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I’m known on here as Aurelia Lightcaster. I’m a student, musician, writer, and lover of nature and life in general. I also have a crooked brain. This blog is about my experiences and intersections with the world around me. Have a look around, and don’t forget to drink water, stretch, and breathe. I hope you enjoy my blog, and stay gold, just like me!

(Not So) Hidden Autistic Representation in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Welcome to what is probably the headcanon post that I have been most excited for, that I have been anticipating since I started this blog. About fifteen minutes ago, I closed Anathem, a first-contact sci-fi book by Neal Stephenson, for the second time. This book is very close to my heart because it was first recommended by my dad, and from around the fifth page, I began to fall in love with the world and characters. The two characters that I will be focusing on today are Lio and Barb (technically renamed to Tavenor), who are both close to the protagonist, Erasmas, and represent two manifestations of autism of varying subtlety. 

Before we get to looking at Lio and Barb directly, we need to address a few things about the book and author as a whole. Neal Stephenson is most definitely aware of neurodivergence. Orolo, Erasmus’s mentor, makes a joke at the beginning of the story about having “attention surplus disorder”, which inverts the public perspective of ADHD. The word “savant”, which has evolved by Erasmas’s era as Saunt, is an honorable title. The analemma is a crooked infinity symbol. (Okay, that one is a stretch). In another Stephenson book, Seveneves, a character named Sonar Taxlaw confirms herself as “on the spectrum”, and someday I will write about her too. Anathem is about what are essentially monks and nuns, but focused on science and math rather than religion. I have speculated often about the existence of autistic people in monastic settings, secluded from the greater world, following a strict routine, and free to explore whatever obscure curiosities that catch their attention. Establishments like the Concent of Saunt Edhar might have been inspired by that very concept. The story is told through the first person perspective of Erasmas, whose main strength seems to be having everyone’s personality and emotional patterns figured out, and reacting accordingly. His interactions with Lio and Barb are what give readers insight as to how their brains might be different. 

Our first interaction with Lio introduces his fascination with combat and tactics, which is referred to as Vale Lore or vlor in-universe. He reads books on martial arts, war and military history, and applies what he learns to several aspects of his life. One of his favorite things to do is practice hand-to-hand combat with his friends, sometimes to their annoyance. When we meet him, he is considering whether ants in the garden have a style of vlor, and an ongoing project of his is to reenact a certain battle using weeds. Erasmas, of course, plays along with all of this. Lio eventually meets and begins training with real Ringing Vale avout, who welcome his enthusiasm. 

Despite his physical-oriented SpIn, Lio seems to have some differences in body awareness. He tends to stand too close to other people or run through them. This means that he has a hard time judging distance and/or does not know how close is “socially acceptable”. When he starts training with the Valers, he tells Erasmas that he is getting beat up a lot, which indicates that even though he understands vlor in his head, his body might be lagging behind. This is true of plenty of autistic people who have issues with their proprioception, awareness of their moving body. Erasmas describes a few times the inventiveness of the way Lio wraps his bolt, which is actually a sensory adaptation. Lio ties his bolt to keep it out of the way when he is doing physical labor and to keep the heat off of him on warm days. This is the avout equivalent of the autistic tendency to put function, including sensory needs, over fashion trends or dress codes. 

Erasmas describes Lio as having “a funny mind that sometimes did not respond to words”, the key word here being respond. He hears when Erasmas tells him that slashberry is not of the One Hundred and Sixty-Four, but does not answer because he does not know that a response is required until Erasmas asks if he heard. Then he restates what his friend said perfectly and provides a counterargument. Throughout the book, people have difficulty getting Lio to speak back to them when he is thinking about something of greater importance to him. This shows that Lio, like many autistic people, does not always register that people are talking to him and need him to say something, and can only really concentrate on one thing at a time, a phenomenon known as monotropism. What makes me happy is that Erasmas is aware of all of this and adjusts accordingly for Lio, instead of forcing Lio to operate on Erasmas’s time and attention track. 

When Lio does talk, his speech sounds very natural and similar to that of his friends. However, there is a scene when his echolalia makes itself obvious. When Criscan is explaining Complex Protism to Erasmas and Lio, Lio repeats the new terms that Criscan provides, followed by the word “check.” This bothers Criscan, but Erasmas thinks nothing of it. Echoing like this very well could be a way to add words to his mental playbook, and considering how fluent he is at the time of the story, he has probably been doing it his whole life. In terms of understanding language, Lio does well for the most part, but he can sometimes be concrete and literal. Erasmas tells of a past incident where Lio read “fight fire with fire” in a vlor book, took it literally, and ended up burning part of the garden quite badly. He also answers Jesry’s speculation of whether his bolt can stop bullets in the most autistic way possible, by scientifically trialing it. And of course, since the bolt is the only clothing that avout are allowed to wear, this means that Lio was shooting projectiles at his folded-up bolt while naked, without a care in the world. 

A running theme for Lio throughout the book, and why he becomes such an asset during the Antiswarm, is that he has no sense of danger. He walks out of the walls during Apert unafraid, and his response to getting beat up by extras is not “what if they attack me again” but “I’ll show them.” He stands perfectly still and calm and commands Erasmas to punch him in the face. In space, when the likes of Erasmas and Arsibalt are sweating (and worse) in their suits, Lio keeps cool and focuses on the task at hand. Autistic people sometimes have a lowered sense of danger like this, which is why autistic kids tend to run towards traffic or wade into too-deep water. We do not see the threat. Autistic people also have delayed emotional processing, not feeling emotions that correspond to a certain event after hours, days, weeks after it happens. This can look like being unfazed in a high-stress situation, like Lio is, because our brains have not registered that we are scared yet. 

While Lio has a well-balanced handful of autistic traits, they often go unnoticed when compared to those of Barb. Barb’s laser happens to be all things mathic, up to and including the history of the Concent of Saunt Edhar itself. He attends almost every single tour, out-fun-facting the guide by about the second day. He learns his theorics so fast that it scares his teachers. An Erasmas quote that sums Barb and his hunger for mathic knowledge up perfectly is, “There was a lot he didn’t know, but nothing he was afraid to ask about, and ask about, and ask about, until he understood perfectly.” What happens when you put an autistic person in a setting that happens to be entirely focused around their SpIn? They excel to the point of seeming prodigious, and that is exactly what Barb does. 

Unlike Lio, Barb sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of conversation skills. His vocabulary is large and formal, which makes sense considering that before he was collected, he spent most of his time at home alone with his books or with his encouraging parents, while Lio has had ten years to mimic and absorb the patterns of his fellow avout. Barb cares not for social hierarchy, interrupting his seniors in order to ask questions or correct them. He infodumps freely about what he has recently learned and does not notice when he might be engaging at an inopportune time, such as when Erasmas is cleaning the kitchen. 

Barb has a lot of trouble reading people’s nonverbal cues. His brain is, according to Erasmas, “so organized that it was blind to facial expressions.” This seems to be a bit of a nod to bottom-up processing, which is what autistic people’s tendency to see all the details first and then add them up to make a larger concept. When Barb looks at someone’s face or body, he is seeing a furrowed brow here, a bitten lip there, rather than a whole expression. Facial expressions and body language also vary from person to person, instead of having a set algorithm, which is confusing for autistic people. We also tend to do better with explicit communication (like words) than implicit (like facial and postural hints). Other characters, mostly Erasmas, tend to have to spell social situations out in words for Barb because he does not catch the drift. He also does not follow people’s gazes or other indicators of attention, meaning he does not do things like look up at the ceiling with the rest of the tour group when the guide does. 

There are not as many clues into Barb’s sensory world as Lio’s, but there are a couple. Near the end of the book, Erasmas thinks about how Barb finds things like door latches interesting, which means he seeks out things that move, have a mechanical element, and are small and geometric. We do not get to see his reaction to the Teglon, but he would probably be fascinated by it. Barb also gets overwhelmed by the chaos and noise of the Refectory, especially when he trips and drops his plate. (And then Erasmas explains to Barb that it was his fault that Barb tripped on Erasmas’s bolt, and therefore Erasmas should be the one to clean up and Barb does not need to worry). There is also a happy stimming moment when Erasmas says something funny and Barb gets so excited that he starts running around the kitchen. You might not associate the word cute with Neal Stephenson’s writing, but this is definitely a cute moment.
What about Barb’s sense of humor? It is offbeat. He does not understand conventional jokes without explanation, but plays on words and references to theorics tickle him. Erasmas notices that Barb finds the quips of Lodoghir particularly hilarious, leading him to wonder if Lodoghir is just like Barb, but older. I am planning to write a whole post about autistic humor, but I will say that the things Barb finds funny are a pretty good indicator. 

Barb and Lio are two quite different faces of the infinite polyhedron that is autism. Barb is a more overt, and dare I say stereotypical, character, placed into a setting where he is optimized and idealized. Lio is more hidden and subtle, and is thought of as a bit of a troublemaker, but is also recognized for his strengths, however obscure. Bringing both of them to light is Erasmas, a phenomenal ally who acts as a bridge between the “normal” world and that of his friends. What do you get when autists join a monastic order where they can cultivate their strengths? Anathem.

Cowboy Bebop’s Radical Ed: Alien or Autistic?

Cowboy Bebop is a classic late ‘90s anime full of jazz references and space western shenanigans, as well as a cast of interesting characters. My favorite of these from the first episode she was introduced is Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV, better known as Radical Ed or just Ed. (Yes, she is a girl. We will get to that later). Before she is introduced to the rest of the Bebop crew, this expert hacker is described as several outrageous figures, including a Hindu guru, a gay drag queen, and an alien. However, I think that Ed being an autistic teen makes much more sense. 

Ed’s laser is probably obvious, and a bit stereotypical: hacking. She can hop over any firewall, break into any password-protected domain, and spends more time surfing the nets than doing anything else. To Ed, hacking is a fun, challenging, satisfying game that brings her pure joy, which we see when she sings and laughs to herself as she peers through her goggles and into her world of code. Chess seems to bring a similar feeling, as Ed is able to meet Chessmaster Hex in his world by repeatedly playing against him. Hacking and chess both fall under puzzle-like interests, which a lot of autistic people have. 

What is interesting is that Ed’s view of the cyberspace is full of bondable entities. In other words, she sees programs and machines as sentient. She even greets ships before taking control of them. A lot of autistic people bond with inanimate objects, and this appears to be Ed’s version of that. Her empathy seems to be on the high side, as her best friend on the Bebop is Ein the dog, and she patiently wins the heart of the normally cagey Faye. However, Ed appears not to have an understanding of what it means to belong somewhere or be part of a crew. She wanders into an orphanage and leaves when she sees fit, like a stray cat, and she later does the same with the Bebop crew. Her relationship with her father is distant, though that is just as much his fault as hers. Ed’s father is so forgetful that he could give Martin Murtons from Adventure Time a run for his money, while Ed has no awareness of the expectation that kids are supposed to stick by their parents. 

Said father also cannot keep straight whether he has a son or daughter, and he is not alone in that. Despite being referred to as a girl onscreen, Ed’s gender presentation is quite masculine. Her haircut is short, and her signature outfit is a loose shirt and a pair of bike shorts. She even chooses a boy’s name, Edward, to replace her rather frilly birth name, Francoise. Her personality is a boisterous contrast to that of Faye, who is a seductive dark feminine. It is possible to also headcanon Ed as some flavor of trans or non-binary, or she could just not care about fitting into traditional feminine gender roles. Being trans is highly correlated with being autistic, and even cis autistic people tend to have complicated relationships with how they view gender and gender presentation. Gender is social, and autism is a condition that affects socialization, after all.

Ed’s speech patterns are so unusual that calls them a Cloudcuckoolanguage. I think that Ed would qualify as semi-verbal, using shorter sentences in conversations if she responds at all. She has a tendency to talk in non-sequiturs and phrases that do not make sense to the other characters, and this is because she relies a lot on echolalia. Echolalia is the act of imitating words (and sometimes tone) that other people say, and can be delayed or immediate. Ed does both. She is also one of the only characters I have heard use palilalia, a lesser-known autistic speech pattern that involves repeating one’s own words. Ed often says the same word twice, such as repeating Faye’s name as “Faye-Faye”. Another quirk of hers is referring to herself by her own name, in third person. Some autistic people do this because they are echoing a longer phrase and forget to change the pronouns, or just for theatrical fun, and it is unclear which reason it is in Ed’s case. Ed likes to chant to herself strings of rhyming or alliterative words, showing that she finds pleasure in certain sounds. 

Ed has a seeker sensory profile and does a lot of stimming in addition to the verbal stims mentioned above. She almost never walks conventionally, preferring to go on all fours, wave her limbs around, skip, or even roll around the ship. (She probably enjoys the lower gravity). She sits in an odd way too, especially when she is on her computer. This shows that she requires more proprioceptive and vestibular feedback than most people. She also eats and chews as a stim, even chomping down on items that are not food. Eating non-food items is called pica, and pica can show up in autistic people because they are looking for stimulation from taste and mouthfeel, they think something is food but it is not (usually happens with children), or they have a genuine craving for minerals that can be found in the thing they are eating. On the Bebop where food is hard to come by and there are long lulls between bursts of action, it makes perfect sense for Ed to always be looking for something to put in her mouth. One thing Ed cannot stand though is wearing shoes or socks. We see her try socks one time, and she trips and falls all over the place, probably because she is used to having the direct sensation of the ground under her feet. In all other scenes, she is barefoot. 

The Bebop crew went looking for a hacker described as a drag queen alien, and they came back with a gender-nonconforming autistic kid who called herself Radical Ed. Catlike, she adopted them and then left of her own accord, leaving an impression in the hearts of Cowboy Bebop fans like me. Getting this headcanon out was a breath of fresh air after some serious posts, and I hope you all had as much fun reading it as Ed does remoting into police shuttles. Stay gold, space cowboys.

The Isolated Clip: Autism on TikTok and Similar

CW: This post contains recurring references to meltdowns, self-injurious stims, and fakeclaiming.

In my time exploring the online autism community, there has been no platform more contested than TikTok. It has been cited as a source of education and relatability, but also blamed for the rise in faking autism and making it a trend. However, short-form videos have been around longer than the infamous clock app has, and if you are like me, you can be exposed to TikTok or TikTok-like content without downloading the app itself. These types of videos, averaging about thirty seconds, have become a way to pass bite-sized, isolated pieces of information, including that of the autistic experience. 

When someone like me, an adult who can speak and appears reasonably well-put-together, says that they are autistic, they are often met with the dismissal “but you’re not like those head-banging autistics.” Whenever I hear that, I cannot help but think,  “If there was an isolated clip of me hitting my head with my water bottle, what would they think of me? They probably wouldn’t think I was so ‘high-functioning’.” Because the truth is, I am, or at least have a history of being, literally a “head-banging autistic”, and I do not mean a fan of metal music, yet you would never associate that autistic trait with a person you have just had a conversation about the fundamentals of photographic framing with. On the flipside, if you saw an isolated clip of a boy mercilessly defeating his father at Mario Kart and raising his controller in the air in victory, I bet you would have a hard time imagining that same boy hitting and biting his father while in the grips of a meltdown. 

Sharing videos on social media of autistic people, particularly children, melting down has been a common way for parents and caregivers to “raise awareness” for almost two decades, as long as Facebook has existed. To be perfectly clear, you should never post or share a video of an autistic person’s meltdown. That is a vulnerable state, and it is doubtful that any autistic person would want strangers to see it. Children in particular cannot consent to having a video like that posted. Autism Parents™   claim that sharing meltdown videos raise awareness, but awareness of what? If you share a video of a child screaming and crying as they hit themself in the head with the words “this is autism” in the caption, people are going to associate autism with those actions and nothing else. Some of these videos do not even offer context as to what caused the meltdown or what an autistic meltdown even is. (It is a fight response to stress; it is not a tantrum, an act of manipulation, or a choice). Even worse, it leads people to associate the person in the video with the actions of an autistic meltdown. We do not see their strengths, their lasers, which routines calm them down, what makes them laugh, which sensory stressors make them cry, or their perspective on interacting with other people, we just see Meltdown Kid. I think that autistic self-advocates and educators should be talking about meltdowns, but no one should have a meltdown video shared of them without consent, and no one should be pressured to post one of themselves, not even to prove that they are sometimes a “head-banging autistic”. 

Another hot topic when it comes to videos of autistic people is stimming. There are a lot of TikToks and Instagram reels of autistic teens and adults showing off their stims, particularly happy ones. The person will be flapping, rocking, or some other body stim while a song or something else that person finds exciting plays in the background. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I think it is great that joyful stims are being shown freely on camera because when I was growing up, there was no attention dedicated to them. Until I was nineteen, I thought stimming was only for pain and distress, never for positive emotions. I also was not sure how many forms a stim could take, and I know I am not alone in this. People posting their stims can lead to those on the suspectrum and/or who have been masking a long time to (re)discover their own. However, the particular format described above feels too contrived for my taste. I never have the thought “oh, I’m stimming, let me get the camera”. I do not doubt that these TikTokers are autistic or that their stims are for real, but I could never be one of them because interrupting a stim to film or stimming specifically for the camera feels unnatural. I think that if I were to show videos of my stimming in real time, it would have to be through a candid camera or to let it show while I was talking about or doing something else. And that does not even touch the fact that stimming is not just about body motions and fidget toys. Technically, I have invited other people to visual stim with me through my photography! Just like with meltdowns, autistic people should talk about and demonstrate their stims in a way that feels comfortable to them. (One of my favorite examples are the flow arts and roller skating videos that Lyric Rivera (@neurodivergentrebel on Instagram) makes). 

Some people blame TikTok for making autism trendy, and TikTok is public enemy number one for people who are anti-self-diagnosis. There are a few reasons for that. The first is the removal of specific autism experiences from a greater context. A good example of this is the small spoon meme. Some autistic TikToker somewhere posted about preferring small spoons, with the information that they were autistic, and the idea spread rapidly and became a meme, an in-joke. The problem with this is that people were seeing an association between autism and a preference for small spoons without knowing anything about why (sensory issues!) or looking into other autistic traits. They just thought “I like small spoons, I must be autistic” the same way one might think “they can’t be autistic, they don’t like trains”. It is stereotyping and not real self-diagnosis, the equivalent of peeing once and deciding you have a bladder infection. This can happen with any singular trait. 

I notice that TikTokers and other social media users who tend to get fakeclaimed are white, conventionally attractive women (and non-binary and trans people who are being misgendered) who are speaking and may have an unusual clothing and makeup style and interested that tend to be seen as childish. There are several things going on here. First of all, obvious misogyny and transphobia: people think that women and AFAB trans and non-binary people have to be doing everything they do just for attention and clout. People who are not cis boys also have been historically unseen by the diagnostic criteria for autism, leading to the picture in the public consciousness’s heads being that of a cis boy and not anything else and the subsequent pushback coming from autistic non-men. In other words, there is a huge influx of autistic content creators who are female, trans, or non-binary going “WE’RE HERE” to combat the stereotype. The same can be said of all the alt styles. People have it in their heads that autistic people do not have a personal style beyond bland shirts and khakis or sweats, so everyone wearing goth, cottagecore, punk, anything revealing/sexy, or “clown makeup” gets called fake, yet people keep posting themselves to prove that they exist. As for the “childish” interests, autistic adults have been liking TV shows, games, and toys marketed to kids for a long time, and neurotypicals have been bullying us for it just as long. There are autistic people who want to distance themselves from that or are afraid that liking Pokèmon and teddy bears will lead to being infantilized, but fakeclaiming or bullying people who are open about their interests will only further the stigma and teach NTs that being a jerk to someone for having fun is okay. 

There is also the issue of the algorithm and the patterns of viewers. TikTok curates its feeds based on user interaction, and the majority of people watching tend to click on videos of people who are white, pretty, and either “normal” or “palatably weird”. That means Lacy, the white, blonde girl with the butterfly makeup and soft voice stim-dancing to Disney songs floats to the top while Tammy, the Black girl with the shaved head who uses a wheelchair because she has cerebral palsy and communicates through text-to-speech struggles to get views, even though they both live equally valid autistic lives and create equally important content. The same principle applies to other platforms. I have to consciously curate my Instagram feed so that I am getting the stories of autistic people of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, support needs and communication methods, comorbidities, genders, and ages. 

Representing people with higher support needs (which are influenced by co-occuring conditions) is a current problem when it comes to autism advocacy and education online, and I think that the TikTok format is to blame. TikToks are short, quick, and meant to grab your attention right away, and not everyone’s autism fits with that. AAC use tends to move at a slower pace than speech, especially if the user has motor difficulties, and too many people will ignore the content anyway because they are too used to speech and unwilling to open themselves to anything else. Some people cannot do the short and sweet aspect of TikTok, they have to go long, go deep, or not say anything at all. Making videos requires being comfortable in front of a camera in the first place, and a lot of autistic people are not. Even if we technically can handle being filmed, we may be more comfortable expressing ourselves, saying what we actually want to say, through writing, making art, or making music than standing in front of a camera gesturing at text that says “hi, I am autistic”. 

Every TikTok, every other social media post, should be a choice. If it is not a choice, it is a violation of consent. If it is a choice, then the person who made that post is deliberately showing one part of their lives, one isolated clip, that they are comfortable in that moment with other people seeing. They might post the video and take it down later because they felt wrong about it, or some outside force (such as negative comments or fakeclaiming) made them change their mind. They might choose to share the happy stim but not the distressed head strike because they do not want their distressed side out in the open. This is not unique to autistic people; every social media user edits themselves to show only what they want others to see to some extent. If you have seen one video about autism, then you have seen one video about autism, to reference the old adage about how all autistic people are unique. That TikToker that you think is faking because you have only seen them happy flapping is showing you an isolated clip, and you have no idea what their autism looks like when the camera stops rolling, head-banging or otherwise. 

Seven Things I Hate About Being Autistic

I have written before that my goal is to have a neutral relationship with being autistic, meaning that instead of being good or bad, it just is. However, since my natural state seems to be one of extremes, I tend to flip back and forth between feeling blessed and feeling cursed. There are some things I really hate about being autistic, which is why I made this list. Sometimes, things suck and I just need to rant about it. Hopefully reading this will be as cathartic for you as writing it was for me. I have tried to keep the list non-systemic, as in, even in a perfectly accommodated world free of ableism, these things about being autistic would still be painful and infuriating. (The society-fueled cursed moments could be a whole list on their own).This post will go into TMI territory about bodily functions as well as mention meltdowns and self-harm, be warned. 

  1. Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Rejection sensitive dysphoria, an intense negative emotional response to social rejection, failure, or punishment, is a phenomenon that autistic people and ADHDers both experience. Although I only learned the name for RSD a couple of years ago, I have been feeling it since I was a small child, and it is one of my least favorite tricks my brain does. Any comment that I am bothering someone, red marks on my papers, being told that I have broken a rule or crossed a line, and it feels like I have been stabbed. It is immediate, too fast for words, too old and bone-deep to be social anxiety or OCD. I used to be criticized for crying when I was corrected, and I had no idea how to tell the adults in my life that even if I knew logically they were teaching me in good faith, it still felt like an attack. RSD today jumps out from behind corners and under beds, ambushing me whenever a friend declines a meeting with me or starts a sentence with “well, honestly…”. One “shh” can ruin a whole hour that had been going well up until then. 

  1. Alexithymia

Alexithymia. No words for emotions. I even wrote a poem about this. I have big, intense feelings, but naming them is sometimes impossible for me, and it is confusing, frustrating, and even dangerous sometimes. I cannot tell others what is wrong because I do not know the answer myself, so I just drown in pain and overwhelm while they watch with wide eyes. I hate scaring people I love like that, and it makes me feel like a burden, being so indecipherable. It took me so long to realize I was bisexual because I could not recognize my own attraction and was relying on outside expectations to explain my feelings. I still have a hard time determining whether I want someone to kiss me or just to be my friend. 

  1. Interoception Issues

Interoception is the internal body sense, the one that tells you when you need to do things like eat and sleep, and mine is terrible. “I do not speak body” is what I tell people. I do not recognize that I am hungry until I am lightheaded and feeling sick, and even then, I have a hard time knowing whether this is the type of sick where I need food or whether I should avoid food at all costs. Up until I was about twelve, I periodically wet my pants because I would not be able to tell when I needed to go, and then I would run or laugh or sneeze and my bladder would give way. Having a period is a confusing mess of cramps, actual sensation of bleeding, pad sticking to me or tampon string tickling me, and any other thing my body will do during the day. I get tempted to just cut my entire lower half off. A lot of being an independent, functioning adult is being able to identify what is wrong physically and doing the correct thing to fix it, from “rate your level of pain” to realizing you need a snack or a nap. I frequently just feel off and have no idea what it could be, so I run down the list of thirsty, hungry, tired, need the toilet, too cold, too hot, in the wrong position…it is like taking care of a baby who will not stop crying, except that the baby is me. I worry about having some kind of medical emergency but not knowing to go to the hospital because I will think I just have gas or something. 

  1. Sound Issues

I cannot filter out background noise or focus on one sound in many. It all blends together like noise soup. Noise-canceling headphones are brilliant for making the world generally a little quieter, but not for having conversations in busy places or especially talking on the phone. What I need is the real-life equivalent to a mixing board where I can just solo whoever is in front of me and mute everything else. I hate asking “what?” all the time. I hate not being able to do anything that makes noise (like washing the dishes) while having a conversation. When I had to do dictation for a music theory class, I was so lost because I could not separate the three parts played on the piano, especially combined with any rustling or electronic humming going on in the classroom. This hurt especially because music is one of my special interests, so doing poorly at dictation meant that I was failing at my favorite thing. 

  1. Executive Dysfunction

My brain puts up a big old wall when it comes to doing tasks. If there are too many steps, or I cannot see the steps, I will freeze. If I am already doing something, I have trouble switching to the next thing. I am terrible at making decisions, to the point where if there are multiple things that I want to do, such as write music, read a book, and watch a show, I will just sit there and scroll through my phone forever because I cannot decide which thing to do first and when to move on to another thing. This leaves me feeling useless and unfulfilled, another day wasted. Of course my freezing before tasks affects my ability to do things like paperwork, but it also prevents me from doing normal things that most humans do, including something that is often thought of as instinctual and pleasurable. 

  1. Meltdowns and Shutdowns

I am not sure if I would still have these in a more accommodating society, but in the current timeline, I wish they did not exist. When I melt down, I feel destructive, dangerous, feral even. I have a history of self-injurious stimming, hitting my head with anything hard that I could find, both as punishment and as an attempt to liberate my mind from my body. I wanted to, still want to, crack myself open and let the (unnamed) feelings out. The anger and panic of a meltdown has led me to say and do hurtful things that I regret. I fear my own destructive power. As for shutdowns, they make me feel cut off, distant. I could be writhing with self-hate and fear inside, but on the outside, I am only still and silent. I cannot talk, especially not if someone is pressuring me and accusing me of being “checked out”. It is like the words are all buzzing around inside my head, and I cannot shove the right ones out of my mouth in the right order. If no one tries to reach me, I just sit there until it passes, aware of everything that is happening but feeling disconnected from it, wishing someone could see that I was hurting and feeling guilty at being there but not. 

  1. Sensory Overload

Too much, too many, at the same time spells pain for me. It starts with rage, which is a state I am quite uncomfortable with. Then I start to feel nauseous even when I am still, and my own skin feels too tight, too hot,  and too “live”, like an exposed wire. My instinct is to strip off completely so nothing is touching me and I can stop overheating, but I am not always in a place where I can do that, so I am left to pull away from well-meaning touch and escape to someplace quiet and dark. Light touch, the kind that most people use to reassure someone, is the worst for me during these times, which I know is difficult for people to remember and understand. I cannot help but feel the worst combination of weak and demanding when other people witness my overloads, plus the physical experience itself. 

How Did The Umbrella Academy Handle an Autistic Character?

The Umbrella Academy, released on Netflix in 2019 and adapted from the comic series by Gerard Way (yes, from My Chemical Romance) and Gabriel Bà,  is definitely on my list of favorite shows. I love a time-travel plot, the humanization of superheroes is a trend that I hope continues, and the characters are complex and unique. The character I would like to talk about today though is Harlan Cooper, a side character who is introduced in Season 2. Harlan is the son of Sissy and Carl Cooper, a farming couple who take Viktor Hargeeves in after he drops into their time. I could not find any definitive statements on whether Harlan was confirmed to be autistic by the writers, but it is quite clear to myself and other Umbrella Academy fans that he was meant to be. 

One thing to keep in mind about Harlan is the time and place he was born. We see him as an elementary-aged child in 1963. Autism, as in the Kanner model, was a diagnosis at the time, but Harlan’s family also lives in rural Texas, where psychology appointments are hard to come by. ABA is still another five years from being invented, and institutions are the place to send autistic kids. Carl even threatens to have Harlan put away, to Sissy and Viktor’s dismay. Harlan does not go to school and spends most of his time at home, which was a common experience for autistic children who managed to avoid the institution life. Viktor is aware of Harlan’s flavor of difference, telling Sissy “there’s a name for what he has”, so it is likely that Harlan does not get diagnosed until after he and Sissy move to a bigger city. 

Harlan is completely nonspeaking as a child, which was one of the big things that made me recognize him as an autistic character. He does make other sounds such as cries of pain, fear, and protest, and an occasional laugh or squeak of pleasure. He communicates requests through gestures and objects, such as covering his face to ask Viktor to play hide and seek and bringing Sissy a book so she can read it to him. His father acts like his lack of speech equals a lack of understanding, frequently talking about Harlan as if he cannot hear and claiming that he would not be able to recognize affection between his parents. (To be fair, Harlan probably does not know what sex is, but that is also true for a lot of neurotypical kids at that age). Viktor and Sissy, on the other hand, speak to him directly even though they know he will not respond. To Viktor’s surprise, Harlan has learned to speak in adulthood, though his sentences can be halting. He seems to rely a lot on scripting. Harlan is not much for back-and-forth conversations and gets annoyed that Allison keeps asking him questions. It is never explained how exactly he became able to talk; he just tells Viktor “I can do a lot of things now.” He could have received the earliest incarnation of ABA (yuck) or some other therapy, or maybe he found a way to echo and script his way to near-fluent speech on his own. He is still within the window of language acquisition when we meet him, so the fact that he goes from nonspeaking to speaking is realistic. 

My favorite thing about Harlan’s characterization is his sensory world. He gains Viktor’s sound-based power, and his sensitivity to sounds leads him to be extremely skilled with it. He can hear things that NTs like Viktor naturally tune out and have to concentrate hard to detect, which means he has a greater wealth of power around him. This also means that Harlan has to take precautions to avoid sensory overload. When he is in an environment that has too many sounds, or the wrong kinds, he puts on his headphones and listens to nature sounds, such as wind or bees. In childhood, Harlan finds comfort in being read aloud to and listening to music with the family record player, showing that he has always been a sound-based being. Young Harlan also has a proprioceptive stim of rocking and a tactile stim of holding and stroking a toy. It is possible that he suppresses these as an older man as a form of masking. I found it refreshing to see an autistic character who was more aural than he was visual, which is unusual both in fiction and in the real autism world. 

Harlan has had meltdowns since childhood, which his parents refer to as “episodes”. I thought this was a slightly better term than “tantrums” because it implied they were less of a choice and more of an involuntary neurological flare-up in the same way seizures are. The meltdowns occur when something unexpected happens (one starts to brew when the record player breaks but the crisis is ultimately averted) or he is overwhelmed physically and emotionally. After he gains his powers, Harlan’s meltdowns include a surge of sonic energy that injures others in his vicinity, killing Carl and knocking down a group of bullies who are picking on him at school. When the Commission invades the farm, Harlan is shown curled up and rocking as a field of energy swirls around him. Harlan’s biggest meltdown happens when Sissy dies in the hospital, and Harlan, overcome with grief, fear, and probably sensory pain, accidentally kills the mothers of Viktor and his siblings. Allison does not understand this as an involuntary loss of control and sees it as an act of malice, which leads to her decision to kill Harlan in retribution. Harlan also elopes when he is young and has to be rescued from drowning in a nearby pond. This was a frighteningly accurate detail, as drowning is the number one killer for autistic children. 

Despite his kill count, Harlan’s empathy is very high. The reason his meltdown targeted the mothers of the Hargreeves siblings was because he could feel the siblings’ personal energetic signatures in the wombs of their mothers, and he was crying out for help. Harlan tells Viktor and Allison that every person has a unique feel, which shows up as sound for him because that is his dominant sense. He feels deep shame and guilt for the harm he has caused with his superpowered meltdowns, which is analogous to the guilt that autistic people often feel in real life. Harlan is also shown catching the pain and fear of others around him, namely Sissy and Viktor. When Viktor, feeling upset with Carl forcing Sissy to be physical with him, cracks a window with his powers, Harlan squeezes his hand in reassurance. The sentiment behind the hand squeeze lines up with autistic people’s experiences with higher empathy and caring about people, but the gesture itself strikes me as uncharacteristic for an autistic child to do. Autistic people tend to struggle with outwardly showing that they care, especially as kids. However, we also tend to mirror how others comfort us if it is effective, so it is possible that someone had successfully comforted Harlan by squeezing his hand in the past. 

I liked how Umbrella Academy wrote an autistic character who was nonspeaking for at least part of the show and whose progression was realistic to how some autistic people change. The way they integrated sensory differences into a power that made sense in-universe was also creative and beautiful. However, Harlan’s ultimately small amount of screen time and short arc leaves a lot to be desired, and there are some specifics about his development missing. He is a lot better than other nonspeaking characters (cough Eric cough) and I am happy with his inclusion in the show, but there are still improvements to be made.

Self-Diagnosis Revisited: Addressing Recent Discourse and the Erasure of Higher Support Needs

One year, one month, and sixteen days ago, I wrote a post supporting self-diagnosis in the autistic community. Recently, this post has been getting a lot of attention in the autistic circles of Reddit. This is because I have been linking it rather than retyping my opinion on the issue, which has been a hot topic for the past few weeks. The subreddits I have been active in seem to be split between two camps: self-diagnosis should be accepted, and self-diagnosis is harmful to nonspeakers and people with higher support needs. My opinions on self-diagnosis have not changed in that I am still in support of it for the reasons I named in my original post, but I feel the need to address the flame wars and debates that have been going on in a setting that is less retaliatory than a Reddit comment. 

First, some introductions and disclaimers for those who are new. I am Aurelia (pen name), a late-diagnosed autistic young woman with low support needs. I was formally diagnosed right before I turned twenty, after at least a year of deep-diving, contextualizing, and self-discovery regarding the topic of autism. I am not a god or queen among autists, and I do not claim to speak for every autistic person in existence. That is impossible for only one person to do. I do not believe I can single-handedly end a debate that has been flaring for almost a month and has existed for years before that. I am just a resident of a particular corner of the internet with eyes, fingers, and brain, and a heart, writing on what I care about and placing it on the digital doorsteps of people I hope will care along with me. 

 I would like to acknowledge that being an autistic person with higher support and especially a nonspeaking person is hard. I have never doubted that. In some ways, your lives suck in ways mine never has. I am saying this plainly because I know that the Level 2s and 3s out there want this acknowledgement, need it even. I see you fighting, even though I have not fought your fight. What becomes problematic is when people compare their pain and declare some people not worthy of expressing that they are hurt. We do not measure scars, for that detracts the community at large from gaining help and support. People with low support needs do not suffer less than people with high support needs, we suffer differently. The levels are indicators of how much support one needs in order to thrive, not a rating scale of how awful your life is. I think that folks on both sides of the battle are vulnerable to “level envy” now and again, including myself. There have been times when I have thought “If only I had the highest support needs, then everything would be so much less stressful and I wouldn’t be carrying the weight of expectation.” I have also seen Level 3s envious of people like me because they crave independence and to be taken more seriously than they are in their current lives. This is proof that neither perspective is always sunshine and rainbows and that autism should not be a suffering contest.

You might be confused as to why I spent the previous paragraph talking about support levels when the post is supposedly about self-diagnosis. The answer is that anti-self-diagnosis people tend to conflate self-diagnosed with being a Level 1, having the lowest support needs. This is not always the case. First of all, support needs are fluid. They can change over the years, month to month, even day to day for some people. Some people were thought of as gifted and precocious (read: definitely not disabled) as kids, but they qualify as having moderate or high support needs as adults. There are also barriers to being formally diagnosed that have nothing to do with the actual autistic traits (and the support needs associated with them) of an individual. Getting a formal diagnosis, at least in the US where I live, is expensive, especially without insurance. Professionals are also less likely to recognize autism in women, trans people, and BIPOCs. If you belong to one or more of those groups, doctors might not be able to see past that, even if it is “so obvious” that you need the kind of help that autistic people benefit from. You could be semiverbal or have sensory issues that impede your ability to leave the house, but still be dismissed because the original diagnostic criteria was based on cis white boys, and professionals still carry echoes of that in their heads. 

Some people might be wondering what the point of including support needs details in with a self-diagnosis is, especially if they are not getting their needs met. Telling people on social media or in real life that you are “Level 2 autistic (self-diagnosed)” is not a magic ticket to respect and support, true, but neither is a formal diagnosis. Plenty of professionally recognized autistic people are not getting their needs met. In this poll, we can see that of the high support needs folks who responded, those who were fully getting their needs met were a minority. People at my university, including myself, who are autistic and receive accommodations from the disability resource center, talk frequently about professors who ignore their accommodations, the uphill battle of getting all of the paperwork in, and the shockingly small percentage of what would actually help that is officially included in our access letters. Formally diagnosed people are not immune to being shorted, so we should shift our energy from doubting self-diagnosed people to fighting for our needs. 

The other argument against self-diagnosis is that regular people should not claim to know themselves better than professionals do. There is the possibility of getting it wrong. The thing is though, doctors can get it wrong too, and I am not just talking about psychologists who diagnose autism. Those of you who have seen the film Crip Camp might remember the story of Denise Sherer Jacobson, whose healthy appendix was removed because the abdominal pain from her gonorrhea was mistaken for appendicitis. My own mother was passed from doctor to doctor and fed cocktails of incorrect medicines before they finally figured out what was going on with her. There is a whole fourteen-minute video of people who were misdiagnosed. Notice that these are all women and half of them are BIPOCs, the same demographics who are commonly denied an autism diagnosis. Doctors are not infallible beings of pure knowledge. Besides, autism is very dissimilar to a diagnosis like cancer or sickle cell anemia. Autism does not directly kill, is not curable, and is not wholly tragic. It is something that you are born with and that you live with until the day you die. 

Let me make that clearer: autistic people are autistic from the moment of birth, not from when a professional hands them (or their parents) a piece of paper. I was autistic when I lined up my toys as a toddler. I was autistic in middle school when I could not find a group for projects and doubted the integrity of my peer relationships. I am autistic right now as I write this post, and I will be autistic as an old woman watching the sunset from her porch for the last time. Autistic people existed before Leo Kanner decided to apply Eugen Bleuler’s word for a schizophrenia symptom to a population of children he had observed, and they will always be out there whether we give them the right to apply the label to themselves or not. When I was in high school, I was told by a formally diagnosed autistic friend that self diagnosis was not real. This resulted in me running hard and fast away from the possibility of anything being different about my brain that was not said by a professional. I forced myself to mask, to “be a better person”, to do everything the neurotypical way. When self-diagnosed people are disbelieved, they are taught to mask harder and live the hard way, and that is directly against what the autistic community is about. We should be supporting autistic people, not leaving them out in the cold. 

Self-diagnosing is a flavor of the autistic experience, but it is not the only one in existence. The anger towards self-diagnosed individuals seems to be a result of other experiences, namely those of nonspeaking and high support needs people, being passed over. The problem here is not the existence of self-diagnosis, it is the erasure of high support needs people.  The greater autism community needs to do a better job of including the narratives and perspectives of people with high support needs and especially those who do not speak. And that includes myself, for I recognize that I owe my place in the community to nonspeaking people. Nonspeaking autistic people, in their lack of words, shouted loudly enough “WE’RE HERE” that people like Kanner noticed our neurotribe in the first place. You all are the cornerstone of the autistic population, for if professionals in the past had not seen you, I would still be lost and alone and thinking I was broken, for there would be no “autistic” to call myself. 

Quentin Coldwater’s Brain is Sideways

The Magicians, the SyFy show based on the book series by Lev Grossman, is close to my heart. I started watching it with my mom back in high school and recently completed a rewatch. I originally fell in love with it for its urban fantasy world, use of time travel and the multiverse as a plot device, and some of the best bisexual representation to reach the screen. On rewatch, I noticed something else about The Magicians: the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a hidden autistic character. The interesting thing about this headcanon is that one of the books has a throwaway line where Q says, “Sorry, that’s my Asperger’s flaring up again.” (The book series was written between 2009 and 2014, before that diagnosis became obsolete). I am not sure whether the show’s writers or Quentin’s actor Jason Ralph were aware of this line, but I do think that the show version Quentin’s neurodivergence is made clear to those who know what they are looking for. 

The trait that caught my attention first was Quentin’s relationship with his special interests. Q loves the Fillory and Further books, which comes in handy when the heroes need an expert on the lore of Fillory. He often gets carried away in infodumping and providing way more details than the friend who asked the question in the first place needs. Quentin cites the idea of Fillory and its stories as the thing that kept him going during his depression dips and stays at mental hospitals, which is a core function of SpIns that you can learn more about here. After Quentin spends time in the real Fillory and learns the dark truth about the author of his favorite books, he feels lost, shaken, and like there is a void in his being. Yet, he is the only one whose love for Fillory, fifteen years of an autist’s intense love for an idea, can make the antidote flower bloom. (It makes sense in context). His friends Margo and Julia are also fans of the books, but their interest is a lot more surface level than Quentin’s. Q’s other SpIn is magic, as in sleight of hand, which he probably developed as a way to feel closer to the Fillory and Further protagonists. His father expresses that he got tired of watching Quentin perform card tricks as a kid, which obviously hurts him because sharing a SpIn is an important part of autistic communication. 

Quentin is generally very open both physically and mentally. In other words, “filter” is not in his vocabulary. Penny blows up at him multiple times because he cannot close his mind, leaving his thoughts leaking all over psychic Penny. When the four monarchs of Fillory sit on their thrones, which are later revealed to be cursed, Q is the only one who yields a physical response. When receiving tragic news, he actually starts laughing before apologizing and asking his friends if they have ever had an inappropriate emotional response. Autistic people tend to struggle to block out unnecessary information, both cognitive and sensory, which contributes to overload as well as some awkward interpersonal moments. Quentin also seems uncomfortable at parties and large gatherings, with the very first episode opening with him in another room than the rest of the group. This could be because he finds parties overstimulating. 

Eventually, we learn that Quentin’s magical discipline is Repairer of Small Objects. In order to have minor mendings as a strength, he must be able to focus on tiny details and then think about how they all fit together. This is characteristic of autistic people. We see the details first, then the big picture, which is called bottom-up processing. Focusing on small things is also common for people with oversensitive vision. Quentin’s mother also accuses him of having a history of breaking things, which indicates that he is uncoordinated, another sensory-based struggle. Problems with motor skills might be the reason that Quentin has a hard time learning complicated spells, similar to Zuko’s difficulties learning movements for Firebending. Q might also have a hard time learning new movements by watching and copying, which is how a majority of spellwork at Brakebill’s is taught. He does better after being verbally corrected by Alice about exactly how his casting is off. This is my experience when it comes to learning physical skills. Another indicator of sensory differences is his odd posture when sitting in chairs, being more comfortable with his knees up by his chest or his legs spread out onto another object. Fans have memed this trait as an indicator of his bisexuality also. 

When he is crowned King of Fillory, Q is named The Moderately Socially Maladjusted. This is an instance of Margo humor, but he really does have a hard time interpersonally. Growing up, he has one close friend, Julia, and some other members of Julia’s social circle treat Q as an afterthought or as her pet. Q seems to have internalized this and worries about being a tagalong or that no one actually cares about him. When Margo says that Emo Quentin is her least favorite Quentin, his response is, “I didn’t think you liked any of the Quentins.” He is not used to being liked, and it is possible that he preemptively reads all attention as fake friendship and covert bullying because he has been discarded too many times before. This is all too common for autistic adults. 

There are also clues to Quentin’s autism in his history. He talks about being in and out of hospitals since he was a little kid, which is a bit odd for a depression-prone neurotypical but makes a lot of sense for an autistic kid. Life is often traumatic for autistic children in a neurotypical population, diagnosed or not, so it could be that Quentin’s mental health problems started from being bullied by other kids and generally not knowing his place in the world. When Alice creates a golem of child Quentin, the boy mentions having “transition anxiety”, which sounds like the fear of new situations and broken routines that autistic people face. Quentin also implies that he has taken Abilify before, and Abilify is often prescribed as a mood stabilizer for autistic people, even though it was developed as an antipsychotic. 

While I do not doubt that Q struggles with depression, the instances of “my brain breaks sometimes” that he tells Alice about could also be autistic burnout. His friendship with Julia is said to have started because they were placed together because they “tested well”. (Q is still shown to be excellent at written tests as an adult when he takes the Brakebill’s entrance exam). However, Julia is a well-rounded high achiever, while Quentin’s skill set is more asymmetrical, in other words spiky. Periodically, Q collapses after a stretch of high marks, and we see him start to enter another drop at the beginning of the show, right after he has graduated from Columbia. This pattern looks a lot like the success and collapse of “gifted” kids who are really ND in disguise. 

Quentin Coldwater’s brain does break sometimes, but it was always sideways to begin with. His arc is about finding balance in a life of extremes and the importance of following one’s special interests. I am not sure what to do with a character who was canon in a book series (which I have not read yet) but is not stated either way in an onscreen adaptation. Is Q a Type 1 or a Type 2 autism representation? I fully claim him either way.

Crossing the Anticipation Desert

This week is Thanksgiving week, which is, in my opinion, the worst-planned week in existence. I have two days of school, followed by three days of holiday plus the weekend, like some kind of inverted school/work week. It also falls in the ninth week of the quarter, the time that most people, including me, are burning out but have not caught the second wind energy of finals yet. Everything that happens in the two school days before Thanksgiving, every year, feels redundant. The same thing happens when I have a special event at the end of the week, such as a meetup with friends. It becomes even more intense when the event is a trip, like last year’s flight to Hawaii. Even an afternoon appointment with nothing unusual in the morning turns all attention and energy towards itself. I feel like I am crawling through a desert of time and the thing I am waiting for is an oasis. Welcome to one of my least favorite feelings: anticipation. 

Anticipation mode is a complex state of emotions, particularly excitement, anxiety, and boredom. These can all be amplified or diminished depending on how positive I view the anticipated event, but it ends up being pretty much the same big mess whether I have a doctor’s appointment or a concert coming up. I find myself repetitively, intensely picturing the event in my mind. I do not absorb myself in anything worthwhile and find myself wandering about in a haze of halfhearted scrolling, contemplating, and indecisiveness. I wish I can just speed up time and do the thing, get it over with! I sometimes even get physical symptoms like headaches and a nervous bladder. (Sorry if that is TMI). 

A lot of my anticipation mode overlaps and contains departure anxiety, which is exactly what it sounds like. I worry about being late, taking the wrong bus or some other directional failure, the thing being cancelled or changed without telling me, and every other mishap that can take place between my house and the event. (Yes, even if it is on Zoom. WiFi issues and lost links are a real fear). I find myself checking and rechecking directions and event details so there are no mistakes on my part. I also find it helpful to get to the thing early if I can. That way I have time to recalculate if things go wrong, and being already at the location cuts the whole feeling short. It is as if my brain goes, “Well, we’re at the place, so this isn’t Before the Thing anymore, this is the Thing itself.” 

I also suspect that a reason I (and other autistic people) experience anticipation mode is because my brain hates new and unexpected things. When I have something nonroutine but scheduled in advance, my brain dedicates a huge amount of energy toward briefing itself so by the time the thing happens, it will be part of the schema. Surprise-proofing, basically. (Radiohead were right, and I am also full of tangents today). The picturing future events is something I have done since I was a child, to the point where most of my inner world exists ahead of us in the timeline. The dark side of this is that it is also a way to pre-rehearse interactions, which can feed into masking. Things can also go internally haywire if what I pictured in my head does not match what actually happens. 

A few years back, my therapist suggested to me that I engage with my lasers to combat anticipation. I have been reluctant to do this because of my relationship with time. I have a hard time judging how much time has passed and how long certain tasks take. You may have seen memes about how “It’s 3:30PM, which is almost 4, which is basically 5, which is practically 7, MY G0D WHERE DID MY DAY GO?” This is pretty much how I process time. I am also aware that when it comes to my brain, I will want to keep doing whatever I am doing (inertia), especially if that thing is a laser, and that that will make me late. What I should start doing is using timers to cue me when I actually need to stop. That way I can stay occupied and defeat the pointless feeling but still leave on time. I can also use videos and songs as a time guide because YouTube tells me exactly how long everything is. 

Anticipation mode is a desert, but you do not have to shrivel up on your way to the oasis. You can take bottled time and purpose with you through clever clock configurations and SpIns. Happy Thanksgiving, and stay gold!

Not Just a Hobby: How Special Interests Work

Special interests. SpIns. If you have been reading me or other autistic writers for a while, then you have definitely seen this term before. However, you might not know entirely what SpIns are or why they are so important in the autistic community. This post has been a long time coming, and it is one I am very excited for. 

In the DSM-V, autistic people are described as being “obsessed” and “preoccupied” with certain topics. The general term for this in the autism community is “special interest”, often abbreviated as “SpIn”. I find the “special” part of the term a bit condescending, so I refer to my own as “lasers”, as in laser focus, because of something the Technician said once. I have also heard them called “fascinations”, which I like and am trying to use more often. When I am talking to NTs that I am not out as autistic to yet, I tend to refer to a SpIn as my “Thing”, spelled with a capital T in my head. Some autistic people try to play their SpIns off as “just hobbies”, but this feels like selling that part of myself short. The way I get so absorbed, so passionate in the things I love and that help me process the world, I could never downgrade those feelings as “hobby” feelings. When I find a thing I like, I get into it in a way that can confuse or scare NTs. Framing it as a hobby rather than a laser feels like masking to myself. 

In the consciousness of the general public, autistic people tend to be pictured as having only one special interest their whole lives. This is true for some, but I have observed it to be more common to have a handful of SpIns, between three and five. My own big five are music, names, mythology, sexuality and kink, and photography. Some have even more. Some people’s SpIns are unrelated to each other, having nothing in common except being important to that person. Other people can organize theirs in particular ways. Tech has what he describes as a “bell curve” of scientific topics, including anatomy, electricity, and computer programming. SpIns can also take on a Russian nesting doll formation of increasing specificity. I know he is fictional, but Sam Gardner from Atypical has a great example of this: Sam loves animals, especially Antarctic wildlife, especially especially penguins! If I were to identify an overarching theme for all of my current major lasers, it would be stories. You can tell stories through music and photography, mythology literally is stories, and you can get people’s stories through their names and even what they do in the dark. (/fig) I have only started to think about my SpIns with this context recently. 

Notice that I referred above to my major five. Some autistic people have a hierarchy of special interests. In addition to the ones I already listed, I have a list of minor lasers. Most of these are pieces of media, such as the book series The Kingkiller Chronicle or the anime Death Note, but some are also subjects that are either narrow or that I have not spent as much time on. By the way, there is no one way to engage with a SpIn. The most common form of engagement is in-depth research, but some people have topics that just make them happy whenever they encounter them, even if they do not know all of the facts. Jo Kirsten (@jo_the_autistic_linguist on Instagram) names mushrooms as one of their SpIns, even though they do not know all of the science behind them. Some SpIns are more for doing than for knowing, such as building Lego for some of my friends. This was how photography started for me. I did not know all of the terminology regarding framing and lighting; I just took lots and lots of photos. 

Special interests can change and evolve over time. I had some when I was a kid that are not part of my major ones now. However, these SpIns are not completely gone, just dormant. If someone mentions paleontology or fashion, I perk up just like I would when they were active when I was a kid. According to the other autistic people in my online circles, it is more common for SpIns to go dormant than it is to completely lose them. Special interests tend to last for at least a year if not a few, which separates them from hyperfixations, which only stick around for a few months. My longest-lasting two are music and names, which have both been present as fascinations since I could talk. Mythology showed up in second grade after I read the story of Callisto and Arcus in the back of a book about stars. I started getting really into learning about sexuality in high school when I discovered YouTubers like Dr. Lindsay Doe of sexplanations. Photography is my newest, and let me tell you, it felt weird growing a whole new laser while being completely aware of it. It was the first one to develop as a SpIn after I knew I was autistic and that having SpIns was something that applied to me. 

So why do autistic people have special interests in the first place? Well, neurologically, we are not sure. They seem to just sprout up without explanation. They almost always serve the purpose of helping autistic people process and relate to the world. In school, I almost always tried to connect the class subject back to one of my lasers, usually names or music. Autistic people whose SpIns are media-related may strongly identify with a particular character and look at the real world through that lens. In conversations, autistic people tend to redirect the subject back to their SpIns, and will also infodump, which is exactly what it sounds like. Infodumping is an important part of neurodivergent communication, a way for the speaker to let others into their world, share excitement about something new that they learned, and just generally show themselves. SpIns can be associated with a positive sensory experience and might also be a stim. I use music to regulate, whether that be listening, singing, or composing. My photography shows other people my visual stims, particularly water droplets on grass. 

Special interests are essential to helping autistic people through difficult times. They are sensory and emotional regulators, sources of routine (think rereading a particular book during a difficult transition), creative outlets, and give a sense of purpose. In both burnout and depression, autistic people turn to the things that have always given joy and strength. SpIns are a source of identity and community. I am Aurelia the musician, the namer, the photographer, and that is part of how I claim space in the world. Like anyone, I connect with others through common interests, and since mine are so intense, I tend to form strong friendships with other autistic people whose lasers overlap with mine. If I had no SpIns to throw myself into, I would have no idea what to do with myself. I would be an unfocused shell of a person. Special interests, lasers, fascinations, or whatever you call them, are a major part of autistic culture and an important source of autistic joy. We need to honor and embrace them, in their intensity and their pervasiveness.

PDD-NOS, the Other Autism-but-Not Label

In the past, I have written about Asperger’s syndrome, an outdated label that is part of the autism spectrum. However, there is another diagnosis that used to be given more commonly than Asperger’s or just autism. I am talking about pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified, often abbreviated to PDD-NOS. 

PDD-NOS was introduced in the DSM-III-R, under the category of pervasive developmental disorders. Its criteria included stereotyped or repetitive behavior, restricted interests, difficulties with social interaction, and abnormal verbal or nonverbal communication. According to Neurotribes, when the next DSM edition, the DSM-IV, was published, the entry for PDD-NOS had a typo. Children diagnosed with PDD-NOS had to display “impairments in social interaction, communication, or behavior”, rather than and. The DSM-V, however, does not include this diagnosis at all and has combined it, along with Asperger’s, into the inclusive label of autism spectrum disorder, which is in the neurodevelopmental disorders category. If you meet someone with the PDD-NOS label, you can infer that they were diagnosed before 2013, before the DSM-V. 

When PDD-NOS was a diagnosis, it was the most common in the pervasive developmental disorder category. While some might blame the aforementioned mistake in the criteria, others might recognize PDD-NOS as the dumping ground for people, children, who did not fit any other label. A PDD-NOS diagnosis was also treated as less scary news for parents than an autism diagnosis, even though they were essentially the same thing. At the time, the word “autism” itself was restricted to the rigid criteria established and publicized by Leo Kanner. Of course, Asperger’s syndrome also had its specific profile of traits. PDD-NOS was assigned to the children in the middle, those who were not Kanner’s nonverbal (or purely echolalic), loudly stimming, “unreachable” children or Asperger’s eloquent, logical “little professors.” They might have been regarded as the closest thing to “middle functioning” by those who used functioning labels, and would probably be designated as autistic with medium support needs today. They were autists that both boxes were not big enough for, drifters in the sea of the autism spectrum between Asperger and Kanner islands. 

I know this post was short and did not have much of a “point”. I just think that the history of the autism label and how it evolved to be recognized as a spectrum is interesting and important to remember. When most people think of outdated autism labels, they think of Asperger’s, or maybe childhood schizophrenia. PDD-NOS gets lost in the shuffle, even though its story is unique and just as important. 

Why I Am Glad No One Remembers The Boy Who Could Fly

Two weeks and one apartment ago, I reviewed Rain Man, an 80s film that I named as a pioneer and originator of autism representation tropes. However, there is a film that was released two years before Rain Man that is what I was picturing when I wrote that Rain Man could be way worse. I am referring to The Boy Who Could Fly, which was written and directed by Nick Castle and released in 1986. This film follows a fourteen-year-old girl named Milly who develops a relationship with her nonspeaking autistic neighbor, Eric. Most of the story is dedicated to Milly and her family adjusting to life in a new town and Milly dedicating her time to studying and trying to assist Eric, and then it is revealed that Eric can literally fly. I found The Boy Who Could Fly to be the definition of inspiration porn, and the boy in question is more of a prop than a genuine character. Eric has very few characteristics that make him an individual, much less an autistic individual, to the point where I have to deviate from my usual format for evaluating representations and just focus on the small handful of things that stand out about him. 

Eric not only does not speak, he is absolutely silent. Real nonspeaking autistic people still make other sounds, such as crying out in pain, laughing, and various audible stims such as humming and buzzing their lips. There is a scene where it looks like Eric mouths Milly’s name, and there is still no sound. The stereotypical moaning sound that has become a stock sound for disabled people onscreen is completely absent, but I almost would have preferred that over this kid who seems to not have vocal chords for most of the story. At the very end, Eric suddenly gains the ability to speak, and his first sentence is to tell Milly he loves her. First of all, this reeks of sparkly cheese and makes it look like Eric overcame his autism through the power of love. Hopefully I do not have to explain how wrong this is. Second, while plenty of autistic people who are late at learning to talk eventually do, going from no words to “I love you” as a teenager is incredibly rare. There is not a lot of information on exactly when the cutoff is for gaining speech as an autistic person, but it is generally stated to be around eight years old. This lines up with the fact that the window to learning a second language completely fluently closes between eight and ten. Seeing fourteen-year-old Eric as part of the film’s happily ever after not only sends a pro-cure message, it is inaccurate to the experiences of actual autistic people and gives their families false hope. 

Flying is an action associated with Eric throughout the film, and in the end, he is shown to literally fly. He is often seen mimicking a plane by sticking his arms out like wings and tilting his body, and he also folds and throws paper airplanes. One could make the argument that flying is Eric’s special interest, which I have no complaints about on its own. The pretending to be a plane could also be a stim, but it is rather unusual. More often, autistic people “fly” like birds rather than planes by flapping their hands. It is also possible that Nick Castle did not know what the function of a stim was and just thought the action would add to the motif of flight. Strangely, Eric’s fascination with flight is connected to the death of his parents in the narrative. His uncle seems to think that since his parents died in a plane crash, Eric fixates on planes. I have never heard of a SpIn developing from a traumatic event, but feel free to educate me if your experience or observation is different. 

As for Eric’s literal flying ability, I took that as an incredibly clunky and left-field interpretation of the autistic superpower trope. Usually, when autistic characters are “superpowered”, it is in the form of a savant skill such as memory, not a comic book hero ability like flying. I wish I could fly, in fact, a huge part of my sensory profile is seeking flying sensations through things like swings and roller coasters (which Eric never does in the film), but being autistic does not give me the ability to actually fly. (Unless you count when I make it happen in dreams; there is a correlation between autistic people and lucid or vivid dreaming). The fact that at the end of the story, Eric can both fly and speak is both too sweet and contradictory. He goes from a misunderstood outcast to a normal and accepted person…who can also fly. It would make a more compelling story if he was shown to fly throughout the film but lose that ability when he started speaking, forcing him to choose between having a fantastical strength and being accepted by the neurotypicals. 

Another motif that shows up in Eric’s arc is the act of catching a ball. One of Milly’s first public interactions with Eric is in PE, when she volunteers to play a warmup game of catch with him, even though the teacher says he will not return the ball to her. Later, Eric saves Milly from a rogue baseball by catching it right before it hits her in the face, to the shock of Milly and everyone else around. Milly tries to repeat this to prove Eric’s ability by telling her classmate to throw a volleyball at her, only for Eric to freeze, leaving Milly injured and humiliated. Catch was a weird choice for Castle to focus on as a struggle for Eric. He most likely thought the reciprocity behind the game would be foreign to autistic people like Eric, or he interpreted it as something “normal” kids like Milly did, and therefore something Eric would fail at. According to multiple autistic people in my life, it is not the reciprocal concept of catch that we struggle with (I actually preferred it as a kid because the rules were so simple), but the physical aspect. Lots of autistic people find catching balls hard, especially if they are small and/or fast. Eric’s moment of heroism makes no sense because a foul ball is arguably more difficult to catch and return than a gently-rolled volleyball. 

One quote that has been ringing in my mind from The Boy Who Could Fly is “He doesn’t see the words, or the book. He just sees me.” This is said by Milly in reference to her efforts to teach Eric to read, and it is straight-up wrong. In this scene, Eric and Milly are sitting in a classroom surrounded by stimuli. Eric, as an autistic person, would either be perceiving everything happening in the room and getting overwhelmed or be hyperfocused in on the text or the sensory aspects of the book. He seems to have no negative sensory reactions to Milly touching him, speaking close to his head, or breathing down his neck either. I suppose it could be interpreted that Milly has become a laser for Eric too, but at the time, it was generally believed that autistic people did not develop interpersonal connections or have curiosity about other people. It is more likely that Castle just picked Milly as the one thing Eric did not ignore for narrative’s sake, completely ignoring the idea that autistic people tend to experience the exact opposite of what Milly describes. 

Eric’s inclusion in the mainstream classes at his local high school is completely inaccurate to the times. Yes, there probably were autistic people in classrooms in the 80s, but they were most likely undiagnosed and hidden, and they were definitely not nonspeaking. Someone like Eric would be found in a specialized class or school, at an institution, or being homeschooled. (Willowbrook closed a year after this film was released, so institutionalization was still a relatively common practice). Although Eric is technically in the class, the teachers stick him at the back of the class and mostly ignore him, rather than including him in the lesson. It is possible that the school does not have a specialized class for kids like Eric, but having him not attend the school at all would not be as plot convenient for Eric and Milly’s interactions, so he’s shoehorned into the mainstream class. This makes Eric look like the school’s charity case or pet project, and then Milly comes along and gets the medal of honor, the A-plus, by turning him passably normal. 

The Boy Who Could Fly is a glurge-tastic, pro-cure, pro-assimilation mess that has been deservingly relegated to the dusty video cabinet of classrooms and the part of Netflix that only the desperate scroll through. The character of Eric is barely an example of an autistic teenager, and his only purpose is to be a flat love interest for Milly. Milly, meanwhile, is painted as an angel who turns an outsider into someone beloved by helping him “overcome” his autism. This film is in the bottom tier of autism representation, and hopefully it serves as an example of how not to write an autism-focused story.

Rain Man, a Pioneer of Autistic Representation in Film

Depending on your age, if you have told a stranger that you or a loved one is autistic, the response may have been, “What, like Rain Man?” Rain Man the film was released in 1988, starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, and has remained in the public consciousness ever since. The story is a road trip plot following smarmy, money-driven Charlie Babbitt and his long-lost autistic brother Raymond from Cincinnati, Ohio to Los Angeles. At first, Charlie is willing to trade Raymond back to Wallbrook Asylum, where Raymond lived for the past few decades, to gain half of his inheritance. However, Charlie starts to warm up to his brother and grows protective of him. 

Before I get to critiquing the film, I would like to provide some background. The character of Raymond Babbitt is a composite of four disabled men, according to Neurotribes. The first was Bill Sackter, a friend of screenwriter Barry Morrow. Morrow was the one who fought for Sackter in court so he would not be returned to the mental institution he had been released from, an event that is echoed in Rain Man when Charlie tries to convince the doctors that Raymond would be better off with him than at Wallbrook. Officially, Sackter’s only diagnosis was intellectual disability (though using less appropriate words), but some of his descriptions in Neurotribes suggest that he could have also been autistic. Another inspiration for Raymond was Kim Peek, a fan of Morrow who happened to be a savant. Peek was almost certainly autistic and also had some unusual anatomical features, namely a missing corpus callosum and skull plates that did not fuse all the way. He had an amazing memory for names and faces and was exceptional at mental math, traits that were written into Raymond Babbitt’s characterization. 

Present-day viewers may be surprised to learn that the word “autism” did not feature in Barry Morrow’s original script. That element came from Dustin Hoffman, Raymond’s actor, who thought that an autism diagnosis would make the character hard to love and therefore would up the dramatic stakes of the film. His exact words were, “What if the guy was, like, autistic or something, and a real pain in the ass?” Despite insulting an entire neurotype, Hoffman seemed fascinated with the lives and mannerisms of autistic people. The other two main real-life counterparts for Raymond were Joe Sullivan and Peter Guthrie, autistic young men whom Hoffman studied and imitated both in person and through video tapes. Hoffman also spent time observing patients in the institution where Oliver Sacks worked, and apparently his impressions were so convincing that Sacks himself mistook him for a patient at one point. I find Hoffman’s endeavors a bit voyeuristic and could have been avoided if an autistic actor had been cast in the first place, but this was the 80s when most autistic actors were hidden. 

  In the film, Raymond Babbitt is verbal and seems to rely strongly on echolalia and scripting. Some of his echolalia is immediate, as in repeating what another person says right after he hears it, and he also uses catchphrases such as “I don’t know” in response to a question (even if that answer does not make sense or seems false), “uh oh” when there is trouble or he is uncomfortable, “I’m an excellent driver”, and eventually “K-mart sucks.” He loops phrases for comfort and because he likes the feel of the words (verbal stimming), particularly the Abbott and Costello bit “Who’s On First.” Raymond’s voice has a neutral tone and a particular cadence, no matter what he is saying, except when he gets upset and starts yelling. I have known autistic people who speak like this, though of course not all of us do, so I think Hoffman’s observations paid off in that department at least. 

Raymond seems to understand speech perfectly, though he has trouble expressing himself. At certain points, Charlie gets frustrated with this and thinks his brother is playing dumb or pretending not to hear. The reason he was sent to Wallbrook in the first place was because his father thought that Raymond had tried to burn Charlie with hot bath water, and Raymond did not have the capacity to explain that he was trying to save his brother. He also seems uncomfortable with being asked questions, responding with “I don’t know” most of the time. I was a bit puzzled by this particular response. Some autistic people struggle with answering open-ended questions, but Raymond will even say “I don’t know” to yes or no questions or other binary choices. It could be that he uses the phrase to mean “Don’t ask me questions because I don’t want to talk” or he does not feel he can answer a question with “yeah” or “no” unless he is absolutely certain, so “I don’t know” is indicative of a conflicting opinion or third option. Or maybe Dustin Hoffman met an autistic person who said this to him and he decided it was a good catchphrase and I am thinking too hard about this. When asked if he wants to stay with his brother Charlie or go back to Wallbrook with Dr. Bruner, he says “yeah” to both options, which I took to mean he wanted both for different reasons and was having trouble picking one. Though he does not laugh, Raymond has a sense of humor and can recognize when someone has made a joke, with a little help. Apparently, he also does not understand the punchline of “Who’s On First” despite using it as a verbal stim. I found this kind of inaccurate because in my experience, autistic people like puns and wordplay humor. 

Raymond seems somewhat lacking in his sense of self, which does sometimes show up in real autistic people. When a doctor asks him if he knows what autistic is, he recognizes the word, but his answer to whether it applies to him is “definitely not”. He might not be able to apply the word and its associated traits to himself from hearing or reading them, and there is a possibility no one has ever told him “Raymond, you’re autistic.” I had a hard time translating the clinical language of the DSM-V entry for autism back to myself as an individual and had to compare experiences with other autistic humans before I went “oh, that’s me”, and I doubt Raymond Babbitt ever had this opportunity. By contrast, he is confident in calling himself an excellent driver, which is not only the one positive thing he states about himself but one of a small handful of personal characteristics he claims for himself at all. I think this is because his father once praised him directly for his driving skills. (By the way, some autists struggle a lot with driving a car, but some are good at it, depending on their focus and sensory profile). 

Speaking of sensory profiles, Raymond has a unique and obvious one of his own. Loud noises are painful and scary for him, and he is seen going into sensory overload at the sound of a fire alarm and an airplane engine. When Raymond has overloads and meltdowns, he screams and hits himself in the head. I found these scenes hard to watch as a former harmful stimmer/self-punisher, but I think that their inclusion showed a reality for plenty of autistic people. Raymond is also seen stimming with random objects and rocking, which unnerves Charlie because he does not understand the purpose of it. Raymond shows interest in objects that sparkle, shift, and spin, which are all common visual stims. Amazingly, he does not get overloaded from spending almost a whole day in a busy casino, which means either lots of small stimuli at once do not bother him, or, more likely, the writers temporarily forgot sensory issues existed for the sake of the plot. Throughout the film, certain sounds are amplified and the camera zooms in on certain objects to give viewers a feel for Raymond’s sensory world, a technique that I love seeing in onscreen media about autistic people which has made it into modern productions such as Atypical and The Reason I Jump

Raymond Babbitt is a creature of routine. One of the first things that Dr. Bruner warns Charlie about is how upset Raymond gets when his routines are broken, and he reminds himself and Charlie of when to watch particular TV shows, eat meals, and go to bed with the help of his watch. He has to eat certain foods on each day of the week, probably because that is how Wallbrook’s cafeteria menu functions, which Charlie makes an effort to accommodate. He also has to have his bed by the window. New situations scare Raymond, and he uses statistics as a guide for navigating places he has never been and things he has never used. Unfortunately, this means he and Charlie cannot fly because he has memorized exactly which airlines have crashed, what year, and how many deaths there were. 

Memory is one of his strengths and part of his savantism. What he reads sticks in his brain to the point where he freaks a waitress out by matching the name on her tag to her number in the phone book that he read in the hotel the night before. Raymond also remembers all of his childhood before he came to Wallbrook and helps Charlie piece together why the name “Rain Man” has been ringing in his head. Charlie originally thought it was the name of an imaginary friend, but it was actually the way he pronounced his brother’s name when he was little. Raymond also has a natural number sense, solving complex multiplication and square roots in his head and counting a pile of spilled toothpicks only by looking at them. (That scene was inspired by George and Charles Finn, savant twin brothers and patients of the aforementioned Oliver Sacks). Charlie is impressed with Raymond’s abilities, periodically testing him and then smiling and gasping in wonder. He then takes advantage of his brother’s smarts by teaching him how to play and cheat at poker and taking him to Las Vegas. I found this part problematically exploitative, especially since Raymond is shown not to have a concept of money. 

It is important to note that when Raymond is introduced, Dr. Bruner calls him an autistic savant, not just autistic. The distinction is there from the beginning. He then goes on to name the trifecta of components of autism: sensory issues, communication differences, and repetition. It is clear, however, that all of this is just jargon to him and he has never really stopped to think about the how and why of Raymond’s behaviors and traits. Charlie even has to ask him to translate to plain English. Later, we meet a nurse who has never heard of autism before, followed by a doctor who calls Raymond “high functioning”, his reasoning being that he can speak when he is used to seeing nonverbal autistic people. Raymond also can perform daily living tasks such as eating, dressing, and brushing his teeth by himself, but this is never acknowledged. Autism and savantism are both treated as mysterious, and while autism is seen as a condemnation and a reason not to trust someone like Raymond, savant skills are praised. 

Charlie sometimes speaks to Raymond as if he is a child and even uses the r slur toward him, which is not seen as a problem at the time. During the negotiation scene, the doctor addresses Charlie by his last name but Raymond by his first, indicating that autistic adults are not deserving of the same formalities as neurotypical ones. A lot of Raymond’s clueless and confused moments could be attributed to being stuck at an institution since he was a kid; I am sure that he had never eaten at a diner in his life before he met Charlie, and he definitely did not receive sex education either, meaning he had no idea what Charlie and Susanna were doing when he walked in on them. Wallbrook as a facility is clean and bright, and the patients are allowed to walk the grounds freely. I could not find any definitive sources on what mental institutions where autistic people ended up in 1988 were like, but I have a feeling that what we see in Rain Man is exaggeratedly positive. At the end of the film, Raymond has to return to Wallbrook, despite all four of the men who inspired him living fulfilling lives with their families or on their own. It sends the message that people like Raymond belong in facilities, away from the public eye and kept from progressing. After all, Raymond learned more and had more experiences in a week with Charlie than he had in multiple decades at Wallbrook. 

These days, Rain Man is remembered as a stereotypical, misconceived portrayal of an autistic adult. However, at the time, autism in film was incredibly rare, and Raymond Babbitt could have been a way worse character. Raymond is an individual with unique sensory experiences, routines and rituals, and ways of communicating. He is a savant, but that is because he was modeled after a real life savant, rather than because autistic equals savant in people’s heads. Unfortunately, the general public conflated Raymond Babbitt the autistic character with the idea of autism as a whole. In other words, everyone who saw Rain Man thought that every autistic person rocked, hit themselves, counted toothpicks, and spoke the exact same way as Raymond. Raymond Babbitt is a stereotype originator. Looking past its legacy as The Film About Autism and taking historical context into account, Rain Man is not bad as a representation, and my least favorite parts had to do with the casual infantilization and exploitation of the title character rather than Raymond himself. There is a reason this film has such a strong association with the autism label, but I ask that you see Rain Man as just one story about just one autistic person. 

What Reading Taught Me

I have always been drawn to words. From when I first started talking (and that was a long time ago), I demanded for any adult taking care of me to read to me. When I was around four, I started learning to read on my own. I required a bit of a push at first because I was afraid my parents would stop reading to me, but before long, I was reading everywhere, all the time. Silent reading became one of my favorite parts of the school day, right up there with music and math time. I even read during recess and lunch. I have said before that reading taught me how to be a person, and this post explains exactly what I mean by that. 

The most obvious and straightforward lessons I gained from reading had to do with language. Being autistic, it is natural for me to interpret people’s words literally, concretely. However, I also understand and use similes, metaphors, analogies, and idioms frequently in my everyday communication. I can directly attribute this to how many books I have consumed between elementary school and now. I just keep adding phrases to my internal data bank, to the point where people might doubt my label because I do not look outside in disbelief when they say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” (Though if it ever did literally rain fluffy pets, I would be very happy). 

Reading gave me a social script in multiple ways. I quote and reference books to express myself, like that time I said, “I feel like Veil in the scene that broke her” (Stormlight Archive reference) in order to describe feeling rejected and purposeless. For a long time, I have been fascinated by archetypes and roles characters play in stories, and I apply those concepts to real life. I have my roles in life, in fact, this blog is a reflection of one of them. I am a lighthouse, leading ND people to their truths. There were people in my past who answered my questions and lit the way for me, and now it is time for me to pay it forward. I doubt I would recognize this pattern, this connection, without consuming so many stories. Does this give me main character syndrome? To a degree, yes, but I also acknowledge that anyone can be the protagonist of their own life. Hero of Another Story is a whole trope! 

Reading taught me about emotions, both in reference to myself and others. I experience alexithymia, difficulty labeling my own emotions, especially when what I am feeling is subtle or complicated. Books not only gave me words to describe my emotions, but connected internal experiences with external actions. I learned the patterns for fear and pain, care and curiosity, and connected them back to myself. I once saw a quote about autistic empathy: “I cannot walk a mile in your shoes. The best I can do is put on my shoes and stand next to you.” When you get down to it, I cannot imagine having anyone’s mind except my own. The only way for me to experience things as someone else is for me to read their thoughts in a book. This was how I learned the true consequences of my actions, as well as gained perspectives that I did not naturally have. The closest I have been to being a twelve-year-old boy is reading from the point of view of Percy Jackson.

Without the lessons I learned from books, I would not be the same considerate, emotionally aware, articulate person that I am today. Reading has been a bridge between myself and the greater world, and I am sure I am not alone in this. Stay gold, and keep reading.

The Autism/Schizophrenia Connection

When I was reading Neurotribes, I came across a trend, a pattern of association between autism and schizophrenia. Before Leo Kanner published his study that led to the establishment of the diagnosis “early infantile autism” (later shortened to just autism, sometimes called Kanner’s syndrome), studies such as that of J. Louise Despert referred to what was probably autism as “childhood schizophrenia.” For a few decades, the psychology community was set on viewing autism as a subtype of schizophrenia that manifested in early childhood, and schizophrenia and autism are still associated and confused with each other today. So why are these two diagnoses so close, so intertwined?

First of all, the word autism did not always mean what it does now. Coming from the Greek word for “self”, Eugen Bleuler, who discovered schizophrenia, originally used the term to describe the extreme withdrawal and preoccupation with an inner world that his patients showed. Kanner adopted the word to describe the behaviors of his own cases, as they seemed inside their own heads, disregarding the outside world. However, the term quickly became used as the name of the diagnosis itself, not the behavior. By the 1970s, the belief was in place that autistic children (for autism was still viewed mostly as a children’s condition) were completely lacking in an inner world, despite their disconnect from those around them. I cannot help but wonder how autism might be viewed if Kanner had not adopted Bleuler’s word. 

According to the Mayo Clinic , schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by hallucinations (false sensory experiences), delusions (false beliefs), disorganized or incoherent speech, disorganized physical behavior, the aforementioned withdrawal from social interaction, a flat affect (lack of emotion in facial expressions and voice), personal neglect, and lack of pleasure in previously enjoyable activities. The word schizophrenia comes from the Greek for “split mind”. Onset, the first appearance of schizophrenia symptoms, is typically in the early twenties for men and late twenties for women. Early onset (first symptoms appearing in childhood or adolescence) does occur, but it is rare, and some of the symptoms, such as withdrawal and agitation, can look like normal puberty characteristics. Some symptoms of schizophrenia can be managed through antipsychotic medications, such as clozapine (Clozaril), aripiprozole (Abilify), and risperidone (Risperdal). If these names sound familiar to you, that is because antipsychotics are also sometimes given to autistic people, which I talked about more here.  

The DSM-V no longer recognizes subtypes of schizophrenia, though in the past, the diagnosis was divided into five subtypes. Paranoid schizophrenia was the absence of flat affect and disorganized speech, but with delusions and hallucinations, usually related to harm. Catatonic schizophrenia was motionlessness or purposeless movement and very little speech. Disorganized schizophrenia was disorganized speech and physical behavior, without the characteristics of the catatonic subtype. Residual schizophrenia was an apparent lessening of symptoms, and undifferentiated schizophrenia was the label used when no other subtype truly fit. Autism also used to have subdivisions, specifically Asperger’s syndrome and PDDNOS, but now it is viewed as a spectrum with blurry borders and countless combinations of characteristics. It seems that schizophrenia is on its way to being viewed similarly. 

Sometimes schizophrenia and autism can look similar because autistic people also sometimes do not acknowledge their peers and seem lost in their own worlds. Autistic shutdowns, a freeze response that includes mutism, retreat from social settings, and occasional shiftlessness/immobility, can look like catatonia. Contrary to popular belief, some autistic people can have rich inner worlds and active imaginations, and autistic kids in particular sometimes struggle to differentiate between fantasy (stories, TV, dreams, etc) and reality, which could be mistaken for psychotic symptoms. The difference is that when people, including autists, use their imaginations, they have a degree of control over what happens, and the result is more likely to be pleasant and fun for the fantasizer. Schizophrenic hallucinations and delusions are more intrusive and invasive, have more of a mind of their own, and tend to be darker. Autistic people stim to regulate themselves physically and emotionally, and the seemingly purposeless disorganized motion that schizophrenics have looks similar on the outside. The natural tendency for autistic people to seemingly ignore other people around them is, like I said before, similar to schizophrenics’ withdrawal, but autistic people show their characteristics from very early childhood (the youngest you can diagnose autism is two), whereas schizophrenia generally does not make itself obvious until adulthood. If a young child is acting closed-off, it is more likely and logical for that child to be autistic. 

It is also possible for someone to be both schizophrenic and autistic. According to Spectrum News, schizophrenia is about 3.6 times more common in autistic people than allistic people. While not a form of schizophrenia in itself, autism seems to be holding hands with this other condition. I have interacted with very few schizophrenic people in my life, and I still have a lot to learn about the subject. I am still curious about the schizophrenic experience, and especially what it feels like to be both things. Hopefully I can transfer this curiosity to you.

Open Letter to the Parent of a Recently Diagnosed Autistic Person

A few weeks ago, I was watching Umbrella Academy and listening to Sinead O’Connor’s rendition of Scorn Not His Simplicity (not at the same time, of course), and I realized that it had been too long since the last open letter. Since the theme of atypical children was rattling around in my head, I decided to address this letter to parents of recently diagnosed autistic children, though “children” in this context does not refer to a set age group. 

Dear parent of a recently diagnosed autistic person, 

First of all, congratulations! You have answers, you have closure, and if the child in question is actually grown up, you have offspring who trust you enough to share this piece of personal knowledge with you. I know that of the things you’re feeling now though, triumph is probably not at the top of the list. You might feel denial, a sense of “not my kid”, or an urge to blame yourself, though I can assure you that autism is nobody’s fault. You might feel disappointed that the things you planned to do, the adventures you planned to have, with your child, might now be impossible, or at least more difficult than you were imagining. You are most likely afraid for the future, and that is understandable. Every good parent is concerned with their child’s ability to be self-sufficient after you, the parent, fade out of the picture. Whatever strong and unpleasant emotions are welling up, do not refer to them as grief. You never had a neurotypical child; your baby was always autistic. Whether they are four or thirty-four, they are still the same kid you raised from the beginning. You cannot grieve what never existed. 

You may find yourself peering down what’s known as the retrospectoscope (that’s a fun word, huh). As you read more about autism and how it manifests, and as you talk to more autistic people firsthand, possibly including your child, you will probably see things clicking into place. “So that’s why they do that,” you might think. I have to warn you that you may start seeing traits in yourself, leading to the discovery of your own autism. It is heritable, after all. It might help to take a look at the rest of the family too. You may have overlooked certain signs, thinking they were normal, because they are normal to you if they show up regularly in yourself or people close to you. 

As soon as you tell other people that you have an autistic kid, you will get bombarded with information and advice, some of it more reliable and true than others. Here are a few concrete and specific pieces that will make sense in due time: It was not the vaccines. There is no special diet to cure or quell autism. Your autistic child will not be like every other autistic person you cross paths with. Your autistic child is communicating, even if they are not speaking. Even if we do not speak, we hear everything and understand a large slice of what we hear, so be careful what you say. Screens are not evil, but they may prove necessary for sensory feedback, organization, and communication. It is better for your child to eat the same five things, which might not match what the rest of the family is having, than to not eat at all. Meltdowns and shutdowns are not malicious or manipulative behaviors or “acting out”, and punishment is not the answer. Sometimes autistic people do hurt others, either accidentally or intentionally, and they deserve to learn from their mistakes and be held accountable. Autism is not an excuse to be a jerk.

If your child is young, it is likely that the doctor who diagnosed them tried to scare-tactify you or shift your expectations extremely low. Temple Grandin herself did not speak until she was four, but went on to have a doctorate. Autism is not static or stagnant, and growth is always possible if given the opening. And even if your child never gets a degree, never gets a job, never speaks, even after countless efforts, that is okay. Speech is not king; there are other ways to communicate that are more comfortable and intuitive to some autistic people. Human worth is not determined by productivity or achievement; a person deserves a fulfilling, enriching life even if they do not “contribute to society”. 

I encourage you to find things you love and admire about your unexpectedly autistic child. Autism is not just a curse or a tragedy. Your child has strengths, so work to find them together. Encourage them to be themselves, even if it’s “embarrassing” or “puzzling” or “weird” to you. I know that the road has been hard, and it will continue to be hard, but hopefully it can be full of joy and victory too. 

Stay gold, 


Why Autistic People Might Prefer Kink

CW: This post contains in-depth discussions of adult topics of kink and BDSM and brief mentions of sexual content.

In my sex education post, I hinted at the benefits of kink and BDSM for autistic people. For those unaware, BDSM stands for bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism, and describes a variety of relationships, roles, and acts that two (or more) consenting adults can participate in. Kink is an inclusive term for any unconventional adult act or preference. Notice that I said “adult”, not “sexual”, as kink and BDSM, while intimate, do not have to be explicitly sexual. (Evie Lupine on YouTube can probably explain this better). Kink, sexuality, and their intersection is a SpIn for me, and I dabble in the scene, so this is an exciting post for me. Over the past couple of years, I have been curious about how disability and neurodivergence factors into kink, and I have noticed some reasons why autistic people might lean towards it. Obviously, these are not universal rules, and I am open to hearing other opinions and experiences.

A large slice of kink is sensory-based. Sensations are added with hot wax, cold ice cubes, tight ropes, and impact of all intensities, and taken away with things like blindfolds. Sensory seekers can lean into a variety of physical experiences. At the same time, BDSM activities tend to focus less on the genitals and full-body contact, so people who find those aspects of vanilla sex overstimulating can still be intimate and find sexual relief, if that is what they are looking for. Some autistic people may even find gear such as gloves or puppy hoods physically comforting because they provide a buffer between themselves and other people and the general sensory input of the room. 

BDSM interactions rely on direct, straightforward communication. Forget the subtlety of vanilla relationships, saying what will happen right out loud is the rule, not the exception! Hopefully it is obvious that autistic people find this straightforwardness less confusing. Before participating in these types of acts, there is a negotiation phase where boundaries and expectations are discussed plainly and openly and a basic framework of how the interaction will go is laid out. Autistic people benefit from a pre-briefing before any activity, especially if it is new, and it is much harder to make interrelational mistakes if you already know the rules going in. Safewords for “this is good”, “I’m starting to feel uncomfortable/unsure”, and “stop immediately” help solidify the lines between playing along with the scene and communication outside of one’s role. There are even nonverbal versions of safewords such as hand signals to communicate the same things, which is ideal for people who tend to lose their words in intense situations. 

I talked about kink being a SpIn for me in the introduction, but SpIns can be integrated into intimate times in other ways too. A lot of BDSM operates on role play, and some autistic people love role playing and acting in general. Kink interactions are also an opportunity to play as something specific that relates to a SpIn. For example, an autistic person who loves vampires can do vampire role play and blood play (with proper safety, of course). A sci-fi enthusiast can do an alien-themed scene, like Lilly in Sex Education. There are jokes about autistic people not being able to shut up about their laser even during intimate times, but this is welcome when it is part of the scene. 

BDSM educator Midori has described kink as a continuation of the playing that children do. We are still seeking pleasure, exploring, and often pretending, but we are bigger and older, and the toys are a lot crazier. A lot of autistic people have negative experiences with playing with peers as kids. Imaginative play and cooperative games can be hard to follow if one does not know the script. In BDSM and kink, there are clearly defined roles and dynamics to follow. There are even tests to see what kinds of roles you might fit into. Doing kink is a way for autistic people to have another chance at playing the way clinicians never thought we could, a way for us to take back our childhoods. (Sometimes literally, if you are an ageplayer). 

If you are an autistic person who is also interested in kink, please feel free to share your experiences or observations. If you are not, I would also like to know your side of the story. No matter where on the spectrum you fall, make sure to stay safe, sane, and consensual, and stay gold!

Lilo and Stitch and Autistic Childhood

Lilo and Stitch was released by Disney in 2002, and has since cemented itself into the hearts of kids and adults alike. The film tells the story of seven-year-old Lilo Pelekai and her older sister Nani adopting an alien that Lilo calls Stitch. Lilo is viewed by other characters as a weirdo, and I think she is prime autistic headcanon material for this reason. 

Lilo’s most obvious traits are her social and communication differences. She refers to Mertle and the other girls in her dance class as friends, but they bully her by calling her weird, calling her doll ugly, and generally excluding and looking down on her. Lilo does not seem to quite understand why they do not like her and tries to gain their approval, but can only come so close to fitting in with them. They all have sparkly Barbie dolls, and Lilo has a homemade doll with a tragic backstory. Lilo is also shown masking when Mr. Bubbles visits her house and asks if she is happy. She gives a fake smile before returning to flat affect, and she shows a disconnect between her emotions and body language at other times during the film. Her vocabulary is unusual in a way that suggests echolalia. She tells an adult “I’m adjusted”, which is probably a word that has been said in reference to her often. Her response to Stitch tearing her painting is, “That’s from my blue period!” This is a reference to a particular phase of Picasso’s career, which is not something most seven-year-olds reference. My own childhood was full of “Where did you learn to say that?” from adults because I echoed from a variety of sources, and Lilo might be doing the same thing here. 

When Lilo gets angry, she becomes physically aggressive in what is best described as a feral way, which includes biting and hair pulling as well as hitting and kicking. Lots of autistic kids who struggle with physical aggression fight in this way, not having a sense of what a “fair fight” is and making contact that could be considered taboo. We witness Lilo in full meltdown mode when she is screaming “no” at Nani, having momentarily lost most of her verbal skills, and in shutdown mode when she is lying on the floor listening to music and wants to be left alone. Something about Nani’s reactions shows that this is not the first time Lilo has acted like this, and Nani also has to prevent strangers from setting her off, such as when the animal shelter employee starts to criticize Lilo about Stitch’s name. Nani knows that her sister is not a normal kid, which is part of why she is so determined not to let social services separate them and why she tells Mr. Bubbles that no one can understand Lilo besides her. This is a common experience for caregivers of autistic people. 

Like many autistic people, Lilo relies on rituals and routines. At one point, Nani says to her, “It’s Thursday, you know what that means,” implying that Thursday is a special day in Lilo’s weekly routine, the type of day that is highlighted on the wall calendar. When she is late for dance class, she begs the teacher to still let her dance because if she did not get her turn, the dance class part of her day would not be complete. Lilo also has a ritual of feeding her fish, Pudge, a sandwich at the same time every day. She claims that if she skips this, Pudge will manifest bad weather, so it is possible she forgot once on a day that happened to be stormy and she connected the two as a pattern in her head. 

I am confident in saying that Lilo has special interests, particularly her love of Elvis Presley. Elvis is her idea of a model citizen, so she teaches Stitch to imitate him. She listens to Elvis records when she is upset, and her room is covered in posters and memorabilia of Elvis. Elvis, Elvis, Elvis! Lilo also likes taking photographs while out and about, specifically of fat people. Photography might be a way for Lilo to process the world. I know it is for me. As for the fat people thing, I cannot think of an explanation, but it is oddly specific enough to be another SpIn. 

While connecting with people might not be her strong suit, Lilo loves animals. Early in the film, it is established that she has been campaigning for a pet (besides the fish she already has), and at first wants something odd that most other people would be afraid of, a lobster. Nani has to convince her to settle for a dog. However, Lilo’s non-human companion ends up being something even more quirky and unsettling (to everyone else) than a lobster: Stitch, an alien pretending to be a dog. Lilo’s relationship with Stitch shows her ability to accept the previously unloved and reveals her own desire to be accepted as she is. Nani is freaked out by Stitch at first because he does not act like a normal dog, but Lilo does not even question Stitch’s true nature. It makes perfect sense that the alienated girl would become best friends with the literal extraterrestrial. Stitch’s character could even be interpreted as allegorical for finding out a child is autistic. Lilo and Nani found an alien when they were expecting a dog, and Lilo in particular is determined to embrace Stitch as an alien and see past his destructive tendencies, just like autistic kids like Lilo should be accepted as themselves. 

Lilo’s story is highly relatable from the perspective of autistic kids (or autistic adults who used to be kids) and caregivers. It feels good to write a headcanon because it has been a long time since I posted one. Whether you are an extraterrestrial science experiment or just a misunderstood kid, stay gold. 

The ADHD and Autism Intersection

This post is a long time coming, but it is important. ADHD is the most common comorbidity with autism (meaning someone has both conditions), with between fifty and seventy percent of autistic people also being ADHDers. I like to refer to ADHD-autists as cauliflowers, after Holden Caulfield, though I am not sure whether that will ever catch on. 

What is ADHD anyway? The acronym stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and it has three subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive, and combined. ADHD-i people, like the Technician, struggle most with staying on task mentally. They avoid tasks that they find tedious or boring, have a hard time planning and organizing on their own, and make simple mistakes like skipping parts of schoolwork and losing their belongings. ADHD-h people have a more “obvious” presentation. These are the types who have a hard time being still and might act impulsively. ADHD-c is like the hybrid strain; people with this subtype have traits of both hyperactivity and inattentiveness. But these all sound like deficits! Like autism, ADHD is a natural variation of human neurology, a difference in brain structure and function, and ADHDers have strengths too. When an ADHDer does focus, they go all in. This is called hyperfocus, and the object of hyperfocus is a hyperfixation. (This is not the same as a special interest, but we will get to that later). Impulsiveness can also make an ADHDer an outside-the-box thinker and quick problem solver. Rick Riordan turned this trait into the demigods’ battle reflexes in his books. 

Autistic people can struggle with some of the same things as ADHDers, though sometimes for different reasons. The ability to plan tasks, break them down into steps, start, stop,  and switch tasks, and estimate time is called executive functioning, and both autistic and ADHD people have trouble with this. ADHDers have sensory processing differences, but they are more likely to be seekers than avoiders, which can manifest as hyperactivity and fidgeting/stimming. ADHDers can have a hard time socially too. Impulsivity can manifest as interrupting people in conversations and as abandoning old connections for new ones. Autistic people also interrupt (I know I do), but because we do not have a natural sense of conventional conversation flow and might miss cues that someone is not done talking. (And some people interrupt us because we do not give the same cues and have an unusual cadence to our voices). ADHDers can have a hard time making friends because they come off as “too much” or overstep people’s boundaries (again, impulsivity), or they become distracted and forget to continue a developing friendship. One trait of ADHD is a lack of object permanence, so they might not think to reach out to people who are not right in front of them. I mentioned hyperfixations before. These can be something very specific, such as a celebrity, or more broad, like astronomy, but they tend to last a short time before the person moves onto a new one. This might look like an ADHDer “going through a phase”. Autistic SpIns, on the other hand, can last years or even a lifetime, and can even go dormant and resurface. For example, I have had my music laser since early childhood and it shows no signs of fading. 

So what happens when autism and ADHD occur together? The answer is a lot of internal conflict. You may have noticed a theme of novelty seeking with ADHDers, which contrasts with autists’ love of routine and predictability. Cauliflowers experience both of these at the same time, leading to a flip-flopping of being bored and feeling unstable. They also get hyperfixations and SpIns at the same time, which can get confusing, and sometimes disheartening when an interest they thought would stay with them forever is suddenly just not effective anymore. Some ADHDers lie because saying that outrageous thing feels good in the moment or because they are embarrassed about mistakes, and autistic people are frequently uncomfortable with lying because it is not concrete and conflicts with our sense of justice. A cauliflower might lie but also hate being inauthentic, just like Holden. I have a theory that most late-diagnosed autistic people are actually cauliflowers because some traits of ADHD and autism balance or cancel each other out. Someone who seeks novelty but also craves structure looks on the outside like a very crooked kind of normal, so they might be overlooked. However, they might be struggling a lot harder internally than people can guess. 

Hopefully it was interesting to consider the overlaps and intersections between ADHD and autism, two labels under the infinity umbrella. If I left out something or you have personal experience of being an ADHDer and/or a cauliflower, feel free to leave a comment.

COVID-19 Was a Catalyst for Self-Discovery

Hello, yes, I am alive. I have been busy training for a new job, searching for summer housing, and keeping up in my classes, and I may have burned myself out slightly. However, I am hopefully back to writing. Today’s post is quite personal, probably relatable, and…I am tired of stalling. The world is currently recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, two years of being at home, in fear and in stasis. However, I have realized that if I had not gone into quarantine, I probably would not be here, on this shiny little blog in this hidden corner of the internet. I got my autism diagnosis in fall 2020, and shortly after that, I came out as bisexual. I do not think I am alone in finding crucial parts of myself during the pandemic. 

Quarantine was lonely. Most days, the only person I spoke to out loud was my mother. My school and social life transitioned completely online; I had to train myself to like Discord voice chats because that was the closest I could get to being in a room with a friend. I spent a majority of my time trying to distract myself with classwork, reading, music, Netflix, YouTube, anything to drown out the sound of my own thoughts. But the thoughts just kept coming. I had plenty of time to puzzle over the parts of my past, and my present, that did not make sense without the missing link of neurodivergence. This was the most serious I had been about researching my own mind that I had been, without everyday outside life to distract me. I reread the Checklist…again. I joined an autism-centric Discord server and several subreddits where I could finally compare personal experiences with other autistic people. I finally had a space to go “wait, that’s a thing that has a name?” and “I thought I was the only one” and “wait, I thought everyone did that, not just a small subset of the population.” 

I was in a relationship during COVID, and the end of that relationship was intertwined with questions about my orientation. Again, the absence of outside interactions and stimuli left my mind free to wander through less-explored patches of the web, and of itself. I let myself remember my first crush on another girl (that it took me seven years to realize was a crush, curse you, alexithymia), explore fiction centered around girl-to-girl love, and look a little longer at the hentai that the Technician scavenged. I was also discovering an ungodly amount of bi memes on my social media feeds. In the sterile box that was my bedroom, I was less vulnerable to outside pressures to ignore this long-hidden side of me, and I could no longer deny myself. 

The pandemic brought to light how many things were actually hard for me, and what helped. Somewhere around summer 2020, the time is fuzzy, I hit a definite wall in terms of my mental health. Without activities that required traveling somewhere, and without classes, I had no routine, no structure. I could not even keep track of the day of the week most of the time. It was hot, but I could not go swimming or anything like that, so I spent half my time without clothing. I realized how much I used time to cue me to do necessary things like eating. I was a seeker with nothing to seek, except for things that bothered my mother because of her CSS. I had meltdowns without knowing what they were. All I knew was that I was trapped and had to get out. One time, my mother had to sit behind me on my bed, her limbs over mine, to keep me from hurting myself. 

Meanwhile, businesses had made their moves to digital. I realized how much easier it was, how much less nerve-wracking, to order food off of a website, and how much harder it was to order from places where the only option was still a phone call. When I went out into the world, there were signs everywhere dictating exactly what was expected at each business: what to wear on my face, where to stand, how many people at a time, how long. I much preferred this type of structure to simply having to watch and guess whenever I entered somewhere new. I realized how helpful crowd limits inside stores were; the fewer people who were around me while I shopped, the easier it was for me to find my items, pay, and get out without a ton of extra factors. Of course, ordering ahead made things even quicker and more straightforward. There were no such things as spontaneous drop-ins from friends or family because everyone had to be clean and make sure they were six feet away first, and I loved that rule. 

To me, quarantine was like a cocoon or chrysalis where I was left to think about how I was different, and that those differences had a name. I felt like I was turning into goo during the process, but I emerged as an autistic, bisexual butterfly.

Autistic People Need Comprehensive Sex Education Too

CW: This post’s focus is sex-related topics, including sexual assault.

I am a late-diagnosed autistic person, so I was in mainstream education, sitting in a classroom alongside neurotypical students. I have mixed feelings about this experience, but one thing I am grateful for is the access I had to comprehensive sex education. In fifth grade, my class had a crash course in the effects of puberty and the basic mechanics of sexual intercourse. In eighth grade, we had a review of the same concepts, plus an introduction to pleasure, the fundamentals of consent, every variety of contraception, the effects of STIs, and an outline of LGBTQ+ experiences. I was even assigned to dress up and carry a flour sack around for a week as if it were a baby to emphasize the responsibility and commitment of being a parent. Not every autistic person gets a sex ed experience like this. Very few specialized classes for autistic people include sex education, and that is a problem. 

Autistic people have sexual desires. Read that again and sit with it. Neurotypicals sometimes falsely believe that we are too “innocent” or “pure” to think about sex, or are too disinterested in other people to want a sexual connection or experience attraction. This is false, for I have experienced sexual attraction since my teens, and so have a majority of my autistic friends. According to Cambridge University , 76% of autistic females and 70% of autistic males are sexually active. Just like everyone else, autistic teens deserve to know why their bodies are reacting the way that they are, why they have genitals in the first place, how pregnancy works, and how to deal with sexual urges. Puberty and the discovery of oneself as a sexual being is confusing for anyone, so imagine experiencing all of those questions on top of an already confusing experience of living in a neurotypical world. Just like all teens, autists need to understand the risks of pregnancy and STIs and how to reduce those risks. Making decisions as an autonomous adult requires education and knowledge, and leaving autistic people out of sex ed classes, denying us of that knowledge, robs us of our autonomy. 

Consent is a fundamental component of sex education, and autistic people should be included in the teaching of it. 62% of autistic people experience sexual victimization in their lifetime. At least, that is what is reported. I am sure that the number is actually higher, considering that some autistic people might not know they were violated. I have had to be told by someone more knowledgeable that I had been harassed and that my passivity did not count as consent. There must be others like me and with much more severe experiences. Imagine being an autistic person, someone who tends to take what people say and do at face value and assumes others are right because that is what they have been conditioned to believe, and you are sexually violated. You might have a gut feeling that something wrong has occurred, but you cannot say “but I did not consent, I did not agree to that” because no one bothered to teach you that only yes means yes. Now imagine you do not even have the words to describe what happened to you because you were never taught about sexual acts or even anatomy. This is the consequence of denying sex ed to autistic people. Additionally, autistic people are sometimes accused of being creepy or even predatory. A lesson in consent and boundaries will prevent the mistake of touching someone without an explicit go-ahead, sending unsolicited nudes, or making unwanted comments. We can learn that it is not right, that it hurts others, if only someone were to show us rather than assuming we would never understand. 

The LGBTQ+ population and the autistic population heavily intersect, and autistic people deserve to learn about these identities too. I am bisexual, and I took my time realizing that about myself because of my alexithymia and unusual self-perception. However, I had a word for myself when the realization hit because my experiences in school and online had taught it to me. I knew that I could be attracted to people of my gender and a different gender, that lots of people called that “bisexual”, and that bisexual was an okay thing to be. In that class I described, I watched videos about the experiences of transgender people. Often, they described themselves as knowing they were different, that something was not right between how they saw themselves and how others saw them. Some autistic people are trans, and they might be experiencing that same feeling, yet they can never come out or transition because they do not know being trans exists and that it can apply to them. And what about asexuality? Asexual autistic people should know that it is just as natural to not feel sexual attraction, that they are not broken, and that being asexual is not an inherent part of being autistic. Humans can be outside the default in multiple ways, and that means that autistic people should not be forced into a cishet box, just as they should not be assumed to be sex-free. 

Those who teach sex education to autistic people should take autism-specific needs into account. Many autistic people, including myself, struggle with interoception (body sense), so they may need extra guidelines on how to recognize things like when they are turned on (or not). Some have sensory issues surrounding touch or problems with coordination and balance, so tips to work around these differences should be offered. Autistic people are concrete, explicit communicators and might not do well with the subtle, hint-centric exchanges that have become the norm, and we should feel comfortable advocating for ourselves. We should be able to say, “I will not know you want me to do something with you unless you directly ask for it, so please do not depend on me to guess what you want from your body language alone.” And by the way, not every autistic person who is also interested in sex speaks verbally; AAC users and those who use sign language should have guidelines on how to communicate consent and desire their way.  It might help to introduce kink, which often has different sensory experiences and always relies on explicit communication, but that is another post. 

This post is one that I have wanted to get out into the open for awhile. Sexuality is actually a laser for me, and I am a strong believer in informed sex positivity for everyone, regardless of ability or orientation. Hopefully inclusive, comprehensive sex education is on the rise.

Autism Stereotypes and Where They Come From

The dictionary defines the word “stereotype” as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” It is often said that stereotypes come from truth, meaning that the image people have in their heads is somewhat true, or was once true, but has drifted away from its context and lost nuance. This is what separates stereotypes from myths, for myths were never true to begin with. Autistic people are a population that are frequently assigned stereotypes, and I am determined to set people straight on which misconceptions have a deeper explanation, miss the point, or just are not as widespread as the general public seems to think. 

Often, the public sees only the outward appearance of a person without context for why they are a certain way, or even a clear picture of what they are looking at. For example, it is believed that autistic people are unimaginative and lack an inner world. I take this stereotype and turn it straight on its head. As a child, I would get lost in my imagination and daydream often, and today I am a writer with a still-flourishing inner world. However, I always found it hard to keep up while playing pretend with other kids because I had trouble responding to them and understanding their goals. It was just like real life communication, except that we were going by different names and descriptions. Autistic kids also tend not to connect their inner world to outside objects, hence the part of cognitive testing where the tester gives the kid a handful of toys and prompts them to make up a story about them. If the child does not expand the roles of the toys between what they literally are (for example, the ball is just a ball) and struggles to come up with a “plot” around them, that counts towards being diagnosed as autistic. I had lots of dolls when I was younger, but I preferred to dress them up and arrange them in certain configurations than to act out narratives with them. Autistic people can be imaginative; we just do not show it in a way that neurotypicals recognize. 

Some stereotypes of autism oversimplify and miss the point of whatever trait they are attempting to describe. The big one that I always cite for this is that autistic people are supposed to love trains. Yes, there are some that do, but when you get down to it, it is not about trains themselves, it is about the intense excitement and passion for trains that the autistic person experiences. If your special interest is trains, you can talk about, think about, and play with trains from dawn until dusk and never want to get bored. Now replace the word “trains” in that sentence with any other thing, and you have the truth about how SpIns work. The problem is that people who are not educated on autism think “autistic people love trains” rather than “autistic people have intense interests in specific things.” Another stereotype that I often see pertains to food. Autism tends to be associated with butter noodles, chicken nuggets, and fries (chips for the Brits), to the point where there are memes floating around Facebook saying things like “1 in 44 kids in the US have autism, which means 1 in 44 moms are making chicken nuggets for dinner for the 100th time.” Again, chicken nuggets are not the point. Autistic people sometimes have limited diets because of sensory issues and because we thrive on predictability, with the particular food that we gravitate towards being called a samefood (creative, I know /s) or a default. Anything can be a samefood, not just chicken nuggets. 

A semi-common trend that I see is neurotypicals not considering that it is possible for autists to learn and grow with time. This comes up especially when it comes to talking about communication. There is a stereotype that figures of speech as a concept are completely alien to autistic people, that we will take what you say literally every time. For children, sure, this does happen, but no one stays seven years old forever, autistic people included. I have been on earth, speaking English, for twenty-one years, and therefore I have had plenty of practice with idioms. When it comes to a new one, I do get confused because it is new, and I do picture figures of speech literally in my head because my brain defaults to literal, but I still understand that “pulling my leg” means being humorously false with you because people have been saying that to me for most of my life. There is a reason so many of my posts emphasize progression, progression, progression; I want people to get it out of their heads that there is no way for adult autists to gain skills they lacked as kids. Maybe people will then stop assuming that people like me have never heard of figurative language before. 

A couple of years back, I saw a post that said that stereotypes that arise within a community tend to be more accurate and funnier than those that come from outside. I think this does hold true for the autistic community. There are certain things that make sense for us, that make us go “oh, of course”, that NTs are less aware of. One running theme that I have noticed is the prevalence of autistic writers, especially women. So many of my autistic friends love to create fanfiction, original stories, poetry, and fictional worlds. I think that this speaks to that active imagination I mentioned earlier as well as the satisfaction that comes with stringing words together. Some of us also struggle with speaking out loud, so the written word is our way to get our point across. Another internal stereotype is that we get along with animals better than people. Every time I have mentioned my best friend when I was little being my cat within autistic circles, I have gotten a pile of responses of basically “yep, that tracks.” The reason for this might be that animals are more straightforward communicators than people and do not judge us for what we are used to being judged for, the quiet, low-stakes coexistence pets offer, and the sensory benefits they can have. (I could probably write a post on animal bonds and neurodivergent people).  Of course, there are exceptions to both of these, and my point here is that communities have their own relatable experiences that are worth observing when taking stereotyping into account. 

Sometimes, certain things get centered and become stereotypes, regardless of prevalence within the autistic community. One of my favorite ways to describe autism is to view the human experience as a bunch of sliders like the kind you would see on a soundboard, sliders for imagination, verbal skills, every physical sense. Each of an autistic person’s sliders are turned all the way up or all the way down, leading to extreme experiences and traits. A lot of the time, one extreme is acknowledged a lot more than the other, meaning those at the other end slip under the radar. (Yes, like me). Some autistic people really are missing an imagination, though just as many have a prolific one. Some autistic people will only eat three foods because their senses of taste and texture are exaggerated, though plenty of others can eat anything because their senses are muted. One extreme tends to be easier to hide or regarded as less of a “problem”. If you were a parent or teacher, who would you be more worried about: the child who wanted to try every food or the child who would literally gag and spit at any taste that was not mild and homogenous? Media can affect which traits are ignored and which become stereotypes, as can discoveries within professional settings. Somewhere along the line, a child, or a whole wave of children, were brought into the assessment room that had a train SpIn, so trains and autism became associated with each other. When you look past the surface and think “why trains?”, there are a few answers, including the fact that trains have schedules (and autistic people tend to gravitate towards routines and schedules) and that they are categorizable, but there are a variety of other things that those observations apply to. The first major film to feature an autistic character, Rain Man, specifically featured an autistic character with a remarkable number sense and memory, so that was the image of autism that the general public adopted, even if it did not apply to everyone. When it comes down to it, no population is a monolith, and that includes autistic people. 

I would like to know what your experiences are with stereotypes. Are there any that bother you? Are there any that actually apply to you? Which ones are you curious about that did not get mentioned in this post?

Will I Ever Count?: Imposter Syndrome and Autism

Imposter syndrome is the common phenomenon of doubting that you deserve to be considered…anything. It can cloud opinions of your position at work, your favor with instructors at school, your abilities as an artist or creative being, even multiple sections of your identity. As an autistic woman, I feel that imposter syndrome hits me especially hard. This post will be half a rant and half a search for common experiences. 

I was diagnosed only a year and a half ago, when I was already technically an adult. The year leading up to my official diagnosis was full of self-discovery, but also of self-doubt. Through Discord and Reddit, I was immersed in discussions of autistic traits and relatable memes, a lot of which actually did apply to me. Sometimes though, I would find a trait that I did not resonate with, and I would spiral. “What if I’ve been fooling myself? What if I’m just an attention-seeker?” This was a complicated sort of spiraling because I was inconclusive. It was not just that I wanted to be autistic (because part of me did not want that and was scared of that), it was the uncertainty. If it was not autism, what could it be? If I could not find a home in the autistic community, I would be back at square one, and that possibility scared me even more. I needed reminders from my friends that first of all, autism is a spectrum, and therefore no one can have all of the traits, especially those that contradict. I learned to recognize when I had fallen victim to stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions (which will probably be a post soon). 

Imposter syndrome about my neurotype has mostly calmed down, but when it resurfaces, it has a slightly different shape. I still get an occasional “what if the psychologist who diagnosed me got it wrong?” or something, but I know those thoughts are irrational. It would take a lot more work and mental gymnastics to fool that doctor, my mother, my friends who were more sure than I was at first, and myself into thinking I was autistic than to simply be autistic. More often, I wonder if I am being a good autist. In other words, I worry about being a traitor. Every time I put on perfume or make less-than-quiet sounds (I have a loud voice and some of my stims are vocal, plus accidentally bumping and crashing because I’m clumsy), I worry about hurting my sensory-avoiding siblings of neurotype. I am strongly pro-visibility and anti-masking, but I worry that I am pushing too hard, especially when it comes to autistic people who are also targeted for other reasons, such as being Black. Do I need to sit my privileged butt down and think about how hardly I campaign for something unattainable to some? Since I was not diagnosed as a child, I did not experience ABA or specialized classes, so sometimes I feel underqualified to speak on those topics. I still sometimes have the thought ringing in the back of my mind that I will never be a real autistic person because of this. Of course, this thought is wrong because just like autism encompasses a mosaic of traits, it also encompasses a mosaic of experiences. Being diagnosed when you are little and surviving ABA is one experience, but so is finding a previously hidden and unlabeled aspect of yourself during university, and so is realizing you yourself are autistic because your just-diagnosed child is exactly like you were at that age. 

Being autistic also affects my view of my womanhood and my age. I sometimes struggle to see myself as a sexy, capable adult woman meant to be taken seriously, and I worry that others view me the same way. On bad days, I feel like no matter what I do, I will always be a little girl wearing her mother’s heels, stretching up to the bathroom mirror to see her mouth roughly outlined in stolen lipstick. When I walk through the grocery store with my shopping cart and purse, list on my phone, deals previously clipped using the store’s coupon app, I sometimes feel like I am playing at being grown up and that some real adult is going to pat me on the head, call me “honey”, and tell me I am cute any second. That never really happens, but the thought is there. Growing up autistic, there were some things I did not naturally pick up or understand, and a lot of those pertained to feminine social dynamics. Like Cady Heron of Mean Girls, I did not understand the rules of “girl world”. Because of this, I was often treated as a pet by the neurotypical, “normal” girls in my peer group, or else left to the side. It sometimes even felt like the adults in my life did not see me as a girl. I remember one math teacher saying, “Ladies–not you, Aurelia, you’re a good little participant–ladies, you need to start speaking up more.” I felt as if I was sprouting a beard and grease stains as she spoke. 

It is difficult for other people to guess my age. Some think I am sixteen, others think twenty-five. It is hard for me to get taken seriously as twenty-one. I am still at the age where being perceived as older is an advantage and a compliment, so most of my problems lie with being mistaken for younger. I know that I have the amplified, unadulterated emotions one might expect from a kid, especially when it comes to expressing excitement and joy. I also have some interests that might be deemed childish, such as Minecraft. On my strong days, I think this is an asset. Being unapologetic about what makes you happy despite established opinions about that thing being “for kids” is something the general population can learn from autistic people. On my fragile days, however, I feel more like a child in an adult body that no one takes seriously. Needing help on things just makes it worse. I know logically that everyone needs help, all young adults face a learning curve when it comes to things like job interviews and leases, but imposter syndrome does not care about logic. Sure, I may look like an adult, but I need someone to hold my hand from time to time, both metaphorically and physically, and that can make me feel like a failure. And that is what imposter syndrome really is to me, the scary parts of my brain telling me I am failing before anyone else can.

Encanto’s Bruno, the Secret Autistic Relative

We should talk about Bruno, despite what the song says. Disney’s Encanto took the world by storm this year, with a catchy soundtrack (which I am listening to right now and also looped for a week), beautiful animation, and memorable characters. The cast, which consists of the magical Madrigal family, includes one mysterious, misunderstood man known as Bruno. Bruno, who is the main character’s uncle, quickly became a relatable favorite for me, and onto the headcanon list he went. So, what is there to say about Bruno? (And will I ever stop riffing on that song title)?

Bruno lives an isolated life. He loves his family and tells Mirabel this, but he also expresses that he does not know how to connect with them. His part of the house is a tower that sticks out and away from the rest of the family’s quarters. He spends a lot of time watching them through the walls, making observations and checking that they are okay and even fixing the cracks, but has trouble reaching out and joining in. Autistic people often take up an observer’s role because they are unsure how to do things like start conversations and play games. Some of us also speak of a wall between themselves and their peers, and the film might be symbolizing that by putting Bruno in a literal wall. When Mirabel comes crashing into Bruno’s world, he bonds by showing her his rat theatre and eventually doing a vision for her, showing a bit of himself. Sharing interests and strengths is a common way for autistic people to connect. He seems to have better luck befriending animals than people (though not to the extent of his nephew Antonio), earning the trust of the rats that live in the house. Autistic people, especially those with higher empathy and emotional capacity, connect with animals well, and this fits the description of the well-intentioned Bruno. 

His communication style is straightforward and literal, which is characteristic of autism. The first thing he says to Mirabel is “you’re very sweaty”, which is not sentimental or polite, but practical to say in the moment, as he is trying to hold her up from falling. The fact that it is a comment on something sensory is a bonus. He has a reputation for telling people their dooms, but this is highly exaggerated. What he actually does most of the time is make neutral, concrete observations about others, and they interpret it as a dark prophecy because that is what his knack is. When he told Pepa “it looks like rain” on her wedding day, he was attempting to be lighthearted about the fact that she was nervous and incorporating Pepa’s own gift of controlling the weather. He was not trying to foreshadow anything about her wedding or marriage, but the joke fell flat and was interpreted as a curse. (I think we can all relate to having our humor misread and our observations misinterpreted). It is also a familiar story for autistic people to be underestimated and misjudged because people only see “autism” (or even one particular trait), just like the rest of the Madrigal family only sees his prophecy power. In telling his actual visions, Bruno relies heavily on exact words, such as telling Dolores that the man she loved would be betrothed to someone else. Note that he did not say that the man would marry that other person, which foreshadows Dolores getting together with Mariano at the end. 

Bruno does seem to have some sensory differences, though they are downplayed during the film. The first thing he notices when he grabs Mirabel’s hand is how sweaty it is, and he is somewhat awkward about receiving hugs from his family, though that could also be because he is surprised by their affection. Bruno spends a lot of time in the dark, and his sisters have to encourage him to come into the light when they reunite, suggesting that he is sensitive to light. 

He does love his rituals and routines. Bruno could have left the house for real, but he is reluctant to go somewhere new. Instead, he creates an impression of leaving by isolating himself while still thriving on the familiarity of the house where he grew up. I connect strongly with this thought process. Sometimes I want to have the effect of leaving somewhere but cannot bring myself to actually go, to actually say goodbye to that particular part of my life. When Bruno does a vision, he has to do a specific process every time, unlike the rest of the family who can perform their magic at the drop of a hat. The fact that Bruno’s gift is telling the future is also fitting for an autistic person because we love to know what to expect. He is superstitious, doing things like knocking on wood for luck, which could indicate OCD, a common comorbidity of autism. 

Encanto even includes a clever portrayal of masking. Bruno has two personas, Hernando who fears nothing, and Jorge who feels nothing. Autistic people often fear that they are “too much”, so part of their masking is pretending they have a “normal” amount of feelings and fears. Some have a separate name for their masks, even if it is something as simple as “NT Aurelia” or something. When Bruno goes into Hernando or Jorge mode, he is rather hammy with his acting. Some autistic people are theatrical and exaggerate their mannerisms, which can lead to them seeming uncanny or inauthentic. Mirabel is visibly unsettled by Bruno’s alter egos and is most comfortable when Bruno is Bruno, which is a good sign because it means Bruno is safe to unmask and be himself around her. 

Bruno of the family Madrigal is a heartwarming and slightly fantastical portrayal of an autistic adult character, and I am glad he has found his way into the public consciousness. Hopefully, we all continue to talk about Bruno and his real life equivalents. If you have a Bruno in your life, check up on them and try to include them where they are comfortable because they will probably be grateful for it. If you are the Bruno, best of luck to you and stay gold.

Why I Am Sick of Growth Mindset

Ever since I was in eighth grade, I have seen posters in public school classrooms advertising the benefits of having a growth mindset. Simply put, someone with a growth mindset reacts to failure positively because they know they can learn from their mistakes, views intelligence as something flexible rather than fixed, and overall prioritizes learning and improvement over being smart. The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, which emphasizes appearing intelligent and successful and does not handle failure well. (You can learn more about the mindsets and even test your own here). Of course, the concept of growth mindset is not all bad, but there are some factors that are neglected, particularly when it comes to disabled or otherwise disadvantaged students. 

First of all, schools and workplaces seem to view a growth mindset as a cure-all for any performance issues and low morale. The message becomes oversimplified: have a growth mindset, and you can become the smartest person in the world. That is certainly what I thought when I learned about mindsets in middle school. I remember there being one boy in my class who got As in practically everything. He was “smarter than me”, and I was already one of the high-achieving “smart” kids! I looked at him and wondered if having a growth mindset was his secret, and if I could be like him by mastering this power. Have a growth mindset, and I can become as smart as Perfect Thomas. (Yes, that was my name for him in my head). Part of the problem here is that I was still thinking competitively, wanting to harness the power of growth mindset as if it were the Force so I could beat him in a battle of grades. I needed a lesson in individual strength and pride, not mindset. The other issue is that so many other factors touch and influence people that a growth mindset cannot fix. 

Environmental variables have just as much power over people as mindset, possibly more, especially when it comes to children in schools. Some kids are read to by their parents and have access to books at home, so they get to practice their reading skills. Others have family members with jobs or interests whose knowledge gets passed down to the kids and gives them an advantage in class. I had a classmate whose father was an engineer, so he learned extra math on the side. (This is not always the child’s choice, but that is beside the point). Parents might also prioritize practical skills and being comfortable in the working world over academic success, leading their kids to not put as much effort into their classes. Extracurricular activities enrich student minds and provide them with extra knowledge too, but not every student has the privilege of participating in these activities fully. For example, being in band has been shown to have a positive effect on academic performance, but if a student cannot afford an instrument, are too busy looking after their siblings to practice, or live in a home where practicing music is frowned upon, then they do not reap as many of the benefits of being in band as their peers who are given opportunities and encouragement to practice. None of these scenarios have anything to do with mindset. Any child can be excited to read (or not), but that excitement will not be encouraged in a book-free house, and that is not the child’s fault. 

You may have guessed already that I would say this, but the population of students who get shorted by the idea of a growth mindset are neurodivergent students. The growth mindset model seems to assume that everyone is neurotypical and therefore working with the same brain, but that is not the case. Students with specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyscalculia need extra help on certain subjects, and mindset does not change that. If a dyscalculic student consistently fails their math tests and is told “you need to have more of a growth mindset” when they ask for help, it sends the message that their learning disorder is their fault, that if they could just change their mindset, they would not have dyscalculia anymore. However, that is not how dyscalculia works. You would not say to a paraplegic “you could run a marathon if you had a growth mindset”, would you? Yet that is basically what learning disabled students get told every time they are realistic about how their brains work. Just as a paraplegic person needs a wheelchair, a dyscalculic person needs accommodations because a growth mindset will not wire the dyscalculia out of their brains any more than it will un-paralyze someone’s legs. Growth mindset also places a lot of emphasis on reacting positively to failures and mistakes. However, students with ADHD and autism cannot always do this, at least not reflexively, and I am included in this. Rejection sensitive dysphoria, a strong negative reaction to criticism, is something a ton of ADHDers and autists experience, and it is painful enough to be one of my least favorite parts of autism. Even if I know intellectually that those red marks on my essay are suggestions for how I can improve, even if logically I understand that they mean no harm or insult, I still have an emotional reaction that I am a failure, that I messed up. Growth mindset does not leave any room for this, implying that if you are someone who feels pain upon having a mistake pointed out, you have the wrong mindset and therefore cannot be successful. Processing differences among neurodivergent students also mean that they might benefit from a different style of teaching or learning environment. For example, when COVID hit and everything went remote, I struggled in class because I was caught up in trying to learn the social protocols of Zoom classes as well as dealing with less stimulation than I needed in order to focus. These were real problems, not just my own mind being stuck in “I can’t”. My solution was to stim with my infinity cube or a puzzle app on my phone during Zoom lectures so I could still listen without being understimulated. This was a practical answer to a practical problem; I would not have been able to growth mindset my way into focusing. 

Overall, the growth mindset is a Band-aid on a bullet wound. (/fig) It has its place, but has become a buzzword to be quoted in meetings and posted on bulletin boards. By placing all of the responsibility on an individual person, it places blame on those who are disadvantaged by no fault of their own. We need to start recognizing when accommodations and practical solutions are needed, and on how the system affects us. An individual person cannot, and should not, do all the work, no matter their mindset.

Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory’s Big Misstep

Knock knock knock, representation! Since the scientist-centered sitcom The Big Bang Theory launched in 2007, Sheldon Cooper has become the poster boy for adult autism among the general public. I admit, I used to be a fan of the show for its references to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other geeky things I was interested in, but now that my autism representation goggles seem to be fused to my face (/fig), my attitude towards Big Bang is much less positive. Given his status as the go-to example of autism in pop culture (except for Rain Man, but that is another post) and his multitude of stereotypical characteristics, it may surprise you to learn that Sheldon is never labeled as autistic on the show or in commentary by the creators. Yes, you read that right, Sheldon is technically a headcanon, a Type 2 autism representation. So, why does everyone compare autistic adults back to this character, and why does that make me so angry?

If I had to choose one word to describe Sheldon Cooper, it would be “stereotypical”. Sheldon is a physicist who started university when he was eleven years old, has a thing for trains, despises physical contact including sex, can do complex calculations in his head, is up to his eyeballs in classic nerd culture bits such as sci-fi, and has certain repetitive behaviors that he has to do or else his brain gets itchy (like the knocking I referenced at the beginning of the post). He is basically what the writers pictured a probably autistic savant prodigy child to act like as an adult. He is very particular about what he eats on which days, where he sits on the couch, and even when he goes to the toilet, which is an extreme version of the reliance on routine that autistic people have. He is described as having “Vulcan hearing” and a “sensitive butt”, indicating a heightened sensory profile, but he is not seen stimming or doing much to accommodate his sensory differences, other than complaining. Sheldon is aloof and removed from his peers because he believes his 187 IQ makes him superior, and certain nuances of communication confuse or annoy him. He hates small talk, and sarcasm goes right over his head. He has the common comorbidity synesthesia, a condition that cross-wires one’s senses, making Sheldon able to assign colors and smells to numbers. His autobiographical memory is very strong, which some autistic people can relate to, but not all. Sheldon even has absolute pitch, to the point where he can recognize that Leonard’s nose whistles in E-flat. (This trait in particular makes no sense to me because although the likelihood of developing absolute pitch is higher in autistic people, it is more connected to whether someone had exposure to complex music as a baby, and Sheldon is not a musical person, with the exception of that episode where he played the bongos). 

Sheldon has what could be recognized as autism traits, but it seems like the shows play them for laughs or plot convenience or otherwise miss the point. His sensory issues are there to make him seem quirky so his friends can roll their eyes and the laugh track can roll. His strict routines and particularities drive the plot forward as he and the rest of the cast come up with ways to work around them or face consequences when they are disrupted. There is this whole air of “look at this super smart guy who has all these particulars because he’s smart, isn’t that hilarious?” All of Sheldon’s traits are treated as precious and incredibly singular, and Sheldon himself is treated as superior, despite the other cast members being more capable than he is in multiple aspects of life. No one ever looks into why he can hear people whispering about him two rooms away but is totally deaf to sarcasm; it is always written off as something only Sheldon does and nobody is allowed to question it. 

Speaking of Sheldon’s relationship with the rest of the characters, the way they treat him is rather problematic. Sheldon is, when you get down to it, an unpleasant man with the attitude of a seven-year-old, throwing hissy fits when people do not cater to his every specific whim and lording his intelligence over the other scientists. He also has a childish view on sex and relationships. Leonard and Penny even discuss Sheldon as if he is a kid and they are his parents who have to take care of him. He is seldom called out for his behavior or asked to adjust for the needs of others, which enables his self-centeredness and never allows him to grow and progress. Real autistic people are often told they are being rude when they are unaware of it, and unless they are uncaring brats, they try to learn from their mistakes. I also find it incredibly hard to believe that Sheldon has been friends with the others for years and still has no idea when they are being sarcastic or non-literal. Myself and a ton of other autistic people I know have described being able to read their friends and family because those people are close to them, but strangers are still hard to figure out. Instead of helping Sheldon learn and treating him like another adult, the other characters treat him like a spoiled child, and that is what his personality reflects. 

Big Bang’s greatest crime is how the writers chose to handle diagnosis and labels. When people ask what is “wrong” with Sheldon on the show, the response is that no one is sure. (There is nothing wrong with actual autistic people, by the way, but that is beside the point). I find it extremely hard to believe that this cishet, middle class white boy with incredibly stereotypical characteristics including a special interest in trains walked into the evaluation room and came away inconclusive. There are people of color, low-income people, AFAB people who do not even make it to an evaluation, let alone walk away with the right diagnosis, because of bias within the medical and psychiatric fields. And we cannot forget every autistic person who is not a savant or prodigy, who has lasers that are not related to math, science, or trains, and who mask their traits because the world has taught them that their way of being a person is unacceptable even when they have caused no harm. Sheldon Cooper is not the face of inconclusiveness, and as someone who actually used to be inconclusive, I find the handling of Sheldon’s autism, or lack thereof, hurtful, insensitive, and invalidating. 

I have wanted to get this rant review out for some time now, and I hope all of you appreciate it too. I realize that I may have left some specifics out, so feel free to pile on in the comments. No matter how little or much like Sheldon you are, you deserve to be recognized and represented authentically, so stay gold.

Autism and the Abstract

A well-known part of being autistic is being concrete, literal, and practical. Stereotypically, autistic people can only have interests and roles in things like science, areas that are based on real, tangible elements and clear rules. (And I do love my data). However, some autistic people live lives that are heavily involved with abstract, intangible, and immaterial concepts. I am one of these. Is my life a paradox? How did I become an abstract autist?

First of all, “abstract” as a word has a few meanings. The first meaning is having no physical form or tangible characteristics, but existing as an idea. Emotions are abstract. So are the ideas in books that are not plot events, those themes and character development arcs. Figurative language, such as metaphors and idioms, are under the abstract umbrella too. Being autistic, my mind tends to default to concrete interpretations. When I hear an idiom that I am unfamiliar with, I assume the person talking is being literal. I feel a lot of strong emotions, but labeling them is tricky. However, I am a writer, and I use a lot of figurative language and symbolized concepts in my work and my everyday communication. I got to this stage by reading. Books helped me add to my mental list of idioms the same way it added to my vocabulary, and they gave me a deeper understanding of my emotions because they connected the characters’ internal thought processes with their external actions. “You are what you eat” can apply to one’s brain, apparently, since through reading, I became a writer, and a story in myself. I always had a vast and prolific imagination, which is the other end of the extreme that is often associated with autism. Writing has made it possible to translate the stories in my head into a format that others can experience. I learned about symbolism from English classes at school, and from spending too much time on, so I started to see archetypes, foreshadowing, and other connections in both my internal and external life. Having a mythology SpIn helped. 

Art can be abstract too. My relationship with visual art has been a little rocky. When I was in elementary school, one of my lasers was fashion, so most of what I drew were clothing ideas. However, I always struggled with making things look realistic. I have no idea why. In seventh grade, one of my teachers told me to my face that I was bad at drawing, so for a while, I put visual art on a total pause. Gradually, my opinion softened from “I can’t draw” to “I can’t draw anything real”. After all, “abstract” also refers to a subtype of visual art that is not meant to look like anything you can see in real life. It is lines, shapes, patterns, and colors. In a way, abstract is the most autism-friendly art genre because it uses sensory information (in this case visual) as it is, and can follow a geometric rule or pattern, which is ideal for people like me. For a few years, my favorite thing to draw were Celtic knots because they have a certain ritual and set of rules to them, and they were not anything besides themselves. In twelfth grade, I took an art class that let me explore all kinds of art styles and materials. My teacher for that class said “realism doesn’t sell” and introduced me to styles and techniques that let me translate what I saw and felt into the paper and paint (or ink, chalk, etc.) in front of me. Just like with language, I needed a bridge between perceiving my world and making art. These days, my drawing has a stylized, cartoonish edge to it and can be highly symbolic and interpretive. Sometimes I incorporate elements from other media, such as the multiple Fullmetal Alchemist references in last year’s Inktober. 

My oldest and deepest relationship with the abstract is with music. My experiences with music started out sensory. I have always been a sound-based being, and I grew up listening to all kinds of music with my parents, and they both sang to me. My dad also played guitar where I could hear. From a young age, I hummed and sang to myself, and to this day I still move and breathe to rhythms. Sometimes, music tickles my brain in just the right way, and it often stirs what I now know to be emotions within me. When I was in elementary school, I took piano lessons and learned to read a staff. I continued my education in playing music from a written score, in other words, from knowing a set of rules, when I learned to play recorder in fourth grade and clarinet in fifth. Somewhere along the way, I think it was in middle school, I realized that music was another way to tell stories and make people feel things. At eighteen, I had chosen musical composition as my main artistic medium and the focus of my degree. Trying to strike a balance between following the theoretical rules and writing what feels good will probably be a lifelong struggle for me. I understand music as a perfect intersection between language and math, but it could also be defined as an intersection between abstract and concrete. Music has rules, patterns, and direct sensory effects, and it has narrative and emotional potential. There is music that is, and music that does, and as a composer, I feel it is important to know how to do both. Grunia Sukhareva, a Russian psychologist who was probably the first person to document autism traits in a clinical setting (even before Asperger or Kanner did), observed that many of her patients were drawn to making music. Maybe music is the most effective way of bridging the gap between an autist’s concrete mind and the world of the intangible, the abstract.

Autism and Medication

CW: Contains mentions of prescription drugs and their side effects, as well as cannabis and alcohol.

This post will be covering reasons autistic people may take medication and some examples of what we take. I am mostly against medicating for myself, but that is my personal opinion, and others can do whatever helps them. One important thing to note is that you cannot medicate for autism as a whole, you cannot take a pill to become “less autistic”. However, there are meds that help with specific traits and with comorbidities. 

The most common drug that seems to be associated with autism is Abilify. Abilify is actually the brand name for aripiprazole, an atypical antipsychotic developed to treat schizophrenia by balancing neurotransmitters. Aripiprazole is prescribed to autistic people to help with the irritability and emotional dysregulation some of us experience, particularly kids. Risperidone, known by the brand name Risperdal, is another atypical antipsychotic that serves the same purpose. Both medications have side effects that include weight gain, trouble sleeping, gastrointestinal issues, blurry vision, fatigue/sleepiness, and dizziness. Risperidone can also cause a tic disorder called tardive dyskinesia. I do not know a lot of people who have taken Abilify or Risperdal, but those who have do not speak fondly of the experience, saying it made them feel zombified and not like themselves.

In addition to mood dysregulation, a lot of autistic people experience high anxiety, and some combat it with anti-anxiety medication. There are a few different types of meds for anxiety. The first are benzodiazepines, which you might recognize by brand names such as Xanax, Valium, or Klonopin. Benzos work by increasing neurotransmitters, leading to relaxed muscles and a quieter mind. However, they can also make people feel drowsy, cause headaches and vision problems, and be addictive. Beta-blockers, originally developed to treat heart conditions, help with the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart before going on a date or giving a presentation. Not everyone who takes beta-blockers experiences side effects, but those who do report fatigue, cold fingers and toes, nausea, shortness of breath, and trouble sleeping. 

Some medications work for both anxiety and another common comorbidity, depression. The most well-known antidepressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac and Zoloft. SSRIs specifically increase the neurotransmitter serotonin, leading to an improved mood, but this can come with side effects such as nausea, dry mouth, muscle weakness, drowsiness, and sexual dysfunction. Tricyclics work similarly to SSRIs, but they are older, so they have more side effects, including confusion, weight gain, and blurry vision. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) decrease a chemical that removes neurotransmitters, leading to a more balanced brain. MAOIs are also older drugs, so they are prescribed less often and have a lot of side effects, similar to tricyclics. They can also have negative reactions with other medications, such as birth controls, SSRIs, and painkillers, leading to increased blood pressure. 

Instead of prescription medications, some autistic people choose to use cannabis, known more commonly as marijuana/weed/pot, to help with regulation. I have firsthand experience with this. Cannabis decreases my anxiety in social situations, allowing me to unmask and act as myself without worrying about being judged. It also makes things sensorily pleasant for me, but this may not apply to people whose sensory profiles are different from mine. Some autistic people use alcohol to alleviate anxiety too. This has risks though because autistic people who are oversensitive tend to have a lower tolerance, so they can go overboard suddenly and quickly. 

A lot of autistic people also have ADHD, and unlike autism, ADHD has medications made specifically for it. ( Stimulants, which help people focus and ignore distractions, are the most common prescriptions for ADHD. There are a few different stimulant chemicals, such as amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, and methylphenidate, and they are known under the brand names Adderall, Dexedrine, Methylin, and Ritalin. Their side effects include appetite decrease and weight loss, sleep problems, tics, and possible heart problems. Amphetamines also have an addiction risk. Not all ADHD meds are stimulants, however. Clonidine, guanfacine, viloxazine, and atomoxetine, also known as Catapres, Tenex, Qelbree, and Strattera, can also aid concentration, but they take longer to work, and have concerning side effects such as blood pressure problems and suicidal thoughts. 

Medication is a bit of a controversial topic in the autism community. Some autistic people have had meds forced on them in childhood or at hospitals in adulthood and learned to associate chemical treatment with being silenced and made passive. Since autism is so complicated and varied, there is no such thing as an “autism drug”, and most of us do not even want that. Taking a pill that minimizes autism as a whole would be minimizing who we are. Medicating can also be seen as sweeping our problems (whether that be anxiety, depression, or something else) under the rug instead of learning how to cope with them directly. I personally prefer to face my fears head-on most days, rather than letting a chemical do the work. The other side of this argument is that the “normal” brain regulates things like serotonin on its own, and taking medication is helping it do what it is supposed to do, just like diabetic people take insulin because their bodies cannot make their own insulin. When it comes down to it, whether to medicate or not is an individual choice, and everyone should do what helps them most effectively. 

Why School and Holden Caulfield Failed Each Other

Those reading this will probably recognize Catcher in the Rye as one of those books you had to read in high school, one of those “classics”. Written by J. D. Salinger (no one knows what J. D. actually stands for, though he has claimed it is “juvenile delinquent”), Catcher in the Rye was originally published serially between 1945 and 1946 and then converted to book form in 1951. The main character, Holden Caulfield (or Holden Cauliflower, as I affectionately call him) is a bit controversial and a bit polarizing. Some people see him as a whiny proto-emo, some see him as just a stupid teenage boy, and some see him as a misunderstood anti-hero. When I read Holden’s point of view, I felt that I had some things in common with him. Now that I know more about neurodivergence, I feel confident in headcanoning Holden as ND, specifically as an ADHD-autist. I do not have this exact diagnosis, but a lot of people close to me do, including Tech, and I have noticed that certain traits line up with Catcher’s main character and most likely contributed to his trouble with education and generally fitting into the world.

Holden’s most obvious and unique trait is his speech, both inside and outside of his head. The book is narrated as if he is speaking directly to the reader about events in the past, so everything is in his voice. Holden tends to rephrase things repeatedly and add on signature phrases such as “that it did”. He also favors certain words, including preceding almost every name he mentions with “old” and saying “goddamn” an eyebrow-raising two hundred thirty-seven times. And who can forget “phony”? He probably does this because the words feel good in his mouth or head or because they are words he has learned to say in certain situations, in other words, scripting. The rephrasing might be evidence that Holden’s brain moves at a different speed than his mouth does, which is something some hyperverbal NDs have trouble with. It could also be a result of him overcorrecting by reiterating himself because he has grown up with people misunderstanding what he is saying, leading him to say the same thing in multiple ways before people ask him to. As an autistic person, I find that I sometimes speak in disclaimers because I am used to people misunderstanding me too. 

Holden is shown to have trouble regulating his attention throughout the book. He seems to think in strains of associations and will move through them regardless of relevance to the conversation. Having one train of thought is a foreign concept to him. He even has a memory of getting frustrated in class because he kept changing topics during a speech and his classmates kept shouting “digression” at him. He also has some unusual ideas of what is important, such as his recurring question about where the ducks go when the pond freezes over. Inability to keep attention in one place is a classic ADHD thing, and a skewed idea of importance is something relatable to ADHDers and autists alike, since we actually prioritize things in our heads based on interest. 

In terms of interpersonal relationships, Holden seems to do all right on the surface, being able to name friends and ex-girlfriends confidently. However, there seems to be a wall between Holden and most of the other people he interacts with. The fact that Holden seems to be analyzing and categorizing everyone else he speaks to, such as his description of Stradlater as what might be the first example of a Chad jock and of Ackley as an abhorrent, socially unaware loser that Holden is glad he is not, contributes to this. (The Ackley thing might be a bit of internalized ableism poking through, now that I think about it). He also struggles to grasp the subtleties of communication, such as not getting right away that Stradlater is annoyed with him. Holden has some interesting rules in his head about the world around him, such as every Catholic he meets wanting to find out if he is also Catholic above all else. Autistic people tend to see rules and lines in places they might not necessarily be. Holden talks about his siblings and refers to them both as smarter than he is, but we can see that Holden is quite an articulate, observant, and creative boy. It might be that Holden feels stupid because things that are difficult for him, such as reading between the lines socially and picking up life skills, are easy for Phoebe and the late Allie. The darkest form of Holden’s social disconnect is when he hints that he has been a victim of sexual violence before, which is more likely to happen with autistic kids because of a lack of a sense of danger. He gets creeped out by Mr. Antolini stroking his head, but the narration implies that this type of behavior has been a pattern, and that is why Holden knows it is wrong. 

Holden’s biggest problem with other people is the lack of authenticity he often encounters. One of his favorite insults is “phony”, and he is always going off about other people at his school posturing and protecting their images. He mocks a past roommate for wanting to make sure his suitcases were visible because it would make both of them appear rich and rolls his eyes about the headmaster of his school acting totally different on parent night than he does with the students during the school day. This is exactly the sort of thing a neurodivergent person who thinks concretely and does not understand social facades would be mad about. Interestingly, Holden also struggles with his own authenticity. He does lie, but most of his lies are random and outrageous, such as when he tells two different strangers that he is twelve and forty, despite being seventeen, suggesting impulsivity. The fact that he lies about his age specifically might also mean he feels disconnected from his chronological age, which is another ND trait. Holden also denies his own interests, namely film and literature, making it seem like he has a poor sense of himself. My theory is that Holden has too much of a sense of himself, he knows that he is different, and he is attempting to mask because being Holden has been shown to be a negative thing. This includes pretending he is interested in different things than he actually is. Holden even has a fantasy about pretending to be mute and living in the woods so he no longer has to meet people’s expectations. The plot of the book, with Holden running away, having frequent crying spells, freezing in the middle of tasks, and generally losing his grip on his emotions, could be explained as him encountering burnout and fatigue from masking and not knowing how to cope. If Holden were just autistic, he might have returned home toward the familiar immediately, but as an ADHD-autist, his novelty-seeking brain led him through several new experiences instead. 

In addition to social masking, Holden struggles with executive dysfunction, which is what gets him expelled at the beginning of the book. He has a hard time getting started on his essay until it is too late and then bluffs his way through it, an experience that I have witnessed ADHD friends having frequently. Holden’s teachers know he is smart, but they assume he does not put in effort because he struggles to initiate tasks and manage his time. He probably got in trouble for “misbehaving” in the past too, when it was really impulsivity and trouble with following instructions. This was the 1940s, when ADHD was unheard of and autism was new, so adults in Holden’s life assumed he was a bad kid and punished him. 

Holden Caulfield is a character close to my heart, and I see him as an example of a teenager with a misunderstood brain that no one knew what to do with. He is our first representation of ADHD as well as autism on this blog. Hopefully I can explore this intersection more in the future. In the meantime, do not be a phony, and stay gold. 

Open Letter to a Recently Diagnosed Autistic Adult

This is the start of what will be a collection of open letters to autistic people at different stages of life and discovery process, as well as their loved ones. This particular letter is aimed toward adults (eighteen and up) who have recently gotten their formal diagnosis. There will also eventually be letters for self-diagnosed people, children, teens, parents, and friends. 

Dear recently diagnosed autistic adult, 

You’ve done it! You got it! Are you proud of yourself? Chances are, you knew this would happen. Your new autism label was probably not a surprise, in fact, you may have been wearing the label for yourself already. You should be proud of yourself for making all of those calls and filling out all of those forms in order to get yourself into the assessment room. I know that stuff is hard. You might be relieved that it is all over, that you have your answer and we can all go home now. There’s the answer, you’re autistic. 

However, getting diagnosed is not just an end. It’s a beginning too. Now that you have formal documentation, you can apply for accommodations at school or work. Even if you think you don’t need them, they will be a safety net just in case something happens. There are also apps and products that help with planning, organization, and mood tracking that will make your life easier, but you may have discovered those already. Hopefully, a formal diagnosis has alleviated some of the imposter syndrome you might have been feeling, and you now feel more free to use these tools. There are so many words associated with the neurodivergent experience that you will probably learn if you haven’t already. You might have some words of your own too, and you are also free to keep using those. I still sometimes refer to masking as “acting”. 

If it is safe, you can begin your journey of unmasking. Embrace those stims, infodump about your favorite things, speak up if something is causing sensory pain, sit however you want! I know this is scary and will take time. After all, you have spent at least half your life holding it all in, pretending to be neurotypical. But why must you pretend to be something you’re not? When you unmask, you will learn who cares about and loves you for you, and who was only friends with the facade. This will hurt, as losing people always does, but remember, you could never have been as close to them as you would have liked because you were always hiding. The friends you make while unmasked are befriending you. And by the way, you don’t have to force yourself to be friends with NTs if that isn’t working. I’ve found that most of my good friends are ND, and there are a few very specific types of NTs that I can be close to. 

It is your choice how visible you want to be. Maybe you’re proud to be autistic and want to sport the infinity symbol everywhere. Maybe you only want to tell close friends. Maybe you’re somewhere in between. All of this is okay. Not everyone is open about everything, and diagnoses are a big part of that. I ask, however, that if you are ashamed, please examine why. Have people told you that you’re broken? Are you worried about being underestimated or infantilized? These are valid fears. 

One thing that I can tell you when it comes to viewing your autism positively, or at least neutrally, is to find your strengths. These could connect directly to autism, or they could be just you things. (And who really knows where the line between those is)? Get to where you can tell yourself, “I am autistic, and I am [insert strength here].” This doesn’t have to be big or deep or profound. Sometimes, people just want to be told their hair looks nice even though we’ve all been taught to look straight into their soul in order to compliment them. Your own strengths can be the same. 

Newly diagnosed autistic adult, congratulations. This is the end of a road, and the beginning of another. It is not “too late” for you to start living as your authentic self. 

Stay gold,


Is it Okay to Label Famous People as Neurodivergent?

Yesterday, I watched a video by autistic YouTuber Chloe Hayden about famous autistic people. Some of the people on this list were officially diagnosed and “out” as autistic, but others were only suspected, and some were not even alive anymore. I took this video as a sign that it was time to write this post because the controversy of “armchair diagnosing” celebrities and historical figures has been on my mind for a while. While it is positive to have well-known role models as an autistic (or other neurodivergent) person, sticking a label on someone you have never met gets rather complicated. 

First of all, autism is classified as a disability, and an autism diagnosis is a piece of medical history. Asking strangers if they have any diagnosis, including one of autism, is invasive. Unless I am openly broadcasting my autism by wearing an infinity sign, a sunflower lanyard, or some other piece of known symbolism, I would prefer someone to have an actual conversation with me, get to know me, before going “are you autistic?” Famous people often do not even get the privilege of being asked. Instead, spectators will point at them and say “that person is autistic” or “so-and-so has ADHD for sure” without even having that first introductory conversation with them. It might be true, some of these celebrities might be autistic, but they may not want people to know. Compare outing someone as LGBTQ+ before they are ready to come out themselves. Hopefully, you understand why that would be uncomfortable or even traumatic. The same is true for a diagnosis. 

That being said, you can suspect famous living people the same way you can suspect your classmate or coworker. (I have another post about having a “radar” for neurodivergent people). Autists and ADHDers can be very good at seeing traits in others that they themselves possess, and we all seek relatability in those we follow. If you witness a certain K-pop star stimming during an interview and start to wonder about them, that does not make you a bad person. There is a difference between suspecting and armchair diagnosing. Until a celebrity comes out with a label themselves, whether that label is from a professional or born from self-observation, we can only say “I think”, not “they are”. 

One thing to be mindful of when viewing famous figures through a neurodivergent lens is whether you are perpetuating a stereotype. Most of the famous people who get pegged as autistic tend to be men who have founded STEM companies. The phrase “half of Silicon Valley is probably autistic” has been floating around since I was born, and it bothers me because it strengthens the misconception that all autistic people are good at tech and have the capacity to found companies. I did not believe people who called Bill Gates autistic until I read an account of him rocking back and forth during interviews. Autistic people have a variety of strengths and live a variety of lives, so why should writers, actors, artists, activists, and musicians be overlooked in favor of yet another member of the IT crowd? If you must suspect a well-known person, make sure it is because of genuine traits and not stereotypes.

What about dead people? That is even more complicated. Neurodivergent conditions have always been present in human history, though not always under the same names. Historians scrutinize people from the past and try to apply modern labels and concepts to them, but nothing is ever confirmed because they were not there. Since historical figures are not around to confirm or deny suspicions about them, labeling them is almost like headcanoning a character written by a dead (or very quiet) author. The difference is, dead or alive, real people are real, not created inside another person’s mind. Fiction is up to interpretation, but an actual human’s life is not. Again, suspecting is okay and makes sense, but nothing can be certain. I tend to view possibly autistic dead figures as Schrodinger’s autists. Could have been autistic, could have been neurotypical, but interpreted as both. They are inconclusive, just like I used to be, and in the absence of conclusion, they have a spot at the neurodivergent table.  

I Am Not Your Angel: The Inspiration Porn Problem

Inspiration porn is any piece of media that portrays disabled people as strong, admirable, or valuable just because of their disability, for the purpose of making abled people feel good about themselves. It is a subtype of what calls Glurge. Advertisements showing one-legged athletes with text like “if they can do it, you can”, news articles with headlines such as “Autistic Man Lands Job” or anything that starts with “despite their [insert disability here]”, and YouTube videos titled “Boy Asks Special Needs Classmate to Prom (Wholesome)” are all examples of inspiration porn. Autistic people are common subjects of it because autism is a stigmatized condition that many know the name of but not what it means, and those who use mobility aids and/or prosthetics as well as people with Down syndrome because both of those disabilities have very obvious physical markers. Hopefully I can make it clear why I want this type of media eradicated from the public eye. 

First of all, you are probably wondering why the word “porn” is in this term. The answer is that inspiration porn objectifies disabled people the same way the porn you are thinking of objectifies women or people with certain body types. In inspiration porn, disabled people who are actual people become props. The purpose of that girl in the prom-posal video is to make the boy asking her look like a hero and a gentleman. Those athlete posters drive typical people to inspiration and perseverance through able-bodied guilt. There are even posts and art pieces that claim disabled people, particularly autistic children, are angels sent to earth to teach others how to become better people. This is disgusting, using another human as a vehicle to self-actualization through faith points. 

In order for inspiration porn to work, disabled people have to be portrayed as angels. This paints the narrative that anyone with a disability is pure, innocent, and unsullied without showing any of the more difficult parts of being disabled. And heaven forbid if a disabled person’s personality is anything remotely intense or “threatening”! Some autistic people listen to heavy metal and other forms of aggressive music, wear things that are not modest pastels, swear, do drugs, and have sex lives. Sometimes, disabled people are as vindictive, prejudiced, or just unpleasant as their abled counterparts. Inspiration porn hides all of that and keeps people in a bubble of thinking we are all magical eternal children. Not all parts of a disability are exactly pleasant to see either. There is nothing cute about my meltdowns; they are scary for both myself and those around me. There is nothing beautiful about still having bladder accidents at ten or eleven years old because one cannot feel their body’s cues, yet this is something a lot of neurodivergent people deal with. And there sure is nothing pure about the self-harm and violence that comes with feeling isolated and misunderstood as an autistic person. 

Despite not acknowledging any of the actually difficult and spicy parts of disability, inspiration porn paints being autistic, an amputee, or anything else but “normal” as inherently tragic. This leads to mundane life things being treated as miraculous because the person’s disability is always an obstacle. Almost every article about autistic people being successful uses the words “despite their autism”, even when the success in question is a job that is connected to their special interest. Inspiration porn also sensationalizes things that should not be headline news, such as going to the grocery store or on dates. Disabled people being applauded and patted on the back for living their lives is insulting and demeaning and sets expectations too low. I know I want to be praised for a genuine accomplishment, not for the bare minimum of things I have to do to survive. Yes, there are some things that are harder for disabled people to do, that is why we are called disabled, but this is deeply personal and individualized. If my close friends know I have been struggling to eat, they are allowed to praise me for making myself a sandwich. That is a real struggle I have dealt with, and my friends get to be proud of me because they know it is real and they are my friends. Do I want complete strangers to read about me in an article titled “Local Autistic Woman Makes Sandwich”? No, because that is not a side of me that I want outsiders seeing, and if they clap for me for feeding myself, then I cannot expect genuine responses when I do something actually notable. They will see me as someone winning the fight against my autism (which is not a real fight, by the way), not as someone to take seriously as a writer, artist, student, employee, or anything like that. 

Inspiration porn is a dehumanizing, objectifying, deceptive side of popular media. Instead of turning to this, I would like to see disabled people in the public eye as well-rounded, believable individuals with agency and depth. I would like to see autistic strengths authentically recognized and setbacks met with truth and sensitivity. I would like the freedom to be my own person, not an angel sent to improve abled lives. 

Chidi Anagonye, the Autistic Nerd Character Done Right

Over the winter break, I rewatched The Good Place, an NBC comedy that follows four humans in the afterlife. One of these humans is Chidi Anagonye, a moral philosophy professor who grew up in Senegal and was teaching at an Australian university before he died. Chidi is an adorkable nerd, and upon rewatch, I noticed some headcanonable traits in him too. 

Chidi’s most obvious and focused-on trait is his indecision. He weighs every outcome of every option in order to make the “right” choice, even for something as small as what color hat to wear or which muffin to eat for breakfast. Autistic people sometimes encounter decision paralysis, also known as analysis paralysis, when they are forced to make a choice on the spot. We prefer to choose in advance so we know what to expect when it happens, and Chidi gets flustered by surprise forks in the road. Being concerned with being “right” and not breaking any rules is also an autism thing, which is the main drive behind Chidi’s indecisiveness. He is afraid of making a moral blunder, of crossing a line in the world, so he must analyze until he is absolutely sure of a decision. Another social thing that Chidi has trouble with is lying, which a lot of autistic people find uncomfortable or against themselves. 

These moments of anxious indecision are accompanied by stomach aches, and he has also had anxious diarrhea at least once during the show. Gastrointestinal distress is a common comorbidity with autism, especially when compounded with anxiety. Chidi is shown to have this problem from birth, when he gets achy and fussy after his mother asks if he likes his name. (Side note, the name Chidi is Igbo for “G-d lives”, which is the most hilariously ironic name for a philosopher). 

Back to the fixation on doing the right thing. Not only is this a natural process of his mind, it is also his special interest! Chidi has shown a laser for philosophy and ethics since he was a child, even giving his parents a lecture on why they should not divorce. All of his posters and action figures growing up were somehow tied to famous thinkers, and he always finds a way to insert moral philosophy into conversations. His job on earth is perfect for him because he gets to infodump about his favorite topics all day. Even when he has his post-revelation collapse moment, he identifies his current personal philosophy as nihilism. In his normal state, he is a follower of Immanuel Kant and frequently cites what Kant’s opinions would be on various actions. 

When I say that Chidi considers every factor, I mean every factor. Chidi appears to not discriminate between big and small issues; everything in his head is of equal importance in his moral analyses. This is a trait that some autistic people have, not being able to create a hierarchy of concerns and filter out what is small and inconsequential. This is one of the reasons why neurotypicals perceive us as getting worked up over little things. To Chidi, using almond milk in his cereal is just as big of a crime as endangering his friends (and himself) with his dithering. Chidi is also concrete and takes things literally, such as when he started a pushup routine because he thought it would cure his anxiety after a friend told him “exercise helps with anxiety”. 

We do not get a lot of information on Chidi’s sensory profile, but he is shown to struggle with his vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Moving fast, especially downhill, is not his favorite state to be in, which is why he refuses to go skiing. He also gets frequently dizzy. Chidi has what is referred to on the show as “directional insanity”, and some autistic people have a hard time navigating too, especially in unfamiliar settings. Chidi does not appear to stim, but that could be because he has been taught to internalize his stims as a form of masking. He did have a lot of pressure on him as a child to appear as the dignified, precocious, smart boy, and stimming openly does not line up with that. Perhaps he channels all of his dysregulation into thought looping or rereading his favorite books.  

Speaking of his appearance around other people, there is one particular clue that supports this headcanon, and that is Chidi’s relationship with Simone. Simone frequently says to Chidi, “You are so weird.” Of course the four main cast members are all very different from each other, so Chidi being called weird by Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason is expected. Simone, however, is another professor at Chidi’s university (but in the neurology department) and just as big a nerd as Chidi, yet Simone thinks Chidi is weird. This is a sign that even when masking, there is something indescribably off about Chidi Anagonye, something that cannot just be explained by him being a nerd. Heavily-masking autistic people are sometimes seen as being slightly weird and awkward, or even uncanny or robotic, and this seems to be what Simone is referring to. 

Chidi Anagonye is an endearing intellectual character and the brains of The Good Place’s main cast. He channels the way his brain naturally works into a lifelong special interest, and manages to help his friends and himself become better people despite his anxieties. If Chidi is a hidden autistic character, he is some much-needed positive representation and a fresh take on the Hollywood autistic nerd role. Hopefully this post was a breath of fresh air following the heavy-hitting posts of the past few weeks, and that anyone who has not seen The Good Place yet now has incentive to start. 

On Being Visible as an Autistic Person

A few weeks back, I educated you all on masking. This week is about the opposite of masking, which is a bigger and even more personal topic, at least for me. I think being a visible autistic person is important to the general public, to the rest of the neurodivergent community, and most of all, to myself. My New Year’s resolution (something I have historically been half-hearted at best at making) is to be visible, both online and in real life. 

I used to be afraid of being seen for what I was. Before I even had a name for it, I would worry about my peers seeing what I struggled with, seeing the weird things I found natural. I did not want to be associated with anyone with obviously scripted speech, anyone who could not sit still especially when excited, anyone who could go on and on about their favorite thing regardless of who was listening, even though I was all those things. Those things got me bullied and lowered expectations, so I had to hide. Now that I am discovered and diagnosed, my fear is mostly replaced with hope. I hope that people can see me as my authentic self because I can answer confidently why I am that way. 

Most of the neurotypical population (and even some of the undiagnosed neurodivergent population) does not know what autism is. They know the word, sure, but they know it as a parent’s greatest fear, a vague expression of awkwardness and lack of appeal on chat forums, and a Saran wrap shield from bullying. “I would never bully someone for being autistic,” they insist, before turning right around to ridicule and taunt an individual with particular eating habits, difficulty discerning jokes and sarcasm, or an interest deemed childish by the trend gods. “But you don’t look autistic,” they say as an attempt at a compliment, not realizing that the reason I had told them in the first place was because they caught me stimming or infodumping. When I let myself exist as a visible autistic person, people can connect the label to at least one person in their lives. I do look autistic because I am autistic, and you can see me, especially when I am not masking. 

When I was growing up, I had very few autistic role models to relate to, in both media and everyday life. My closest was Temple Grandin, the inventive and industrious animal lover, and even she had different enough traits that I did not recognize myself in her. (Though that may have been an age-related lack of self-awareness). When I was a teenager, I found Samantha Craft, and I finally felt a glimmer of connection to autism through her representation. A woman who worked in words woven with the abstract? A poet who noticed and found beauty in the small things and felt big emotions? A vivid dreamer who often dropped small objects? That was Samantha Craft, and in some ways, it was also me. I want to be someone’s Craft. I want someone to read my work and think “this person is like me”. I want someone to see me rock on the bus, hear me echo a line from my current favorite show, hear me say “yes, I am autistic” and think “it’s okay to be like her.” All autistic people should feel like it is okay to be themselves, and I want to use the courage I have already found to help others do the same. 

Being visible does come with certain risks. I mentioned bullying before, but for some people in some places, displaying autistic traits openly means active abuse and shunning. Please, I beg you, if it is not safe for you to be openly autistic in your current situation, do not worry about visibility right now. Get to a safe place first, then worry about unmasking. I am lucky in that I have parents who are, for the most part, accepting of me as myself and that my university is large and diverse enough that I can avoid or report people who antagonize me. Visibility leads to vulnerability. Some people try to take advantage of me or ridicule me when I reveal my diagnosis. I have had someone condescendingly call me “socially inept”. This guy and those like him are not my friends, and I do not need to pretend they are. I should not need to hide in order to keep scummy people around. When I am visible, I also open myself up to being used as the autism encyclopedia for others. There is pressure to always be “on” as an ambassador and educator. Most of the time, I do not mind answering questions and helping people separate fact from fiction (and yes, this includes fictional characters), but some days, I need a break. I am just too tired, too stressed, too burned out, or too impatient to be a teacher. Telling people to “just Google it” is a risk because most of what floats to the top of searches about autism is outdated, stereotypical, or straight-up false, so I understand the importance of getting the answer from an actual autistic voice. I, as an individual, am mostly okay with being that voice, but others may not be, so always get permission before using your autistic peer as a resource.

I am not only unmasking for others, do not worry. Masking is tiring and leaves me with no sight of who I am. Being visible can be tiring too, but in a satisfied, fulfilling, day’s-work-done kind of way. Visibility is full of small victories related to being my authentic, natural self, not the calculated facade that people I will never fully get close to want to see. The truth is, I like being autistic. Some days I would call this pride, others it is just contentment, and most days, it is joy. Another visible autist adds to the total amount of autistic joy in the world. With that, have a happy, safe, sweet New Year, and stay gold!

How the “Gifted Child” Label Erases Neurodivergent Experiences

I would like to start with a warning that this subject is one that I have a lot of strong feelings toward. I might get a bit aggressive here. I might make a few people mad. Hopefully, I will also make some people feel seen. 

You have probably seen those memes about “burnt-out former gifted kids”, with their addiction to caffeine, low self-esteem and self-expectations, and complete absence of caring despite claiming to be very smart. Maybe you or someone you know was labeled as “gifted” as a child because they could read, write, calculate, and recite more competently than their peers. They were so smart, had so much potential, so adults kept pushing them, adding more and more advanced classes and extracurricular activities to their schedules until they crashed from sheer overwork and the pressure to always be perfect. Or, alternatively, they were never challenged, always assumed they were fine as they were, so they were left to grow bored and stagnate their way into a hazy depression. Or, alternatively alternatively, they were given a choice on where to apply themselves, as long as it was somewhere, and are still actively learning to this day. (I am a grateful, though also slightly bitter, member of the third category). 

Now what if I told you that the characteristics associated with gifted children were advanced vocabulary, a love for reading, fixations on specific topics, and isolation from peers? Some teachers and psychologists even cite sensitivity to sensory and emotional stimuli, as well as a “spiky skill set”, as signs of giftedness. (By the way, “gifted” is even a diagnosis in some countries, though in the US, it is just a character type). I hope that list of traits sounds familiar to you because they are all associated with autism. Some autistic people learn to speak early instead of late, and a lot of them have very active echolalia, the phenomenon of repeating phrases that others have said. When a child echoes what they have heard from adults, either in their real life or in the media, they end up saying words that children typically do not say, leading to the appearance of a large vocabulary. Plenty of autistic kids (and adults) also love words and reading, and the more books they consume, the more knowledge they gain about specific subjects and about how the world generally works. Reading taught me about empathy and expressing emotion because it provided a connection between what happens inside someone’s head and which actions others can see, and it gave me a stronger grasp on figurative language. And we cannot forget special interests! When an autistic person has something as a SpIn, they want to learn about and do that thing all the time, so of course practice makes them more skilled. For example, someone who loves math more than anything in the world will always be demanding more math problems to do, so they become advanced beyond their classmates in math. 

ADHDers can be labeled as gifted too, if also a bit “rambunctious” or “wild”. ADHD brains seek novelty, and this may manifest as demanding more advanced books to read, films (both fictional and educational) to watch, and problems to solve. They also tend to be inventive and “outside the box” thinkers, leading to praise for their unique ideas in the classroom. ADHD and autism overlap, and some people have both, so ADHDers can also have the “smart kid” presentation described in the previous paragraph, with the echolalia and fixations. However, ADHDers without autism tend to have a more scattered set of knowledge and skills because ADHD hyperfixations last a shorter amount of time than autistic SpIns. 

What about isolation? There is a misconception that kids who are labeled as gifted or mature experience social isolation because they are intellectually above their peers. While feeling like no one else can keep up or connect with you, particularly in a specific subject, can feel lonely, that is not all there is to it. Neurodivergent kids, autists and ADHDers particularly, struggle to make friends because the way their brains work affects communication. Autistic kids do not pick up things like turn-taking and cooperative games naturally, and difficulty with voice tone and body language make it hard to know who likes them versus who is annoyed. Kids with ADHD are impulsive, and this leads to things like interrupting people and crossing their boundaries. Peers might avoid or bully neurodivergent kids because they stim, have unusual interests, or do other “weird” things. Depending on their age, some kids might see being smart and having adults like them as uncool, so the strengths that teachers value the “gifted” kids for are seen as deficits among classmates. 

Some of you are probably thinking, “Gosh, Aurelia, not every gifted child is ND. Some of us are just smart!” I know that some people just are academically adept, for one reason or another. I am not talking about you, so sit down. “Smart” is subjective. Most people, when they apply that word to children in a classroom, mean the kids who get good grades and test well. There are other types of smartness that have nothing to do with grades or even with school at all. But as we have already seen, there is more to the gifted label than just “smart”. When you factor in fixations, sensitivity, and asymmetrical skills, it stops being a matter of intelligence and starts being a case of calling autism (and/or ADHD) a different name. It is as if neurotypical adults are afraid to say the a-word due to stigma, so they disguise it with a label that is purely positive. This is our problem right here. 

In my post about autism going undetected in childhood, I highlighted the tendency for parents and teachers to ignore struggles in favor of strengths. “Gifted child” as a label runs on this. Autistic and ADHD students who are doing well in class get ignored when they ask for help because “they’re smart, they can handle it.” They are the teachers’ shining stars, so no one quite believes them when they start to waver. Teenagers who were seen as brilliant as kids are called lazy as their lives become more demanding and executive dysfunction makes it difficult to keep up. Even if their grades stay high, kids who are thought of as gifted are struggling in other places, but that is all ignored. Adults think that as long as they keep making the grade, the child without friends will be just fine, as will the teenager with no concept of practical adult skills such as budgeting and job searching. “They’re smart, they’ll figure it out,” parents say. Sensory issues are thought of as a silly little quirk or a character flaw instead of an actual source of pain, if they are noticed at all. “Gifted” is autism/ADHD/neurodivergence with the crusts cut off to make it more palatable to neurotypicals, slicing away anything that makes things hard and leaving only the child’s strengths to praise and enjoy. 

The worst is when one considers the burnout and co-occurring mental illnesses that NDs tend to develop, and are associated with (former) gifted kids. When your brain works differently than the general public is used to and everyone is telling you that your way of being a human is wrong, the world becomes a scary place. This is why anxiety disorders go hand in hand with ADHD and autism. The social isolation that comes from being bullied and placed on the “gifted kid” pedestal is a prime cause of depression. Having to always be perfect, always impress, leads to poor self-esteem and more anxiety, sometimes manifesting as OCD. As for burning out, the direct cause for that is masking ND traits, and that can include keeping up the perfect student image, lest people find out that you are actually an oddball. (Though there is nothing wrong with being an oddball. Remove that mask and let your freak flag fly). Some people with anxiety and depression hit what I call “the wall” at a certain point in their lives, where they can no longer fake being okay, can no longer cope with the pressure, so they let the mental illness win. The wall can coincide with burnout and a sudden shattering of the mask. This is what happens when pain is ignored, and when neurodivergent children are put on the pedestal of “gifted” instead of given proper support.

No, the Earliest Years Are Not (Always) the Hardest

When I confided in my ex boyfriend that I was considering an autism diagnosis for myself, he expressed support. His heart was in the right place, but there was one thing he said that did not resonate with me, but did stick in my mind: “At least you’re just finding out now because the earliest years are the hardest with autism, right?” At the time, I did not know what to think. It was from the same line of thought that a phrase a lot of late-diagnosed get fed to them in effort to shut them up: “If you were autistic, they would have caught it when you were a kid.” The theme here is that autism is always the most glaringly obvious and the hardest to deal with in young children, and it gets better (cliche, right?) in adulthood. Well, that does not track, at least not always, and I am a living example of that. 

First of all, when you are a kid, most things are typically done for you. You wake up, and your parents have either laid out breakfast for you or make it when you wake them up, they remind you to go get dressed and brush your teeth, you grab your backpack (with homework and packed lunch that they probably supervised you with the night before), and your parents drive you to school. At school, you follow a schedule that has been premade by an adult you’ve never met, eat your packed lunch and notice some of your friends get the school lunch that to your knowledge miraculously appears everyday at noon, do more scheduled learning, get homework passed out to you, and your parents pick you up. “How was school?” they ask. “Do you have homework?” When you get home, you sit in your room and do your homework, either with parents looking over your shoulder or with them checking it at the end. Then they make dinner for you, tell you it is time to take a bath, and you get ready for bed. Most things are supervised, and you do not have to worry about setting appointments, getting to places on time, or paying for anything. Sure, sometimes you are forced to do things that you find disgusting, or uncomfortable, or confusing, but half the time, the adults attribute it to “kids are weird”, not “my kid’s brain is unusual.” This is especially true with autistic kids who are sensory seekers because they are less likely to be overwhelmed by going to school and other expected places, their seeking looks like high energy and an affinity for mess, and coordination issues are written off as being “clumsy” or “accident prone”. Being eighteen years old and still having trouble keeping appointments straight because of executive dysfunction, wearing a blanket around the house because it made me feel contained and safe, and near-constantly walking into the wall because I tried to turn too soon was much more of a red flag than doing those things when I was seven. 

There is also the trend of adults brushing off childrens’ struggles if their strengths are strong enough. I spoke very well from very early. Sure, sometimes my echolalia made me say words that kids my age were not expected to know, but I was then complimented on my vocabulary. Teachers liked the fact that I was always reading, even during recess, and that I almost never had to be shushed for having side conversations in class. After fifth grade, they  stopped caring that I had trouble making friends, except for the long-suffering sighs when I could not find a group for group projects. In high school, I took advanced classes, even got a job with a lot of coaching from my parents, so my family thought they had won with such an obedient, well-achieving teenager instead of one of those problem children. People nodded in admiration at my knack for music, but did not consider where that strength might have come from. 

I know I went over a typical school day routine for a child, but not all children have that stability, parental attentiveness, or general life circumstances to match that routine. Some parents are neglectful, absent, or abusive, and they never consider testing their child for autism because they are not around enough to notice the signs, or they do not care. Some kids are missing a parent and have stepped into an authoritative role with their younger siblings, or they are in foster care and have a different set of responsibilities with no room to be the kid, much less the autistic kid. Some parents recognize that something is different about their child, but cannot get them tested due to lack of money or time, or they manage to get them into the assessment room only to face bias from the doctors because the child is a person of color, a girl, or “too smart”. A less tragic but still valid experience is an undiagnosed autistic adult thinking their child is normal because they do all of the things that the parent did growing up, and no one knows it was autism until the child gets tested. This might have happened with my own father. Not everyone has the tools to detect autism in childhood, so someone could go through their whole childhood thinking everyone experienced the world the way they did, not realizing until their twenties or later that that is not true. 

Sometimes life circumstances can take all of the credit for a cognitive difference. My parents divorced when I was little, so I was in split custody for most of my life. My mother also has a chronic illness and complicated medical history. Whenever I had problems keeping my life together (not getting forms signed, losing belongings, not being able to show up to things) or had meltdowns or other emotional dysregulations, the adults in my life assumed that it was strictly due to my home life. I am not saying they were completely wrong because having divorced parents does mess kids up, but I think my autism was at least as much of a factor. I had meltdowns from being overwhelmed and from differing routines and rules at each house plus school, and my executive dysfunction was facing double pressure from having to bring my stuff between two houses or own two of everything. Being autistic made split custody harder, and split custody brought out the painful parts of being autistic. I grew up without siblings, and my parents attributed my social difficulties to that, despite them bringing me to play groups since I could walk. Since my mother was the most sensitive being in my life due to her syndrome, any sensory issues I had looked normal in comparison, and remember that I am undersensitive. 

My whole life, people told me that things would get better as I got older, that I would level out. I would cry less when I was a teenager, I would be less anxious and confused when in my twenties, things would get easier. This was a lie, at least partially. My emotions have been big and extreme and hard to identify for twenty one years. I do not see that changing with age. I have learned some social things, but there is a disconnect between what the public expects me to do and what makes sense for me, and mistakes that would be fine for a child to make are, to put it lightly, unusual for someone my age. And if anything, my sensory profile has become more sensitive because stress lowers my threshold. Or maybe I am more self-aware whenever I have a sensitive day and have more tools for how to handle overload. That is one thing that does grow with age, self-awareness. Maybe I perceived autistic childhood as easier than autistic adulthood because only now do I have the tools to say, “Wow, all of these things I do are not the default, and sometimes that hurts.” 

Yui Hirasawa is More Than “Slow, Useless, and Lazy”

I just got done watching K-On, a slice-of-life anime about a high school music club, their growing friendship, and a lot more snacks than I expected. The character that caught my attention the most was Yui Hirasawa, the guitarist. When I watched the first episode, I was still inconclusive, and I immediately became worried about the group I was watching with making comparisons between Yui and me. I shelved K-On until after I was diagnosed, and then did not end up giving it another shot until the beginning of this month. I almost regret not coming back to it sooner because it was the perfect lighthearted pick-me-up in what turned out to be a rather chaotic month, and of course, I now live for headcanon-worthy characters. So, what was it about Yui that set off my autism radar?

The other members of the Light Music Club initially see Yui as slow, useless, and lazy, but the way Yui’s mind runs is a bit more complicated than that. Yui’s main flaw is not being able to focus on more than one thing at once, such as learning math and guitar chords at the same time.  She also gets tripped up on smaller tasks such as running and singing at the same time. She needs to train extra to learn how to sing as she is playing guitar, and she still needs reminders from other band members to start singing when they start performing. Multitasking is something some autistic people struggle with because they tend to get lost in the details of everything and have trouble switching between things with very different details. Yui also has a hard time transitioning between sleeping and waking, often making her late for things. Autistic people often run into this problem because of inertia, the mind and body wanting to stay in the same state it is already in. 

The very first time Mio and Ritsu see Yui, they watch an interaction between Yui and Ms. Sawako, a teacher that eventually becomes close to the whole band. Ms. Sawako asks Yui to take a stack of papers to her classroom, and when Yui does not respond, she starts to repeat the question. Yui goes “yes, I heard you” and tries to take the stack, but ends up dropping it. Having a delayed response time is common for autistic people, who may need more time to process what has been said and to script a response. We may not even notice that what was said even needs a response some of the time. Dropping things is also a thing for autistic people, to the point where it was included on The Checklist. Yui also tends to move around the school as if she is afraid of getting lost, more than other new students do, which makes sense when you consider that navigating is a struggle for autistic people too. 

Yui’s arc could be described as that of an autistic person who discovers and embraces a special interest. Nodoka, who has known Yui since they were in kindergarten, describes her as being unfocused, as if nothing really gave her life. In middle school, Yui always went right home after school, never to clubs or out with friends. She used to spend a lot of time browsing the web and snacking by herself. When she finds the Light Music Club, Yui lights up with excitement and fulfillment. She becomes totally hooked on music, not wanting to stop practicing her guitar or talking about it. This is exactly how it feels to find a special interest; it feels like a void in your soul has been filled and you have found your purpose in life. Not having a friend group until after she found her laser is relatable too. I was a drifter in school, and it took me a long time to feel like I counted as a close friend to anyone. The Light Music Club accepts Yui for who she is and views her as a valuable member of the band, and the fact that she gets to do her favorite thing with them is so perfect and so fitting. Though she may not have realized until she started playing guitar, music has always been a primary way Yui has interacted with the world. She has a great melodic ear and sense of rhythm, is always making up little songs to help her focus and comment on her surroundings (like her song for cleaning the turtle tank), and always throws her full energy into anything musical (like the flashback to her unapologetically moving her body while playing castanets). 

You might be going “Aurelia, wait, Yui is a natural at guitar. Isn’t intuitive learning hard for autistic people?” You are on the right track, but if you watch closely, Yui’s method is not intuitive, it is trial and error. Yui practices a lot, especially in the earlier episodes, trying to get the sound that matches in her head or in a recording. She does not use technical terms because she is self-taught, but her sensitive hearing leads her to make the right sounds anyway. Yui’s approach to guitar actually reminds me of my approach to photography. I have never taken a photography class, so I do not know any of the rules or terminology when it comes to taking photos. I also shoot with my phone rather than any fancy gear because that is what feels comfortable to me, just like Yui chose her guitar because it was cute and felt right to her. Yui showed me that it is okay to just do things without worrying how correct they are, and that lesson can apply to photography, music, or any other other hobby. 

We mentioned Yui’s hearing before, but her other senses seem a bit wonky too. Yui seems to be a tactile seeker, always hugging her friends and shaking her body around. We also see her stimming with Mio’s finger calluses. It is harder for her to feel if something on her body is awry, like her uniform being crooked or something being stuck in her hair. Yui talks and thinks about food a lot, which shows us she is a taste seeker too, particularly for sweet things. (Kind of like L, remember)?  Luckily, her friends like snacks almost as much as she does. We see Yui spacing out watching things that move, sparkle, or have intricate patterns, which is more seeking, but she could also be visually oversensitive because a lot of what she focuses on tends to be small or harder for those around her to see. One thing that seems particularly intense for her is temperature. She tells the rest of the club that she hates being too hot or too cold, and we see that she is the most bundled up in winter, but the heat of the summer makes her absolutely wilt.

Yui’s empathy is very high, and she has lots of big emotions, which is a trait that is less acknowledged, but tends to show up with autistic girls especially. Yui cries and laughs the hardest, and she tends to be the first to notice that one of her friends is out of sorts, even if she is not sure why or how to fix it. For example, she sees that Azusa is sad, and figures she must be lonely because her friends will be gone next year, leaving most of the Light Music Club vacant. As a solution, Yui gives Azusa a turtle to take care of. Yui shows a great connection to animals in general, stopping to pet every dog and cat on her way to school. We even see her singing to a turtle when she is little. Yui’s care and concern even extends to inanimate objects. She talks to and names her guitar and Mio’s bass, and scolds and then apologizes to her gloves. Autistic people tend to form bonds with objects, which is why it is hard for us to get rid of old things. 

Yui is excitable, big-hearted, unapologetically herself, and quite possibly autistic. I felt connected to her throughout watching K-On, and hopefully others do too. I love her story as an autistic teenager who finds her special interest and a friend group that cares about her, and I admire her approach to music. Yui is the perfect character for anyone who has been misjudged as slow, useless, or lazy, and if she knew the words “stay gold”, I am sure she would tell you.

Spirited Away’s No-Face and the Pain of Masking

Released in 2001, Spirited Away is one of Studio Ghibli’s most popular films. It tells the story of Chihiro, a child who enters the spirit world and has to rescue her transfigured parents as well as find the way back to the human world on her own. But this post is not about Chihiro. It is about No-Face, the outcast spirit that Chihiro befriends without the knowledge that the rest of the spirit world views him as a monster. No-Face is our first Type 3 autistic representation, our first allegorical character. Since he is a spirit and does not have a human brain, he cannot literally be diagnosed as autistic, but part of his character arc could be taken to represent autistic struggles, particularly with masking and social dynamics. 

No-Face gets his name from the fact that he has no natural facial features and instead has a noh theatre mask to represent his face. This mask does not move except very subtly, giving him a stoic effect. (Inevitable mythology tangent: No-Face was inspired by the noppera-bo from Japanese folklore, a spirit that changes its face to scare humans. The same spirit was likely the source for Koh the Face Stealer from Avatar: The Last Airbender). No-Face is also naturally without words, communicating through hand gestures and “ah ah ah” noises. I was originally going to include No-Face in a broader post about nonverbal or verbally limited characters and how autistic people often identify with them because yes, about half of the autistic population does not speak. The blank face is also important; autistic people tend to struggle with making their facial expressions match their emotions, leading to outsiders thinking that they do not have any. 

When Chihiro meets No-Face, she sees just another spirit who wants to come into the bathhouse and get out of the rain. To repay her, he gives her a stack of bath tokens. As he stays in the bathhouse for longer, he starts conjuring gold and giving it to the employees, thinking that is how to gain their favor. He also swallows three characters and begins speaking in their voices and adopting their physical characteristics. He transforms from a barely-tangible black blob with a noh mask to a huge mass with an obvious receding hairline, frog legs, and a gaping mouth where his stomach is. The other bathhouse employees scold Chihiro for bringing in a monster, but Chihiro claims to have seen him as just another customer. Noticing that being inside the bathhouse has made No-Face “crazy”, she leads him outside and makes him spit up the three characters he ate. 

This story is sad, scary, and all too familiar. When autistic people mask, they take on the characteristics of those they see in their daily lives, on TV, and in books. Sometimes, they imitate people that are extremely far from their true nature. No-Face is not naturally the bossy, loud, greedy creature that we see in the bathhouse; that is the result of him eating characters who were that way. The real No-Face is gentle, helpful, and unassuming, and he begins to crack from distancing himself from that. I wrote in my post about masking that I disliked the front I had to put up in order to be accepted by my peers, and here is No-Face facing the same problem. Even the fact that he speaks instead of gesturing is reminiscent of an autistic person who pushes themself to communicate verbally when their mind and body are begging them not to, to use their AAC, to gesture, or to just not respond because they are out of energy, but they fear the consequences of dropping the mask. Those who do not speak are ignored or treated as less-than, so those who would find it more natural to type or sign still are pressured, even by themselves, to be verbal. The gold is a representation of buying acceptance, buying favor, among the typical crowd. Autistic people often feel that they have to be useful in order to be liked and valued, and the gold is part of No-Face pleasing the bathhouse workers into keeping him around, keeping him as part of the group. 

In the end, No-Face finds real friends and a place where he can comfortably be himself. When he is with Chihiro and Zaniba, there is no pressure to speak; they understand his gestures just fine. No-Face helps make a hair ribbon for Chihiro because it is a thoughtful gift, not because Chihiro and Zaniba will stop being kind to him if he does not help. Zaniba’s cottage is a lot quieter and less chaotic than the bathhouse, and there is no need to eat anyone and take on their personas in order to stay. This is the dream for autistic people, to be around people we like and who like us without having to change ourselves. Just as No-Face deserves to remain a No-Face, we all deserve a place to shed the mask.

In Support of Self-Diagnosis (and Happy Dx Day to Me)

Today, November 3rd, is a special day for me. One year ago today, I was officially diagnosed with autism. It felt like an end, and also a beginning, which is why I mark this day on my calendar, calling it Dx Day, or Gold Day. On Halloween night (this encounter is a story in itself), I was asked if I remembered dying. I said that I had probably died at least once, but really what I was remembering was being born again, on Dx Day. I remember finally being able to come into myself, and out to others, as autistic. How fitting that the day falls so close to my real birthday. However, Gold Day did not happen suddenly and without preparation, just like babies do not show up randomly on your doorstep. (Apologies to anyone who still believes in the stork, we can talk later). The year leading up to November 3rd, 2020, was spent looking into myself, taking online quizzes of varying degrees of reputability, joining communities, picking other ND people’s brains, and gathering evidence leading up to the big test. 

It could have happened sooner. I could have come into myself, come to label myself as autistic, at least a year before I did, if not two. See, some people in the autistic community use that label without taking a big test; they realize that they have found what makes sense for them without a professional. I was afraid to do this because I had four words ringing in my head: “Self-diagnosis isn’t real.” Four words, told to me by someone I considered a friend, back in my junior year of high school. Four words to keep me off the path, to keep me frozen in the metaphorical womb of pre-label, pre-answers, for two years. I have no idea where this person is now, or what his reasons were for saying what he did. I am sure he had no idea the impact he had on me. I do know, however, that he was wrong, because self-diagnosis is real, and is a valid part of the autistic community. 

I have to acknowledge that I lucked out when it came to getting formally diagnosed. I lucked out that I could afford meeting with someone who could test me, despite her not taking my insurance. In the US, where I live, only 56 percent of mental health professionals accept insurance, and 10.9 percent of Americans are without health insurance anyway, meaning that that many people are barred from getting formally diagnosed. I lucked out that my regular therapist knew of someone who understood autism in adult women. Autism diagnosis tends to focus on children, and girls/women specifically get the short end of the stick, with 0.7 percent of American girls getting diagnosed, compared with the 3 percent of boys. Some doctors still believe that women cannot be autistic. I lucked out that I live in a situation where formal diagnosis helps more than it hurts. Even in the US, trans people with autism diagnoses are prevented from receiving gender-reaffirming care such as hormones. Trans man Kayden Clarke was told by his gender therapist that he could not transition “until his autism was cured.” I have also been told by friends in countries like Bosnia that formally diagnosed autistic people are denied driver’s licenses. With these obstacles, if we do not accept self-diagnosed individuals, we leave a huge chunk of our community stranded, without answers and support. 

In order to understand this fully, we have to remember what a label like autism is for. Before autistic people are identified as autistic, they are called stupid, rude, lazy, sensitive, dramatic, unpredictable, unknowable. Historically, they have been called possessed by demons and worse. I called myself some of these things; I even thought I was bad at being a person or that I was an alien. Learning about autism and how it applied to me made the world make sense, and made me make sense to others. Autism is an explanation for why things are painful or difficult, but also why some things are joyful or natural. Autism as a label is a signal to people like us, a beacon for others in the community. Those who cannot afford, both in terms of life circumstances and money, to have a professional stick that label onto them should not be denied any of that. 

You might be thinking, “Aurelia, wait! What about the fakes? The people who are calling themselves autistic for attention or as an excuse? What about the people who get it wrong?” Yes, there are people who use their diagnosis as an excuse to be unpleasant and not take accountability for their actions. These people are jerks, yes, but that does not necessarily mean they are faking. They could even have a formal diagnosis. And by the way, people cry “faker” much more often than faking actually happens, and that accusation tends to be made because people are uninformed about how varied a condition like autism can be. There are also people who see one meme that they relate to and suddenly decide to slap on a label. They are annoying, yes, and they are also missing the “diagnosis” part of self-diagnosis. There is a difference between seeing one meme that they did not even bother to check was actually accurate to autism, and going through the formal diagnostic criteria, personal testimonies of people like them (that would be autistic women for me), following multiple awareness and advocacy pages by actual autistic people, all the while having your diagnosed friend leaning over your shoulder going “see, what did I tell you?” (Thank you, Tech). One of my favorite internet quotes is, “Everybody pees, but if you’re doing it 60 times a day, you probably have a problem.” The “I saw one singular meme” person is equivalent to someone who peed once and decided they had a bladder infection. That is not self-diagnosis. 

As for those who get it wrong, who come into the community thinking they might be autistic and then change their minds, find something that makes more sense? How much harm are those people really causing? There is nothing wrong with making a mistake in identifying yourself and then correcting it, and the presence of the autistic community may even contribute to that discovery. When I was considering autism, I also briefly considered nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD)…until I met someone with that diagnosis and realized our stories were much too different. There is some overlap between NVLD and autism (that I should probably write a post about), but my experiences were a lot closer to that of my autistic peers than my NVLD ones. I am part of the subreddit r/bisexual, and sometimes I will see a post that says “Well, it turns out I’m actually a lesbian” or “I satisfied my curiosity and it looks like I’m straight after all”, and the comments will be full of “congratulations on your discovery, great to have had you visit, best of luck”. It is the same concept when someone feels that they “got it wrong” about autism. They came, they learned, they may have made friends. No harm in that. Besides, if 20 self-diagnosed people come into an autistic space and all of them end up getting their formal diagnoses except for one, who changes their mind, then that space has supported 20 people. If that autistic space had said “no self-diagnosis allowed” and closed their gates, then they have harmed 19 autistic people. One false alarm is not an excuse to deny support and community to what could turn out to be 19 of our own. 

When I was in the stage where I could have, should have, been called self-diagnosed, I called myself inconclusive because it felt safer. I was afraid to self-identify, so I took refuge in a grey area, as Schrodinger’s autisticat. I sometimes feel guilty or ashamed that I continued the anti-self-diagnosis narrative that had been stuck into me when I was in high school. The best I can do now is tell self-diagnosed and inconclusive people that it is okay, that they count in my book. The best I can do now is give “I think I might be autistic” and “I am on the suspectrum” a big ND high five. The best I can do to support self-diagnosis is to write this post. Whether you are formally diagnosed (with anything), self-diagnosed, inconclusive, or a neurotypical loved one or ally, stay gold!

Functioning Labels versus Support Needs Labels: Differentiation Within Autism

You may have heard the terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” before, or even used them yourself. The same is true of “mild”, “moderate”, and “severe” autism. You may have heard someone in an autism-centric space say “We don’t use functioning labels here.” But why is that? What is the problem with these labels, and what should we say instead?

Functioning labels have historically been used, and are still sometimes used today, to deny support to those deemed to be doing too well to need them (“You’re high-functioning, you don’t need a tutor for this class, stop using your autism as an excuse”) while also denying agency to those who seemed “low functioning” (“He can’t make this decision, he’s severely autistic”). They were created by neurotypicals as an excuse for ableism in both directions. Functioning labels and “severity” labels spread the misconception that the autism spectrum is linear, with practically neurotypical at one end and severely autistic at the other. In reality, the autism spectrum is a circle, not a line, like a color wheel. There are a large variety of ways to be autistic, but overall, you either are or you are not. There is no “everyone is a little bit autistic”.

“Functioning” is also a vague term. In the context of “high functioning”, people interpret it as having the same if not a stronger skillset as a neurotypical. This is incorrect. Most autistic people are not savants or billionaire super-geniuses. If you cannot tell an autistic person is not neurotypical, they are masking, and calling them high-functioning or saying “I can’t tell” is not a compliment. Masking is a huge factor in determining “functioning” level, at least colloquially. Another factor is speech. If an autistic person cannot speak, they are automatically considered “low functioning”, which is unfair considering plenty of alternative augmentative communication (AAC) users lead fulfilling lives and have loving relationships. And that does not even count the people who are semi-verbal/situationally speaking and use a combination of verbal speech and AAC. Some traits associated with “severe” autism are not part of autism at all, but are part of a comorbidity such as cerebral palsy, Tourette’s syndrome or another tic disorder, or intellectual disability. There are other ways to define what qualifies as “functioning”, including whether the person has a job or “contributes to society”, if they have friends or romantic or sexual relationships, if they can live on their own, and if they are in school or have a degree. It kind of makes me question what one has to do to qualify as a human, considering “low functioning” people are treated as if they are less than that because they do not do all of the things on that list. 

Within the autistic community, functioning labels create rifts. I wrote in my post about the Aspergers label (Aspergers is a functioning label too!) that it sounds elitist to draw a line between those who were once considered to be “Aspie” and those who were not. The same is true of words like “high and low functioning”. I can speak, I attend university, I was diagnosed late, and I feel like I am putting those who cannot down just by typing functioning labels. I do not consider myself above anyone else in the autistic community because they struggle with some things that come a bit easier for me, and neither should others. Everyone in the autistic community is worthy of respect and agency as a human regardless of whether they can speak, how far they have progressed in school, or whether they can hold a job. Autism is autism, and there is no secret club or hierarchy within that. 

However, there are contexts that call for differentiation. I would be kidding myself if I thought that every autistic person had the same needs because not all of us have the same abilities. Some people hear “autistic” and think about someone who still lives with their parents and does not speak verbally, some think of a human calculator, and some think of the “weird kid” in school who was always reading and never took off their coat. How do we specify what a specific autistic person needs while avoiding the trap of functioning labels? The answer is support needs labels. For example, I consider myself as having low support needs because I get accommodations at university, have been in therapy to manage social situations, anxiety level, and self-harm urges, and I need extra guidance when it comes to situations like managing my finances and going to new places. The guidance comes from my parents or friends; I have not needed to hire a professional. Some autistic people have professionals who go everywhere with them and help with daily tasks, or they get the same assistance from their families. They might be considered to have high support needs. Some live with a service dog and do part-time work, and have a professional that comes periodically rather than round-the-clock. They might be considered to have medium support needs. 

As we can see, support needs labels are more descriptive and more humane than functioning labels. They allow room for differentiation of needs and get more to the root of what that differentiation means. “Higher support needs” means exactly what it sounds like, that that person needs more help in order to have a fulfilling, safe, and healthy life. They also open up space for the people who are in the middle. (You never really hear “medium functioning”, do you)? Support needs, like any concept of needs, can change throughout an individual’s life, unlike functioning labels, which are rather deterministic. When you hear about a “low functioning” person, there tends to be the assumption that they always have been and always will be that way, but someone with “high support needs” is a person who needs more support at that point in time, with room for that to change. Autistic people are capable of learning and progressing, and they are also vulnerable to having setbacks, and this can change their support needs. 

Before I leave, I would like to make it clear that support needs labels are meant to be used in the context of talking about accommodations or similar situations where needs are relevant. They are not meant to be used to create a hierarchy within the autistic community, and they should not be brought up in a purely social setting. Do not make assumptions about the support needs of someone you have just met. Just because you cannot see struggles does not mean they do not exist, and making assumptions about someone’s life (especially in regards to work, school, or their relationships) is rude. Autism is autism, and support needs labels are a tool for getting the help we need while still maintaining our dignity as humans.

Avatar’s Zuko and his Autistic Traits

I think most people are familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was on Nickelodeon starting in 2005 and was added to Netflix last year. Despite being a children’s show, Avatar is full of complex and interesting characters, including the king of redemption arcs, Prince Zuko. After I finished watching the show on Netflix, I encountered a post on Facebook about Zuko being autistic, and I am inclined to agree. This is, so far, a headcanon, making Zuko Type 2 autism representation. 

First of all, Zuko is shown to have a laser-focused, even obsessive, way of moving through the world. For three years of his life, he focuses on capturing the Avatar so he can reclaim his honor and return to the Fire Nation. After he switches sides and becomes Aang’s friend rather than his pursuer, Zuko feels empty and confused. Even his fire powers are diminished! This lines up with how autistic people feel when they lose a special interest, either because it is impossible to engage with anymore or because it just does not do it for them. It creates a hollow feeling until a new interest is discovered. Despite his impatient temperament, Zuko is very tolerant of Iroh’s love for tea and pai sho, letting him wax poetic about it as they travel. Some autistic people experience what I like to call “infodumping compersion”, where we understand the excitement that comes from talking about a special interest, so we let them do it, even if it does not interest us. This looks like what Zuko does with his uncle. He knows tea makes Iroh as happy as the subject of capturing the Avatar does for himself, so he lets Iroh do it. 

Social reciprocity does not always come easily to Zuko, however. Remember the famous “that’s rough, buddy” clip? Zuko has no idea how to help Sokka with the loss of his girlfriend because he is not familiar with the situation (it was Zuko’s choice to leave Mai, so his feelings are different), so he says the first thing that comes to mind. The reason autistic people are often seen as lacking empathy is because of situations like this. We have a hard time imagining what it is like to be another person because we only know what it feels like to be ourselves. We also tend to fall apart without a script and end up saying the “wrong thing.” Zuko does some scripting before he addresses and apologizes to Aang and friends, practicing what he is going to say with a frog for an audience. Social hierarchy does not make sense in Zuko’s head either, which is a problem when you live in a rank-heavy society like the Fire Nation. The reason Zuko is an outcast in the first place is because he was burned for speaking out of turn during a meeting. Interrupting is an autism trait in itself, and this time he did it to high-ranking officers without caring who they were. Rank is one of those arbitrary social things that autistic people tend to ignore, and this time, it got Zuko in trouble. 

Zuko seems to struggle with the more abstract parts of communication, including jokes, metaphors, lies, and nonverbal cues. He does not seem to understand the structure of Iroh’s jokes, leading him to reveal the punchline, “leaf me alone”, of one before he has told the rest. He claims it is funnier when Iroh tells it and is confused as to why he cannot pull it off. Something similar happens when he hears Iroh’s metaphors, taking them literally or just losing patience with them because they are intangible. The trait that catches my attention most is Zuko’s relationship with lying. He tends to assume that other people, including Azula, are being straightforward with him, immediately believing Azula that Ozai wants him to come home. When Zuko is not invited to the meeting and Azula makes it look like a mistake, he believes her. In a flashback, we see Zuko have to verbally convince himself “Azula always lies”, as if it takes his mind extra effort to comprehend that she is not being truthful. Autistic people struggle with types of speech that are not concrete, especially with figuring out they are being lied to. I personally tend to learn the patterns of individuals, just like Zuko has to remember that Azula is lying because that is what Azula does. He also fails to pick up on nonverbal cues that Sokka and Suki want time alone to do couple stuff and that Jin wants to kiss him when they are on their date. During the same date scene, we see Zuko getting uncomfortable at Jin’s constant eye contact. He also avoids eye contact with his friends, including when he is fully facing the other way as Toph vents about her parents. (He probably figures out that eye contact does not mean as much to Toph because she cannot see). His father thought Zuko was a non-bender when he was little because he “did not have the spark in his eyes”, but this may be because Ozai could never get his son to look at him directly. 

Even though Azula is younger than Zuko, he is often seen mimicking her when they are kids. He laughs at everything she does, and it is only when his mother points it out that it occurs to him that just because Azula thinks it is funny to throw rocks at turtle ducks does not mean other people (or the turtle ducks) do. Mimicking behaviors is part of masking, something autistic people do to appear normal and avoid negative attention. It is also a thing for autistic kids to take up a following role among other kids, especially siblings, even if they are older. 

In terms of the sensory side of things, Zuko’s most noticeable issue is with his coordination. When demonstrating his firebending set to his grandfather, he falls over. As a teenager, he still has to practice his basics with Iroh. Balance and coordination problems are common for autistic people, and so is difficulty learning new movements. It takes longer for Zuko’s firebending to even manifest when he is little, which is similar to a child with coordination issues taking longer to walk. Zuko does not show much of a problem with lights or sounds, but he seems to have a hard time with touch. He always looks a bit flustered and uncomfortable when his friends hug him, though he does not shrug them off. This could be that he is not used to being hugged because he did not come from a very affectionate home, but it could also be that physical contact is overstimulating for him. 

I realize I am taking a big risk by posting a headcanon for a character from a show as popular and widely-discussed as Avatar. Zuko is also a hard case because he also came from an abusive household then lived at sea for a few years, so some of his behaviors might be more trauma-related. Regardless, I find Zuko to be a relatable and endearing character, and would gladly accept him into the autistic representation club.

Love on the Spectrum, Revisited: Did They Move Forward?

Back in April, I reviewed Love on the Spectrum, a reality show following autistic adults through their dating lives. Now I am back with my take on the second season. I had some ideas on what could be changed (read: fixed) about the show, and I was curious to see which of these changes they did implement while still preserving the things that worked well. 

We will start with the cast. There were a handful of newcomers, plus returning members Micheal, Mark, and Chloe. We also got to check on Jimmy and Sharnae as they prepared for their wedding. There was a much higher count of queer people, including those who were unsure of their sexuality, than in Season 1, which made my bisexual autistic heart sing. However, they were also all white and cis, a carryover from the previous round. I did not mention this in the first review because it did not occur to me until now, but I would have liked to see the inclusion of nonspeaking and/or AAC-using autists. They want to date too, you know! My favorite thing about the cast and the show as a whole is that we get to meet all kinds of autistic individuals and their unique interests and love styles. Musically-talented racecar enthusiast Ronan is different from politically outspoken, knowledge-hungry Teo who is different from slightly spiritual, toy-collecting romantic Micheal. I think that of the new cast, my favorites were Teo (for her loud and theatrical personality and relatable chronic overthinking) and Ronan (for his music, and I just thought he was really cute). It was also great to see Chloe again. 

I was not thrilled to see that neurotypical dating coach Jodi Rogers was back, despite the pairings being mostly between autistic people, not autistic to NT. However, she seems to have learned from her mistakes about forcing neurotypical social norms and instead focused on things that would help anyone on a date, such as knowing how to keep a conversation going. There were multiple concepts about autistic communication that Season 2 explored. Kassandra gave the camera an explanation on masking, and Teo told her date Morgan that she did not care whether he looked her in the eye and had been looking in a few different places herself. This was a big step from the first season when the cast were pressured to make eye contact. I was happy to see some unapologetic stimming on camera, particularly Teo’s happy rocking. The most interesting discourse on social communication, however, came from Jayden and his extensive knowledge of etiquette. He knew the history behind shaking hands (that it was meant to show you were not holding a weapon) and still found it relevant, but decided that filling his date’s water for them, while considered courteous, was too much of an undermining of autonomy. These are exactly the kinds of differences of opinion and experience that should be highlighted on an autistic dating show because it debunks the myth that autistic people are inconsiderate or rude. 

I said this in my Season 1 review, but I do not trust reality television, and this show is no exception. There were a couple of forced or contrived-seeming moments. I found myself wondering if Heather, the only autistic speed-dating partner that Micheal ticked out of five, was really his only match or if the show told the speed-dating event not to tell him about the others. I also questioned whether they arranged dates that would be less than successful in the first place, especially in Mark’s case. Did they set him up for failure before finally bringing in Chloe, knowing their pairing would be a success? The tone seemed slightly less voyeuristic and patronizing than Season 1’s, and this was especially emphasized during Kassandra’s panic attack, which was met with sympathy and understanding, and with Jimmy and Sharnae’s wedding, which was presented just like any other (including all the tears) and not treated as any more cutesy or miraculous than a wedding between NTs. The cast’s parents were still a bit too involved for my taste, but they were also shown with friends, which made them seem more their age. 

Throughout the show, I did become aware of a nagging problem, and that is Micheal. I am not saying that Micheal is a bad person or that he should be demonized; most of this is not even his fault. Remember how I said that the tone of the show had shifted from laughing or gawking at the autistic people? That is not the case with Micheal’s family. His mother’s response to practically anything her son said was to either call him some variety of cute and pat him on the shoulder, or give the camera a “can you believe this guy” look and laugh. This type of attitude has carried over to the NT audience. YouTube is full of compilations of “cute” or “funny” things Micheal has said, but the man is dead serious and confused as to why people keep laughing at him.  If you remember, she withheld the knowledge of Micheal’s diagnosis until he was thirteen, and she seems to be feeding him a bit of a false narrative even now. Micheal said something about being “autistic but you can’t quite tell.” Micheal, buddy, we can all tell, and your mother is shielding you. In Season 1, he made several anti-sex comments that made me, a sex-positive person, a bit uncomfortable. I am optimistic enough to believe that Micheal is just an asexual who has not been taught not to put non-ace people down, but after seeing the dynamic with his mother, one might draw the conclusion that he has been shamed for thinking about sex or told that it is not for him. This is not a healthy thing to be publicizing, but Micheal is publicized. He is practically the mascot of the show, a favorite of at least the NT audience (the NDs are not so crazy about him), yet there are plenty of autistic people who are nothing like him. 

Other than the concerns discussed in the previous paragraph, Love on the Spectrum is a largely positive show. Seeing people connect on dates is wholesome content, and the fact that the people connecting are autistic individuals is a bonus. Season 2 has improved in letting the cast exist freely as their autistic selves, and I think that that contributed to the success of the pairings. (The season ended with multiple official couples, a marked difference from Season 1). They mostly dropped the patronizing energy as well. I would have liked to see an ND dating coach, and the cast can continue to be diversified, but there were far more improvements than there were blunders. Love on the Spectrum is not perfect, but it is showing progress, and hopefully a third season will be even better.