, facts, quotes, colours, numbers, places visited, things spotted ...the list is endless.
It is without a doubt that our intense interests and stims are vital to our wellbeing. However, there is one potential side effect of our passionate super-power. That is that sometimes, we can become so totally and utterly immersed, that we may lose touch with our environment or our bodily needs, such as eating and drinking or going to the bathroom. We may even need specific assistance with this problem.
Some autistic people have many different intense interests on the go, which may change throughout the course of our lifetime. And some of us have only one for our entire lives - and it will be a deep expertise and possibly a successful career. Many autistic people become experts or semi-experts in their chosen subjects, going on to use them in future careers, voluntary work or other meaningful activities.
If it wasn't for my autistic, super-powered, intense interest in autism, this website wouldn't exist.