I don’t understand autism at all, what is it and why is considered to be a “spectrum”?

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I don’t understand autism at all, what is it and why is considered to be a “spectrum”?

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I think saying it’s a spectrum is not quite accurate, yes it can vary in “severity” but it can vary in many more ways.

To be fair, autism is not very well understood in general, so it’s not weird that it is a strange thing to many people.

In my experience it works something like this:

There are a couple of base characteristics that almost all autists share that can vary in severity, things like being very sensible to stress and not being good at reading the emotions of others and expressing their emotions. Then there are more characteristics that some autists have and some don’t that can also vary in severity, for example an inability to speak.

And how each autists deals with this can vary, for example when getting overwhelmed some get very sad and depressed, while others can get agressive as a response.

Again im not an expert, but as someone with autism myself this is how i’ve seen it.

Autism is considered a spectrum because the symptoms and behaviours vary in severity. The common traits are shared among all, but the unique pallet of them and their how strongly they appear vary.

Many don’t actually like the concept of the spectrum, because they consider it divides people in to “normal” and “not normal” based on whether they are on the spectrum or not.

Now autism can wary from mild traits that only a professional might be able to spot, that only slightly affect the life of the person having them, all to way to non-verbal, unable to even learn to use to toilet, and unable to take care of themselves. Person can land anywhere on this spectrum and the kind of assistance they might need in life.

Spectrum is a common thing in many psychiatric conditions, and we actually don’t understand why. Common conditions like ADHD, depression, anxiety, OCD, have a spectrum of symptoms and severity. Although what is common with all of these is that we don’t actually understand the root causes and mechanisms, we understand how they appear and function. So people end up getting a diagnosis based on elimination of other options. Autism currently is like that, all other explanations for the behaviours and symptoms are eliminated and that is where you end up on. It is a very broad diagnosis, and more we learn about it and other psychiatric conditions more we realised that there is a spectrum of them.

There are certain things that are classed as autistic traits. Most people exhibit some of these to some extent. It’s not like everybody is either the opposite of these or the living embodiment of them all. So we say that it exists on a spectrum.

Imagine, say, we were talking about Europeanism. You could try and class people as European or not. But how do you do that. People born in Europe? What about someone born to European parents when they were on holiday in Africa, but who has never seen foot outside Europe since they were a baby? What about somebody born in Russia? We like to categorise people. Calling it a “spectrum” is a way of acknowledging that we don’t all fit into neat boxes, especially when the boxes are labelled “normal” and “not normal.”

To someone who isn’t autistic, autism is a mental disorder. Autistic people tend to struggle at things like communicating with others (we think and express ourselves differently than most normal people), socializing (we have a hard time understanding other people and integrating socially), and behaving normally (we can have quirks and behaviors that clash with other people).

To someone who is autistic, we usually think of autism as being different. All of the above problems are usually true, but there can also be some benefits. Autistic people tend to be brilliant and creative thinkers, experts at the special topics that interest them. We think in a different way than most people, which makes our world a richer and more diverse place.

The exact reason that autism is a “spectrum disorder” is because of the diagnostic process. Some diseases like strep throat have a pinpoint cause: sore throat and _Streptococcus_ bacteria? You have strep. Autism has dozens of different symptoms and causes, and we don’t fully understand them*. On top of that, the 5th edition of the DSM (the bible for diagnosing mental disorders) combined what used to be four or five different conditions into one large Autism Spectrum Disorder.

[This image](https://pbs.twimg.com/media/E9UlWzQWYAsq-JE.jpg) is an excellent summary of what the autism spectrum looks like to us. It isn’t a linear scale from 0 to 100 like most people think; it’s all of these different categories that affect everyone at a different level.

*These symptoms are all over the place, everything from different brain sizes to the bacteria that live in our intestines.

Autism is a form of neurodivergency, which means that if you have it, your brain works differently in some way. Other examples include ADHD, Schizophrenia, DID, Tourettes, BPD, and sort of things like Depression or Anxiety, if they’re permanent.

It’s called a spectrum because what shows up and how can vary drastically; for example, a common trait of autism is sensory issues. One autistic person might have trouble telling sounds apart and need things at a higher volume to compensate. Another might be sensitive to noise and need volumes lowered to compensate. Sometimes both (yeowch).

Some examples of common traits include:

Sensory Issues

Social Issues

Stimming (This was the original purpose behind fidget spinners. For people with ADHD it can focus them. For people with autism it may serve as an outlet for extreme emotions, good or bad.)

Special Interests (The classic ‘they only talk about dinosaurs, trains, etc.’ The ADHD equivalent would be a hyperfocus. They’re very similar. But, a special interest is more long term while a hyperfocus is short term, or recurrent. They can overlap. ADHD is frequently comorbid with autism, and vice versa.)

Meltdowns (They can be quiet or loud)

While sensory issues are a big part of autism, another is social issues. Again, when it’s said it’s a spectrum, it means it can be many different colours, or many colours. The stereotype is that autistic people are shy antisocial hermits who don’t know how to talk to people. This is true, but you might meet an autistic person who is very outgoing and social. Maybe they still say the wrong things, maybe they can only handle so much before they need to leave the conversation, they’re still autistic, it just looks, from an outside perspective, like two complete opposites.

One helpful way of looking at it, thought of by someone I do not remember, is that autism is a sandwich bar. You go up and you ask for cheese, tomatoes, and mayo on your sandwich. The person with you hates cheese, tomatoes, and mayo! They instead get lettuce, ham, and cucumber. The two sandwiches are very different, but, they’re both still sandwiches. Autism is the same. Everyones is different, has different needs, and different impacts on their life.

This is why you may hear people say that ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ are bad terms to describe autism.

Let’s say, you knew an autistic person who couldn’t talk, and would only eat mashed potatoes and nothing else. And you also knew an autistic person who has a phd in quantum physics and could calculate complicated things inside their head when they were only 7.

Surely, you might say, the latter person is functioning higher than the former person. But what you don’t see is that maybe the latter person has meltdowns if they talk too much in one day, and when they do, they feel the urge to bash their head into a wall and rock back and forth on the floor. As a kid, they used to, coming home from school. But no one saw it, and they’ve learnt to manage it, and know when to leave before it gets that bad. You don’t see that the former person was neglected and abused, and, in another life, they could have learned to communicate via sign language or pictograms, and told everyone what was upsetting them, and what they needed to feel better. Someone could have communicated with them to find out why they only like certain foods, and how to expand their diet. They could have made friends similar to them, and develop coping mechanisms.

TLDR; Brains funky. Brain can funk in many ways but it’s still funky. There are many forms of brain funk, some are similar, some are not. This brain funk tends to have these traits.

Hope this answers or explains things better. I am not a professional, but I am autistic.

Edit: Going to put some resources here for the people who may be questioning if they have autism! This was in another reply, but I think it is better to have it here.
I highly recommend starting with the Aspie Quiz. Heck, even if you don’t think you’re autistic, it’s a fun quiz and I believe the information gathered is helpful.

The community here on reddit is… a very mixed bag. The main autism subreddit skews quite nihilistic and woe is me. r/aspergirls is considerably more positive but, exclusively women and they also, last I checked, have a rule against ‘implying you or someone else has autism without a diagnosis’ which is silly.

There is a forum called lonelyplanet, which I rather liked last I browsed it. Skews positive, and has room for asking more practical questions about getting diagnosed and such.

Tumblr is actually very good for autism related posts, albeit it is… not very searchable. Lots of memes, peoples opinions, good causes to support, infographics.

The Aspie Quiz is not a diagnosis, but it can give you an idea. It will also suggest potential alternatives or comorbidities, and, often the questions will make you go ‘wait, is that… not something everyone experiences?’ For example, one question is ‘you have a tendency to fixate on the hair of people you like or are close with’. I have no idea why that is a question but it sucker punched me. I never thought about it but I do. I used to get really annoyed when my crush cut his hair. Turns out that is not something everyone was thinking.