Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Streaks (Part 1)

When we describe autism in terms of binaries, discourse communities, or circles, we construct a very unreal, [very black and white,] very us/them reality. […]

The typical autism essay, ironically, often proclaims that autism cannot be placed in a box, all the while concurrently placing autistics in boxes – LFA, HFA, mild, severe, verbal, nonverbal, etc.

And, I would also posit that autism should not be (because it cannot be) contained within tidied-up circles, which, despite being round, are themselves boxlike.

Discourse community theories fail to account for how these circles get created, get named, get claimed, get dismantled. In effect, discourse communities largely render their users passive.

In “Hybrid,” Bizzell claims,

These elements [discourse conventions] are so powerful that the discourse could be said to take on a life of its own, independent of individual participants; it could be said, even, to ‘create’ the participants that suit its conventions by allowing individuals no other options if they wish to be counted as participants.

Per this logic, I have been passively constructed into autism – by discourse. I have been passively constructed into aspiedom – by discourse. My other autistic commonplaces – or identity markers – have also been shaped or spawned by discourses: stimdom, speechdom, lack-of-eye-contactdom, patterndom, take-everything-literally-and-then-somedom.

But discourse alone can’t name these things, can’t claim these things. These facets of me, the diverse facets of other autistic individuals, of human individuals – autistic cousins or not – only fit within these circles because someone has squished them there, has proclaimed generalization as the new world order.

Low-functioning autism exists because the people who write the typical autism essay say it does: they make the circles; the circles themselves don’t independently create themselves; the circles aren’t material objects that exist or breathe or birth or contain people, all neatly sorted; the circles have human help. While I like to objectify humans and categorize stuff [very much], circles alone just don’t do the trick.

Melanie Yergeau


There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. […]

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at.

So for many of us – nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. […]

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language.

Mel Baggs


‘Autism steals their voices.’

The idea of “voicelessness” presents itself as a convenient vehicle to get from autism to (living) death.

Voicelessness, here, does not refer primarily to literal variations of mutism […]

To be a voiceless autistic person does not entail an incapability of using language, but rather, an all-encompassing credibility gap.

Are autistic people, after all, expressing themselves, or merely their symptoms? Are they themselves expressing, or is autism? […]

When autism speaks, autistic people do not.

Voices here are only reserved for native speakers of a particular kind of symbolic language.

This language assumes and creates a normative, human subject, one who both comprehends and is comprehensible to other humans.

The faith […] is put in a shared, normative language, as a tool to fathom oneself and other people […]

This mechanism, while steeped in hyperbolic doubt, is intertwined with an essentialist humanism.

If the symbolic connects all humans to a network of intelligibility, the subjects who fall outside of this network must not be fully human.

Anna N. de Hooge


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Silhouette (Part 3)

In her 2005 book Constructing Autism, Majia Nadesan provides a useful but woefully under-recognized definition of autism.

She writes that autism is “a nominal category useful for grouping heterogenous people all sharing communication practices deviating significantly from the expectations of normalcy.”

In simpler terms: autism is a label for people whose social behavior is very different from what their culture expects. […]

Autism does not reside a priori within my body.

Autism is an idea, a social category. Autism is the meaning that we project onto certain modes of behavior. It is made up of society’s collective anxieties around what it means to be ‘normal,’ to be fully human.

There is still a stubborn essentialism that pervades the entire discourse around autism […]

Caroline Narby


Autism is not a thing. It’s an abstraction.

The only concrete reality is the existence of the people who get called autistic.

So when I say what autism is, I mean how my particular brain, that is called autistic, works.

Amanda Baggs


I think that my ‘story,’ though intensely personal, is not at all singular.

Beneath its idiosyncrasies lie vast strata of commonality, communality

Out of context, N. Mairs


For many years, ‘autism’ and ‘autistic’ were also used descriptively: […] autistic disorder is a disorder characterised by autistic features, ‘autistic’ being an adjective that describes behaviour

Since 1979, a different use of the word ‘autism’ has crept into general use, and even into specialized use.

It’s now used to refer to an underlying medical condition that is assumed to cause autistic behaviour.

Why does that matter? It matters because what has also crept in is the assumption that if people meet the diagnostic criteria for [autism], that means they have the underlying medical condition that causes autistic behaviour – that everybody’s autistic characteristics must have the same cause.

Sue Gerrard


A lot of autism research begins with the premise that even though there are [over a thousand] different ways of getting an autism diagnosis, being in the autism ‘gang’ makes you (a) fundamentally similar to all the other gang members and (b) fundamentally different to everyone that doesn’t make the grade. That’s a big, big assumption.

Jon Brock


We acknowledge the heterogeneity within autism, but our intuitions still drive us to seek a common essence of autism.

The essentialist view of autism goes hand in hand with the way autism research is conducted and reported. […]

By always beginning with autism and working backwards, we have invested too much significance in the label itself.

Jon Brock


Critics […] pointed out the circularity in Spearman’s argument.

Intelligence tests were assumed to measure intelligence, but because no one knew what intelligence actually was, the tests also defined intelligence – even if they varied considerably.



No true Scotsman / Appeal to purity


[T]here is no consistent underlying ‘essence’ to those ways of being we now classify as autistic; rather, in each case, the underlying difference is idiosyncratic and unique. […] Of course, this is not to deny that autistic cognitive and behavioral profiles tend to overlap in specific and interesting ways.

Robert Chapman


The problem with calling {something} ‘biological’ is that biology is complicated.

Hardly anything in biology fits into […] neat categories

Partial quote, Luz Delfondo


Just because something’s a social construction doesn’t mean it’s not real […] Now, is it based in biology? Influenced by? Completely unmoored from?

That’s a different argument, and one we can’t get to until we stop conflating it with this one.

Sam Killermann


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Silhouette (Part 1)

Having an {autism}-like syndrome does not give you {autism} […] Having a big belly does not make you pregnant.

Partial quote, David Schnarch


If the DSM-IV criteria are taken too literally, anybody in the world could qualify for Asperger’s or PDD-NOS.

Catherine Lord


To claim that something is over-diagnosed implies that there is one true, proper rate of diagnosis.  And that ain’t so. […] For a complex, multi-faceted neurological condition such as autism, these issues are compounded much, much more.

Even for many physical conditions, doctors wrangle over how to define the boundaries of a diagnosis.

Lynne Soraya


[The loss of the autism diagnosis] probably reveals more about the weaknesses of a definition of autism based entirely in deficits rather than in core processing differences.



[…] I feel like this list [written by autisticality] is too vague and open, perhaps to the point that it’s not useful. (Barnum–Forer effect)

I’m sure nearly everyone meets at least a few of these traits, and in these criteria, there is no threshold given (e.g. a number of criteria you would meet in order to be ‘maybe autistic’ or ‘autistic’) to divide between ‘autistic’ and ‘non-autistic’ people.

Differentiating between ‘autistic’ and ‘not autistic’ is difficult however you divide it, but without a line, and using these criteria, it seems like everyone would fit into being autistic.



[T]here is an overlap between people who end up with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum and the general population

[Here are the results of] a questionnaire that measures autistic traits in the population: on the left of the graph you see the familiar bell-shaped curve, or normal distribution, in the general population […] so it’s not that you have autism or you don’t, but that almost everyone in the population has some autistic traits and find themselves distributed somewhere on a spectrum.

On the graph you see the solid line where people have a diagnosis […] but there is that middle bracket of overlap – there isn’t a clear cut point where you can say that somebody who has a diagnosis of autism is clearly different from somebody who doesn’t so [it] reinforces the idea of individual differences in the population.

[…] although people with a diagnosis of more autistic traits there’s a substantial overlap and that actually it’s not your score on a diagnostic test that determines that you need a diagnosis, it’s actually your environment.

[T]here are people who score at exactly the same point in that grey zone in the middle and that some will have a diagnosis and some won’t and what determines that is whether you find yourself in an environment in which you can thrive and fulfil your potential – we can call it an autism-friendly environment – or if you find yourself in an environment in which the challenges are too great, and you begin to suffer and end up going to a clinic and seeking a diagnosis.

So it’s not your psychological make-up but the fit between you as an individual and your environment that determines if you end up with a diagnosis opening up the possibility that we can adapt the environment to make it easier or more difficult for people who potentially have autism to fit in.

Some will suffer in certain environments whereas others will manage because of environmental adaptations or simply a good fit between them and their environment.

Simon Baron-Cohen


“Everyone’s a bit autistic, that’s why it’s called a spectrum.”

This is not what ‘autistic spectrum’ is meant to mean.

In fact only autistic people are on the autistic spectrum. If you’re ‘on the spectrum’ then you are autistic (or ‘have autism’, whichever is your preference), it is a spectrum of the people who are autistic.

Not autistic? Not on the spectrum.



[A]utism is a collection of related neurological conditions that are so hard to pick apart that psychologists have stopped trying.

All autistic people are affected in one way or another in most or all of these boxes – a rainbow of traits. If you only check one or two boxes, then they don’t call it autism – they call it something else. […]

But if you have all of the above and more, they call it autism.

[…] in order for a person to be considered autistic, they must have difficulty in multiple categories.

C.L. Lynch


[I]t becomes a scramble to create weighted lists and say, “anyone who scores under 50 points is faking,” rather than trying to figure out why so many people are hurting in such similar ways, and being hurt in such similar ways, and then stopping those things from happening.

Out of context, intersex-ionality