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 – Snowflakes (Part 1)

Yes, I have social problems, but honestly I feel that the idea that autism is a ‘social disorder’ is putting the cart before the horse, and really missing the point. Autism is primarily a sensory and information processing and filtering difference, and the descriptions of autistics written by allistics are simply descriptions of the differences that allistics can see, and think are important.

Kirsten Lindsmith


Differences in sensory processing do of course affect what might be called ‘social skills,’ for example many autistic people don’t integrate incoming visual information in a way that allows them to easily notice the tiny subtle differences in body position and facial expression that are used in neurotypical communication […]

Sensory integration also affects motor movements, and so many autistic people may not show the body language that non-autistic people expect for the way they are feeling. […]

Quincy Hansen


In recent years the narrative has shifted from saying that autistic people feel too little – usually due to a purported empathy deficit – to saying we feel too much.

Perhaps the most worrying thing here regards how this new framing leads to autistic suffering being blamed on autistic oversensitivity.

In this regard it is worth drawing attention to a form of psychological domestic abuse sometimes called ‘gaslighting’. What this refers to is the systematic undermining of the victim’s sense of reality in order to make them think the abuse is their fault rather than the fault of the abuser. Very significantly, one of the core ways to do this is for the abuser to convince the victim that they are just too sensitive, meaning that any hurt they feel is not down to their abusive environment but rather due to their own inability to cope with the world. […]

With this in mind, I am wary of all accounts that frame autistic suffering and disablement stemming from us being hyper-sensitive. Far from reversing it, all this does is make the pathologisation of autism more subtle, more hegemonic.

In fact, the issue is that the sensory world is designed for the neurotypical, and so has by and large failed to accommodate the autistic sensory-style. That is, whilst it is true that we suffer from ‘too much information’, this stems from the neurotypical-centric way in which the world is organised – not due to how we process the world as such.

Robert Chapman


So I’m sort of bad at figuring out how I feel about things, or just how things are, objectively. This is probably due to growing up with gaslighting although I also think that not being able to identify your feelings is supposed to be normal for people with ASD.

Although maybe it’s normal for people with ASD as a result of gaslighting.

Amanda Forest Vivian


[…] But it is also a context where many of the things – such as eye contact and physical contact – often used by parents to show affection for their children either panic us or cause us physical pain, and where our ‘emotional growth’ might be measured by others in terms of how much we can deaden our bodies and emotions and allow ourselves to be subjected to terror and pain on a regular basis.

Imagine growing up somewhere where to be hit upside the head and locked in a room with a large predatory animal are the two highest forms of affection, and your emotional development is gauged on how well you learn to put up with those situations.

To people who experience certain kinds of touch as pain and eye contact as a predator-style threat, that is some part of our experience growing up. And that is an experience we can have in the most loving and caring of families, if our families don’t understand what those experiences feel like to us (and not all of us show pain and discomfort by pulling away, either, so it’s not always possible to gauge our reactions by that sort of thing).

Mel Baggs


Neurotypical kids’ social development is fostered by feedback from their parents, who mirror their behavior and thus model reciprocal interactions from an early age. As Morton Ann Gernsbacher and her colleagues pointed out, autistic babies don’t give the usual cues their parents are expecting, and the parents don’t necessarily mirror them or give them the social feedback that helps neurotypical babies.

So how much of an autistic person’s social disabilities come from their own characteristics, and how much from early differences in their interactions with caretakers?

Emily Morson


culture, class and disability play such a huge role in how we show emotions

Mel Baggs


Many autistic traits are a result of being so in tune with other people’s energy that it literally hurts.

Shutting down to others emotions and taking them on without discrimination are two sides of the same coin.

Briannon Lee


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