Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Streaks (Part 2)


Language was built mostly by non-autistic people […] and my biggest frustration is this:  the most important things about the way I perceive and interact with the world around me can only be expressed in terms that describe them as the absence of something important.

The absence of speech.  The absence of language.  The absence of thought.  The absence of movement.  The absence of comprehension.  The absence of feeling.  The absence of perception.

Focusing on absence is the easiest way to describe the presence of something much more important to me than what is absent. Many autistic people have even applied these words to themselves. Some of us do this knowing full well that there is so much more that we cannot say. Others are fooled by the language itself into a state of  “Nothing to see here; move along now.”


giving everything

Jim Sinclair (1987) […] wrote [in an] essay on xyr personal definition of sexuality,

Sexuality is when someone tells me that I’m not whole, that my personhood is incomplete, that a relationship in which I give everything I have is not “full.” It is hearing that because I have no sexual feelings, I have no feelings; that because I do not feel love in my groin, I cannot feel love at all. It is when someone who has not even bothered to look at my world dismisses it as a barren rock. It is being called inferior to “someone who is human.” It is the denigration of my experiences, my feelings, and my self. It is when my unique faculties are thrown back at me as hopeless inadequacies. Sexuality is reproach.

Substitute language for sexuality and you get closer than any other author I have read to how I feel when my deepest and most profound experiences are described purely as the lack of language, the lack of thought, even the lack of a soul.


nowhere but the sky


Not all of [my forms of communication] communicate everything that typical languages communicate, but I don’t see any reason they should have to.

They are rich and varied forms of communication in their own right, not inadequate substitutes for the more standard forms of communication,

and like all forms of communication, some parts of them came naturally to me and other parts I had to learn. Having to learn them doesn’t make them any less real or significant than someone’s native language, which they had to learn in childhood.

To me, typical language takes place in the clouds,

and I have to climb or fly up there just to use and understand it. This is exhausting no matter how fluent I sound or how easy I make it look.

The sky will always be a foreign country to me.

Sometimes it feels more like I am throwing words up into the clouds but am too wiped out to fly up or even look up with a telescope to figure out what is going on there.

To use my more natural means of communication, I don’t have to leave the ground at all.

What has come as a surprise to me

is that no matter how consistent I am on the ground, many people measure me by my ability to hurl myself into the sky, whether with respect to language or some other fleeting and insubstantial thing that my body does.

So, if I have a certain level of expressive language, then I am expected to comprehend things even if I don’t,

and if I lack a certain expressive language, then my entire world is supposed to be empty and meaningless.


about what is

I am telling you these things not to instruct you on the particulars of the mind of an autistic person, but rather to sketch out an image of how I perceive the world, and the richness and worthiness inherent in those ways of perceiving. It is anything but empty,

and it is so much more than a simple lack of something that other people have.

When I do scale the cliffs of language, people react to me strangely. They have lived on a mountain so long that they’ve forgotten the valley I come from even exists. They call

that valley

“not mountain”

and proclaim it dry, barren, and colorless, because that’s how it looks from a distance. The place I come from is envisioned as the world of real, valid people minus something. I know, of course, that the valley I live in is anything but desolate,

anything but a mountain minus the mountain itself. […]


richness and rhythm

Someone once saw a photograph of me and said that he felt sorry because I would never know the richness of life that he knows. But I wonder if he is capable of looking around and […] understanding my kind of beauty […]


Amanda Baggs


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 – Snowflakes (Part 4)

The idea of development as a continuously increasing line is as ridiculous as the idea of the stock-market as a line always going up. Kids can go up and down at different times and in different amounts, and end up in a similar place.

Regression won’t ruin a child’s life forever, but may signal that the child might need less stress or extra help right now.

There isn’t one single right way to develop.

Emily Morson


When you are neurotypical, people call the things you love ‘obsessions’ and they think it’s cute.  When you are Autistic, people medicalize your passions and call them ‘special interests’.  And when you talk about your special interests, you are ‘infodumping’.  I know plenty of neurotypical people who do this, who infodump about their favorite character on TV and why they love them.  But somehow, it’s a problem when I do it.  When I infodump, it’s a ‘symptom’ of my autism, not just me sharing something I love. […]



I want you to know that your daughter has real, innate strengths and not just splinter skills or savant skills, as many people assume are the only kinds of talents that {disabled} people might have.

Partial quote, Emily Paige Ballou


[…] Everybody has strengths and weaknesses; everybody fails to generalize many of the skills that they have.

Elizabeth Moon


Definitions & Characteristics

Atmosphere – Snowflakes (Part 3)

Theory of mind does violence to autistic people.

Autistic people lack a theory of mind (ToM), so it is said. Autistic people can’t know that other people are people. That they have bodies, unique mental states, lives, experiences. That other people know, want, feel, and believe things.

To have a ToM, it is believed, is a very human thing. To know that other people are people, and that you yourself is a person. To know that people are not mindless bags of skin moving through space.

On one hand, are the humans who do have a ToM. On the other hand, are those distant Others who do not.

ToM is always a binary.

ToM is always a dichotomy between the human and the neurologically impaired.

Autistic bodies are violently absent. The absence of a body suggests that violence cannot be done to it. The absence of a body is the erasure of the violence done to it.

ToM is defined by a negative. ToM relies on a circular logic. We know that autistic people lack a ToM because non-autistic people have a ToM; we know that non-autistic people have a ToM because autistic people lack a ToM. This is what we know – what we think of as fact and hold onto as true.

Non-autistics’ failures mean they are simply human, but autistics’ failures show their impaired ToM. Autistics never have natural ToM. Any ability they demonstrate, however, means they are merely hacking, passing, faking.

In the same way that autism is the boundary for the (in)human, ToM is the boundary for the (non)story.

ToM, it is said, is based on absolute, on empirical fact. ToM represent where a story cannot be trusted.

There are plenty of dichotomies. Theories about ToM represent truth; theories about autistic personhood do not.

Autistic people have come to represent the limit of the inhuman, all in the name of facts, in the name of ToM.

The autistic is not trusted, is not reliable, is not accurate. Any claim coming from a ToM-impaired autistic body can be refuted by everyone with a ToM.

Theories about ToM tell stories about the violence against autistic bodies. They enable the violence, explain the violence, defend the violence.

What matters are the feelings and attitudes of the non-autistic. What matters is what the non-autistic thinks of the autistic.

The autistic body is nonexistent; the autistic body’s story is told by the non-autistic.

Based on an article by Melanie Yergeau



Nevertheless, even if intelligence is only a matter of appearances, appearances matter. […]


In-group, out-group:
The place of intelligence in anthropology




Disputes about intelligence are disputes over status.

Status is usually seen as a two-tiered structure:

  • at the upper level, an abstraction of social goals;
  • at the lower, any concrete evidence or collateral one might have for claiming it.




Intelligence is not itself concrete collateral: it brings no offering to the great god Status except the promise offered by the word itself.

That is because it is wholly internal to the game of bidding for status […] It belongs in the realm of appearances and mutual recognition alone.




[Intelligence] connects status at its higher level, as an abstraction of values and goals, to its lower level, as concrete collateral to be used in support of a bid.

This is why […] people claiming status will talk about their intelligence as if it was self-evident when actually the term is purely self-referential.



(claim to status)

Intelligence, [like honour and grace], fills the round hole of individual human uniqueness with the square peg of abstract hierarchy.

Like them, it creates not just an in-group but an out-group that is definitely disqualified from entering the bidding in the first place.




Intelligence sanctifies the person. It confirms the legitimacy of an individual’s behaviour by referring it to an external authority.

[The psychologist allocates IQ scores (to the intelligent, as a sign of intelligence). Similarly, it is the king who disburses honourable titles (to the noble, as a marker of honour), and it is God who dispenses grace (to the elect, as a confirmation of grace).]

Although this authority is arbitrary, in receiving its blessings we abnegate our right to question it,

thereby binding ourselves to accept practices which a different generation, in different historical circumstances, might regard as utterly wrong.




Intelligence is a form of apparently equal exchange amongst creatures who are actually inequal. […]

The relationship between the intelligent and the intellectually disabled is one of exchange, inasmuch as the credit of the one could not exist without the debit of the other; it takes place without the awareness of either, or perhaps only with the awareness of the latter.




We have already seen that the procedure for establishing intelligence as a scientific concept consists first in conjuring up the notion of a mean purely as such. Subsequently, and only subsequently, this mean becomes something concrete […]

Intelligence [is] what those with the power say it is, as were honour and grace: a dummy category, a magic hold-all into which they can pack whatever they like according to purpose.



(biological hierarchy)

Nevertheless, [intelligence] does have one constituent that covers all contexts: intelligent means better.

The word can only function as a disguised comparative. True, so do all descriptive terms in the human sciences. None is neutral.

But ‘intelligent’ is not only value laden, it is content free. […]




Status by its very definition consists of ranks; and if that is the case, then abilities too must come in ranks, otherwise there would be no way of pegging one to the other. […] But [what] constitutes the merit of one sort of ability against another?

[…] Meritocracy (some abilities are more equal than others) is at one with conservatism (hierarchy is natural). One’s level of intelligence both determines one’s vocation or calling and is that calling, one’s place in a natural social hierarchy […] Meritocracy cannot favour ‘ability’ over bloodline or wealth without passing hierarchical judgements that involve matters intellectual and their concomitant social and political interests.




In […] confusion, the purely nominal classification of certain abilities as intelligent or intellectual is passed off as real.

I may be especially able at maths, for example, or ironic humour, or orienteering, or recognizing another person’s concealed emotions. The only thing they have in common is that I can be judged as being better or worse at them. That judgement may in some cases be real enough.

But to be useless at maths or orienteering is a chosen characteristic of intellectual disability, to be useless at ironic humour or perceiving hidden feelings is not; and in fact some people labelled with severe intellectual disability are better at ironic humour and perceptiveness than some people classed as highly or just normally intelligent.

No distinction between intellectually better or worse can exist unless some temporary, subjective and purely human consensus has been reached as to which particular abilities ‘intellectual’ or ‘intelligent’ covers and which not. Talking about emotional intelligence, which might seem to cover humour and perceptiveness, does not solve the problem, since exactly the same point can be made here too.




One might [think that, surely, the intellectual hierarchy] cuts out at some point near the bottom of the scale, where the selection of certain abilities as intellectual becomes no longer merely consensual but is indeed objective, separating off a discrete set of really intellectually disabled people who are therefore exempt from an otherwise historically constructed group. Surely there must be some such creatures.

But the exemption would only work if one were already assuming that they exist separately in nature as some biological subspecies, which is indeed the historically contingent premise on which the modern notion of intellectual disability has been built. They are exempt from egalitarian principle only because that principle, in order to exist at all, has already exempted them.


C.F. Goodey