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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!

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 TVTropes.org, 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. (https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/adhd-medication-chart) 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,

Aurelia

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 TVTropes.org 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.

What is Masking, and Why is it Harmful?

Starting in March 2020, I began to see people with their faces partially covered, wearing masks to prevent COVID-19. I still wear them today to protect myself and others, even though they can be unpleasantly hot and feel like someone has a hand clamped over my mouth. Before 2020, I had to endure something very similar for two autumns in a row because I live in a state with a wildfire season. I wore that mask to keep myself from inhaling smoke. Not every stranger who sees me knows that those two masks are not my first, that I have worn one that is much less perceptible and more harmful than safe. 

In a neurodiversity context, particularly an autism one, masking (or camouflaging) refers to the act of minimizing ND traits in order to blend in with typical society. This can include suppressing stims (the movements we make to regulate ourselves sensorily or emotionally), not speaking up when something is painful or confusing or otherwise not ideal, practicing conversations ahead of time, forcing small talk despite finding it irritating and pointless, avoiding talking about our special interests, mimicking or exaggerating faces and body language, and frequently apologizing if we let our natural selves slip through. (Not an exhaustive list, by the way. I am sure there are masking behaviors that I left out). Every time an autistic person who masks has a conversation, they are running through a checklist in their head about whether they are using the right words, tone, facial expressions, eye contact, even pausing at the right time. Basically, masking is pretending to be NT because we have been taught that that is the correct way to be a human. It is acting (in fact, that is what I called it before I knew the word “masking”), constantly throughout the day, without freedom to turn it off, to remove our masks, until we are alone. 

I am sure my masking started unconsciously, as it often does, though I do not remember it. I do, however,  remember the first time I enforced it on myself. I was in fourth grade, one of the worst social years of my life. I thought to myself that if I could just act like everybody else, I could have friends, I could be accepted. I used everything I had learned in school, communication therapy, and from every book, film, and TV series I had absorbed to become an actor. A theatrical autist. My voice and face are big and ever-changing to avoid misunderstanding, and the scripting, oh my land the scripting. Almost everything I said at that time in my life, I had read or heard. If not the words, then the tone and cadence. I still do this, though it is less obvious now. I also remember when I realized that I had to act that I was interested in whatever someone was telling me, even if I was bored, didn’t understand, or felt no connection to it. I thought, wrongly, that everyone acted half of their emotions. I was also suppressing my stims because I had been told that they were disruptive and that I needed to be poised and contained. 

What exactly is wrong with masking? Masking expends energy; on top of completing day-to-day tasks, masking people have to spend their focus on whether they are being a person correctly too. This is part of why autistic people tend to find social functions, especially more formal ones like weddings and corporate parties, so draining. Too much of this leads to burnout as the mask cracks, leaving a tired, anxious, unmotivated mess of a person underneath. Masking can also leave us questioning who we really are because we spend so much time not being ourselves. I remember internally cringing whenever I engaged with the mean “roasting” humor popular with my generation. I disliked what I was turning into; it did not feel comfortable or like me. I remember feeling sad that my peers at school thought of me as a stiff, quiet perfectionist with no sense of fun because I was holding it all in. All of my natural personality had nowhere to go, while I was worn ragged by pretending to be normal. 

When I graduated high school, before I even knew I was autistic, I told myself I would stop hiding, let my weird show through. After spending time in ND communities online and eventually getting my official diagnosis, I gained more vocabulary and specific ideas of how to do that. I have made progress, letting myself stim in public, filing for accommodations in my university classes, and letting myself look at people’s collar bones or over their shoulders instead of directly into their eyes. I have almost fully embraced my echolalia. Some things are harder though. I still face a mental wall when it comes to infodumping about my SpIns to others, and repetitively experiencing anything (aka looping) is still “against the rules” in my head. I know logically that I should not have to hide, that unlike the COVID mask, my normalcy mask is not keeping anyone safe, but unmasking is a work in progress. It will not happen overnight.

Why I “Lack Initiative”

When I read through any job description and its requirements, there is one component that always gives me nervous chills: “must display initiative.” I remember a particular interview that touched on this quality specifically, where I was asked how I would take initiative in this potential job. I answered that if I had no tasks that I knew I needed to complete, I would start my shift by asking what needed to be done, what I could help with. The interviewer said that this was not enough and used as an example an employee who had been there for over a year, saying that she would arrive, see something, and immediately start doing it. The most obvious flaw here is that I, a prospective employee who had not even been trained yet, was being compared to someone who was deeply familiar with the procedures of the office because she had been there much longer. If I were to try to do what she did as a new person, it would be highly probable that I would make a mistake because I was new

There is a deeper problem here though. For those of you who do not know me yet, hello, I am Aurelia, and I am autistic. Growing up autistic is like perpetually being “the new one” in social situations, perpetually following the job training program that is life. I spent most of my childhood being told that I was speaking, moving, and existing wrong. I fear now that if I were to reach my hand forward, someone would slap it because it was in the wrong position. Everywhere I went, it was “wait for instructions, wait your turn, wait for your elders, wait for your juniors, wait for a plan.” Wait wait wait. And so I am still waiting. In a new setting, whether that be a job or simply a house I am visiting for the first time, I wait for someone to show me what they need from me, for fear of taking initiative incorrectly and doing more harm than good. (I cannot just watch and copy either. Copying actions that I have witnessed purely visually is not a strong suit of mine, and I learned the hard way that just because someone else is doing something does not mean I need to, or should, do that thing). When I am in the company of my parents’ peers, I default to not speaking unless I am referenced or directly asked something because I have been told too many times not to interrupt or be rude. I have been improving around my own peers, but that is because my goal is always the same: make a friend, and I was taught how to do that at various points in my life. To continue the employment analogy, I know my task, and I have had the training. 

I have experienced incidents of attempting to do a task, maybe one that had unclear instructions, maybe one that I was not supposed to touch. Upon attempting and then making a mistake, or asking for confirmation and/or clarification, I have been told, “It’s not that hard! Use your brain!” But I am using my brain. If I have the ability to reach toward whatever I did, to stand in front of you and ask “how do I do this?”, to hear you snap those seven words at me, I can assure you my brain is operational and in use. Use my brain. I only have my brain, and it only runs in this particular way. I have my brain, not yours, not Bill Gates’s, not the brain of any other individual besides myself. That would probably be illegal, possessing someone else’s brain. Everyone is working with what they have, including me, you, Crazy Dave in the parking lot, every tech CEO, and every factory worker bee. So think of every prospective employee that has been turned away because they lacked one quality, such as initiative. Think of how they might have been punished into fear of that very thing.

An Autist Goes to Burning Man

CW: This post contains mention of drugs and alcohol.

A few weeks ago, I attended the art show/concert/mass community camping trip known as Burning Man. The first time I heard about this event was from my dad when I was fifteen. He described it as “a place where you can let your weird out,” and this cemented it in my head as something I should absolutely try before the end of my life. I was not disappointed. 

Let me acknowledge a few things first. I am lucky, first of all, that I have a father who is cool enough to not only participate in something like the Burn, but also to include me without keeping me on a short leash. I also happen to be an autistic person with the kind of sensory profile that leans towards seeking, so a place full of loud music, bright lights, and lots of people does fit into my idea of fun. I know that some of my peers would find this setup hellish. Burning Man is also a very spontaneity-oriented thing; it is very hard to make and stick to a plan. The six days I was there were the ultimate test in turning off the anticipatory, planning-centric part of my brain and just seeing where things led me. The last thing is COVID safety: the desert where Burning Man takes place is hot, dry, and full of alkaline dust, which makes for a hostile environment for germs. I am also vaccinated and I sanitized my hands regularly while I was there. I ended up testing negative for COVID, which was a relief because that meant I could move back onto campus for this school year. 

Back to the subject at hand. Burners are generally some of the most accepting, non-judgemental people in existence, and they welcome visible enthusiasm. The first thing I did when I stepped out of the truck and onto Playa dust for the first time was wiggle my entire body and scream like I was possessed. It was the one way I could think of to release the excited energy that was rushing through me. A similar moment occurred the next day when I, in my euphoria at having multiple positive interactions, started to spin in the middle of an open space where others could see. Spinning is my “biggest” stim, one that I normally do around trusted people or alone. Almost every conversation I had, I found myself rocking back and forth or shaking my leg. Not one person told me to stop or even gave a ridiculing look. It is possible they attributed any unusual behavior to drugs, but they accepted it without question. It was hot during the day, but I received no shaking heads for my skimpy outfits because everyone was wearing ridiculous clothing, if they were wearing anything at all. 

Speaking of drugs, while they are popular on the Playa, there is no peer pressure or judgement for being sober. I do not drink alcohol, and I have always felt the need to explain that I have no desire to feel drunk, followed by a disclaimer that I do not mind if others drink around me. At Burning Man, this spiel stopped being used after about two days. People respected my “no thank you” and moved on with the interaction. The same was true of physical contact. I am a major cuddler, and a lot of others I met were too, but there seemed to be a policy of asking, either with words or by opening one’s arms without moving forward, before hugging someone else. Again, boundaries were respected without question, and I appreciated the extra warning beforehand. I asked and received permission from several people to pet their fluffy coats, something I would be afraid to do anywhere else. 

Burning Man is full of things to see, hear, do, and feel. The most intriguing things were the lights. The Playa is truly a place without darkness, with the sun during the day, the stars and moon at night, and LED lights everywhere. Even the people were twinkling and flashing as they cruised around on foot or on their bikes. There is music playing from every corner, and even though I have a hard time relating to techno (the most popular genre at the Burn), I loved being rocked to sleep by bass. I was high for some of my wanderings, and that made all of the sensations pleasant and took away any fear I might have had. Being high makes me remember things that I normally do not think of, and I loop things in my head more intensely and unapologetically. I spent one morning looping the beginnings of a song idea as I waited for the sun. I got to ride on three art cars, which are exactly what they sound like, and I almost felt like I was flying, even though we were going rather slowly. Even the dust, which I thought I would hate, was soft and cool and fun to roll around in. 

The final gem that I would like to share is the people. I am extroverted and love to make new connections, and these people were said to be the best type of odd, meaning great for me. I kept a record of every name I learned, some seemingly real, some obviously made-up. I still remember the tripper who gripped my hand and had me watch the dust swirling in the light of his headlamp, the man that I spent over an hour talking to in front of a fire pit before my first sunrise, the various people who danced with me, the woman who claimed to have been coming for almost as long as I have been alive and had brought all of her children there with her. The best part was that I did not feel othered or like I was behind the entire time. I had no worries about being clocked as autistic or being judged for any stims or unusual communication. When someone at Burning Man hears that it is your first time, they tell you “welcome home”. This is an accurate phrase, for I felt like I could return there year after year and always feel found. 

Onward’s Lightfoot Brothers and Their Contrasting Neurodivergence

Onward was released by Pixar in February 2020, right before the pandemic started. It was the last film I saw in theaters, and the only movie theater date I had with my boyfriend at the time. At the heart of Onward were the two protagonists, brothers Barley and Ian Lightfoot, and how they complemented and contrasted each other throughout the story. Their mother Laurel said it best: “One of them is afraid of everything, and the other isn’t afraid of anything.” This is an accurate statement in itself, but can we look deeper? Autism is a spectrum, and two autistic people can possess contrasting traits, even siblings. Laurel’s observation indicates that both of her sons could be autistic, in very different ways. 

Ian is the younger brother, the one who is “afraid of everything”, and the one I happen to relate more to. He is cautious and fears the unexpected, which is a trait associated with autism. We see him trying to control the adventure by making plans and lists, and rejects spontaneity. He also takes a lot of prep and encouragement before talking to strangers. When he goes to ask his classmates to come to his birthday party, he rehearses his script out loud and even writes reminders down on his hand in effort to get it right. When Ian is approached by a stranger, like his dad’s old college buddy in the diner before school, he is visibly uncomfortable and does more listening than talking, possibly because he is at a loss for words. Ian’s need for control also manifests strongly when he is learning to drive. Driving is a difficult thing for many autistic people because we have a hard time judging distance and speed, predicting other people’s intentions on the road, and navigating. Watching Ian quietly freak out as he waits for a place to merge into traffic is an all too familiar mood. His timidness could also be explained by sensory sensitivities and his need to avoid overstimulation, and what his mother perceives as a fear reaction to things that are loud, bright, close, or chaotic could actually be pain and sensory overload. 

Ian is also very studious and cares a lot about his schoolwork. This could be a product of him being afraid to mess up as well as a general love for learning. Towards the beginning of the film, another student is able to guilt Ian into letting him rest his feet on Ian’s chair despite the physical discomfort, the reason being that if the blood collected in the troll student’s feet as a result of them not being elevated, he would concentrate poorly in class. Since doing well in school is important to Ian, he cares enough about this not happening to his classmate that he gives in. This is a common thought process for autists, as I wrote before in my L post: “If I care about this thing, then others must too, and therefore I should preserve said thing for them.” What about special interests? It might be unusual, but Ian’s main focus is his dead father’s memory. When Ian plays the recording of Wilden’s voice and talks back to it, it is obvious that this is a ritual he has done hundreds of times. He also wears Wilden’s college hoodie proudly and is more upset when it gets ripped than is normal for someone whose clothing has been mildly damaged. 

Barley, by contrast, is unfazed by anything. He seems to be on the undersensitive side, always craving stimulation and never being hurt by everyday sensory input. Barley’s voice is loud and unmodulated, and he constantly invades people’s personal space without considering that it might be less pleasant for them. Having no sense of physical danger is also the experience of some autistic people, which is why we run into the street or walk in front of other people sometimes. Unlike Ian, Barley struggled with school and has no plan for his life despite having graduated high school. This could be because school was too restrictive and not stimulating enough for him, and struggles with social protocols (shaking hands, not going off about historical facts, etc) prevent him from getting a job, just like some real life NDs. Another trait that might have been overlooked by other viewers is the lack of a friend group in Barley’s life. Most older brothers in this type of movie have some friends that mess with the younger sibling or take them under their wing, but not Onward. There is not even a mention of any friends that Barley plays Quests of Yore (the film’s in-universe tabletop RPG similar to Dungeons and Dragons) with. This sets off my autism radar like crazy because so many autistic adults talk about not having a friend group or always being extraneous in social settings growing up. 

Speaking of Quests of Yore, Barley is open about that game, history, and anything magic as his special interests. He is obsessed with the noble past of New Mushroomton, his hometown, and goes so far in protecting local monuments and relics that the police know him by face and name. Laurel connects with him by communicating in language that relates to these interests when she says, “If I find your soldiers on my land, our kingdoms will go to war!”, which sounds more effective to an RPG fan than “Pick up your toys before I take them.” The alternate title to this post could be “Why Laurel Lightfoot is the Best Cartoon Mom Ever.” /hj Barley’s love for the Quests of Yore game also could explain why he is better at improvising and making do with what he has than his brother, since games like that tend to rely on schemes at least as ridiculous as making a raft out of a cheese puff. They also incorporate an element of acting, which autistic people who are used to masking and studying behavior have a knack for. (What I am trying to say is, playing Quests of Yore makes Barley good at moving through the world as an autistic person, and moving through the world as an autistic person makes him good at Quests of Yore).  The magical part of these two autistic brothers is how their strengths and weaknesses compensate for each other’s. Ian is uncomfortable with driving, talking to strangers, and coming up with ideas on the fly, so Barley steps in to help with all of these. Barley struggles with taking precautions and planning ahead, so Ian keeps him on track. Situations that are unpleasant or scary for Ian are no problem for Barley. Barley has memories of the boys’ dad, which motivate Ian, and Ian can wield magic, which gives Barley something to teach his brother. Onward is about the two Lightfoot brothers finding their strengths together and showing that neurodivergence is diverse even within families.

Why I Do Not Use the Term “Aspergers”

CW: This post mentions the Holocaust, Nazism, and eugenics. Proceed with caution. 

Throughout my life, people have asked me if I am an Aspie, if I have Aspergers syndrome. The answer is no, and this post explains why. First, I would like to disclaim that this is my personal experience and opinion, and while it is shared by other autistic people, it is not universal. If you are reading this as an autistic person, you have the freedom to call yourself what you want, and it does not have to match me. If you are not autistic, please respect the preferred language of the autistic people (and everyone else) around you. Now, why do I refuse to call myself an “Aspie”?

Let me get the most obvious and least serious part out of the way first: the word Aspergers sounds stupid. It sounds like “ass” and “burgers”, which in turn sounds like a disgusting thing a school bully would threaten to serve you after you declined a knuckle sandwich. It is such an unattractive and obscene-sounding word that I have a hard time taking myself seriously when I say it, so how am I to say that I am that and expect others to take it seriously? Using that word invites people to make fun of me, and I already have been made fun of enough for being what I am. 

The second reason is that I would technically be lying if I said I had Aspergers. I live in the United States, where psychological diagnoses are made based on the DSM-V. Since I was diagnosed in 2020 and Aspergers has been absorbed into autism in the DSM-V since 2013, my diagnosis letter says “autism spectrum disorder”, not “Aspergers syndrome.” It is not even my official diagnosis, so why would I identify with it? That being said, there are people who have Aspergers on their records because they were diagnosed earlier. Maybe these people are used to referring to themselves that way and have come to feel strongly about it, and that is their business. 

On a darker note, there is a painful history behind the Asperger name. Hans Asperger was a Nazi scientist who separated autistic people who were “functional” and “useful to society” from those who were not. Those who did not make the cut were killed. Hans Asperger also expressed open contempt for his subjects of study. I do not want to associate myself with an evil scientist who was responsible for the death of thousands like me. If I were to call myself Aspie, I would be saying “I would have won the approval of someone who thought I should die.” That is not a thing to brag about, or something to be reminded of every time I declare my identity. 

There was a dividing line between Aspergers and autism starting with that bit of history, but no one seems to agree on where it is. Some psychologists say that Aspergers is autism without a language delay, some say it is the ability to mask (pretend to be neurotypical), some say it is the absence of intellectual disability. The distinction is so blurry that it might as well not exist, and I do not want it to exist. I will not draw a line in the sand between “Aspergers” and the rest of autism so a small subset of a large and varied group can go “I am not like those people over there.” Autism is autism, and we should not gatekeep people based on whether they have intellectual disability or any other comorbidity, or whether they can speak. We especially should not be excluding people based on a lack of masking because masking is a harmful behavior. I will never tell another autistic person “I am better than you because I hurt myself for years trying to conform and you did not.” The concept of a rift between autistic people and “Aspies” is similar to the war between transmedicalists (trans people who believe that gender dysphoria is required to be trans, often reject non-binary identities, and are hailed by cis folks as “the good ones”) and everyone else under the trans umbrella. It is elitist gatekeeping, and I will not take part in it. If you are someone who identifies as an Aspie, be mindful of this perceived rift, and do not treat autistic people without the Aspie label as less-than. Self-labeling is fine, gatekeeping is not.

I hope this post was informative and made a few people think. I am also sorry for the gap in posts. I really should set up a writing schedule.

What Are Tone Indicators, and How Do They Help?

You may have been reading a comment on Reddit or a message on Discord and seen a little slash and a letter at the end of a sentence. This is not a typo, but a handy communication strategy that helps convey tone through text. A ton of autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people struggle to pick up nonverbal cues for when someone is being humorous or sarcastic in a conversation, or if someone is flirting versus just being friendly. In text, the hints that some of us are trained to look for, such as voice inflection and facial expressions, are not even present! For me, I tend to assume people are being straightforward and serious, and it has led to a lot of text-based miscommunication, such as me taking someone’s sarcasm as being mean. Emojis sometimes help, but people have meanings ascribed to those that might not match up, and filler textisms such as “lol” and “lmao” are tacked onto sentences so often that they have all but lost their punch. Tone indicators, also called tone tags, have mostly undisputed meanings and are used only as needed. I have included a list of common and useful tone tags, plus a few that I feel should be in use. 

/s: Sarcasm. This is probably the most common one, originating on Reddit outside of ND circles. “Right, that house is definitely not haunted. /s”

/j: Joke. The other common one, and probably my most-used. “[under a photo of a black cat in loaf position] I think you left your loaf in the oven too long. /j”

/hj: Half-joke. This is for when you say something that is mostly a joke, but also kind of true. Ex. “All cats are autistic. /hj”

/ij: Inside joke. This is for when friends reference something that will make sense to them but not to others reading the conversation. Ex. “[under a photo of a bee] I found a spicy compliment! /ij”

/srs: Serious. I find this one redundant because I take most things seriously, but others I know need this one more often. /srs works well for emphasizing a serious thing that would normally be taken lightly, or to show that you are done joking. Ex. “Stop, that’s bothering me. /srs”

/g or /gen: Genuine. This one works well for compliments from the heart. It also is great for asking questions without seeming ignorant or smart-alecky, showing that you actually want to learn. Ex. “What does shutdown mean? /gen”

/t: Teasing. For when you are lightly ribbing someone but mean no harm. Ex. “You’re an old lady. /t”

/lh: Light-hearted. Kind of like /t, this one shows that you are being light and silly and do not mean any aggression. Ex. “The Brits are weird. /lh”

/nm: Not mad. This indicates that you are, you guessed it, not angry despite the words you are using. It makes others a lot less anxious. Ex. “[under a relatable meme] I feel attacked. /nm”

/ly: Lyrics. Some people will randomly quote lyrics to songs, and this tag lets people know that they are not to be answered like a regular message. Ex. “Soon may the wellerman come to bring us sugar and tea and rum /ly”

/c: Copypasta. For those of limited internet experience, a copypasta is a type of meme that consists of a long text that people copy and paste. Copypastas do have the danger of being taken literally, so /c prevents some embarrassing situations. I am not sticking a copypasta example in this post. Go look one up if you are curious.

/p: Platonic. Use this one for messages that could be taken as flirting, but you mean them in a friends-only way. This helps me so much when I want to compliment my friends without it being taken too far. Ex. “Your voice is really nice. /p”

/r: Romantic. Use this when you are flirting and want to be romantic and/or sexual with someone. Ex. “I want to hold your hand. /r”

/pos: Positive. Some phrases are ambiguous as to whether they are good or bad things, so tacking on /pos helps. Not to be confused with POS, which stands for piece of sh!t. Ex. “[under some delicious-looking art] “I want to lick it! /pos”

/neg: Negative. The opposite of /pos, this one indicates a negative connotation. Ex. “[under a flashy GIF] Now I feel like I’m on something! /neg”

/q: Quote. I have never seen this used, but it should be a thing. /q is similar to /ly, except it denotes a quote from a book, movie, or show rather than song lyrics. Again, autistic folks love to quote, sometimes from less familiar sources. Ex. “My name is Iñigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die. /q”

/f or /fig: Figurative. Figures of speech, especially unfamiliar ones, can confuse autistic people. I have started using this tag to show that whatever I just said is not supposed to be literal. Ex. “I don’t want my professor to bite my head off for doodling in class. /fig”

/m or /met: Metaphor. Similar to /fig, I created this indicator to show that I am using a metaphor or analogy to get my point across instead of being literal. Ex. “Should I be left behind because I am a fish being forced to climb a tree? /met”

Tone indicators are not a rule, and I cannot insist on them outside of ND-centric spaces. (And even there, people are forgiving if someone forgets). Some people might find them silly or view them as an unnecessary crutch, but I think of them more as a tool that saves time and emotional energy during online interactions. The idea of indicating tone and intent is not new. Heck, the conlang Làadan included something similar before the world wide web was created. Tone tags might become a new component of text-based language just like emojis or abbreviated textisms. Do you know of any tone indicators or other ND-friendly texting strategies that I did not include here?

Atypical, a Heartfelt and Real Autism Story

Atypical is a Netflix series whose first season was released in 2017 and whose fourth season is due to premiere this July. (Good timing, me). The series follows an 18-year-old boy named Sam Gardner, who was diagnosed with autism at age four. His parents, Elsa and Doug, and his sister, Casey, also have their own character arcs. Overall, Atypical has the feeling of a coming-of-age dramatic comedy, except that autism is stirred into it. Since Sam narrates, it feels like the audience is in the shoes of an autistic person, rather than it being a voyeuristic ad for living with autism. There are a lot of negative reviews on this show, but I think that people have been a bit hard on it. I have to say, I loved this show more than I expected and thought that it told a valuable story about a particular autistic character. However, there were some things that I wish they included or handled differently. 

Let me get the most glaring mistake out of the way first: Keir Gilchrist, who is neurotypical, plays Sam, who is autistic. Since Gilchrist does not naturally talk or move like an autistic person, his acting comes off as kind of an uncanny valley effect. However, there is nothing that seems mocking or parodist about it. Sam’s voice is not monotone exactly, but his cadence is unusual, and his facial expressions are stilted. This matches how real autistic people look and sound sometimes, but it comes off a little forced when Gilchrist does it. However, there is nothing that seems mocking or parodist about it. I also wish that they had not written Sam as another cishet white boy when autistic women, LGBT+ people, and people of color are already underrepresented. Later in the show though, we meet Sam’s peer group, who are varied by race, gender, and autism characteristics, and they are all played by autistic actors. 

Sam as a character is a classic Type 1A autism representation; his autism is known and talked about on the show, and it plays a significant part in the plot. Although Sam is the stereotypical early-diagnosed straight white guy, he breaks convention with his special interests. Instead of the math or physics genius we are used to seeing, Sam is an animal lover and an Antarctic ecology enthusiast. These two fascinations intersect to form a more specific special interest in penguins. Throughout his narration, Sam makes connections between his own life and the daily lives of animals and Antarctic scientists. This is a nice narrative touch as well as a good way of showing how autistic people can almost always find a way to connect their reality with their special interest, and hearing interesting animal facts is a bonus. In Seasons 2 and 3, Sam develops a passion for art too, and his knowledge of engineering, while not really a major interest, is present enough to have named his pet tortoises Tesla and Edison. To my relief, Sam is not portrayed as a savant or prodigy, but he is academically intelligent enough to have the third highest GPA in his grade, which some autistic people can relate to.

The theme that Atypical focuses on most is change and progression. Sam states multiple times how much he hates changes and surprises, and he combats this by researching new things such as memorizing the layout to Techtropolis before he starts work there and studying the freshman survival guide for Denton University before he attends orientation. His approach to dating is also very methodical and scientific, even taking notes on “pick up chicks” YouTube videos and observing his peers at school as if he were, well, a scientist studying a new species of penguin. At the same time, Sam is at a point in his life where everything is changing and nothing is static, since he is not only graduating from high school and starting university but also learning about dating and deeper peer relationships. I loved seeing an autistic person onscreen who was not static or stagnant. At the end of Season 1, Sam compliments his dad on the igloo he built and hugs him without prompting, which is a complete transformation from the nine-year-old Sam who would not even go inside the first igloo Doug built because “the blocks were crooked”. Julia also praises Sam for setting and accomplishing many new goals, considering that when he and Julia first met, he was only focused on what he could not do. 

Sam’s social challenges are present and consistent, though like I said, he does learn. He views emotions and interpersonal relationships as something to study until he knows them perfectly, and then gets frustrated and confused when he discovers that feelings do not have a right or wrong answer. He starts the show off thinking that humans partner for life just like penguins do, and he has to learn about cheating, multiple relationships, the “grey area”, and flings. (By the way, props to Netflix for making an autistic character who is aware of and interested in sex). Sam also seems to struggle with nonliteral speech, asking for clarification on idioms, and takes requests very seriously, such as when he skips his own midterm to go find Zahid because he “can’t let him screw up nursing school.” Sam is trusting of others, leading him to be tricked into getting his phone broken by Arlo and be accepted as part of the Tasty Trio only to be ditched later. As someone who defaults to thinking people are being truthful and is sometimes hurt because of it, I am glad that Atypical included scenes like these. Sam also infodumps about Antarctic animals often, to the point where other characters get annoyed, but he cannot understand why they would not be interested. He also has a hard time filtering out which details are necessary, which leads to him mentioning two very different things with the same tone as well as a very relatable problem with taking notes because he tries to write down everything that comes out of his professor’s mouth. 

Speaking of a lack of filters, Sam’s sensory issues are incorporated quite well into the show. In the first episode, Sam narrates that he hates touching his back to the bus seat, so he sits as straight as possible. He is seen using his backpack as a buffer in a later episode. He shows us a stim that he does with a pencil and a rubber band, which seems to be for when he is anxious or bored/understimulated. Sam’s senses seem to become more heightened when he is emotional, such as him being able to hear couples making out at the silent dance as he stresses about where he stands with Paige. He also goes into sensory overload while trying to sleep over at Zahid’s house and ends up fleeing, and again when the fire alarms and sprinklers go off at Techtropolis. When Sam has overloads and meltdowns, he covers his ears with his hands, stims by rocking back and forth, and recites the names of the four Antarctic penguin species, “Adelie, chinstrap, emperor, gentoo.” Having a mantra like that is a real strategy for NDs and people with anxiety disorders to calm down, and Sam ends up sharing the tip with his dad, who in turn teaches it to another autistic student, Amber. During the big meltdown after Julia yells at him, Sam loses his speech and can only cry and make pained sounds, which is distressing to see on TV but not inaccurate. The part that made me scratch my head was when Sam was recovering from the same meltdown. Elsa wraps him in several blankets and turns up the heat, which is counterproductive in my head. I like the weight and pressure of blankets, and it is made clear that Sam likes pressure too, but heat tends to make me feel more overwhelmed. This might be a difference of individual sensory profiles though. 

Another nice touch was including Sam’s echolalia and how it felt inside his head. Throughout the show, a word or phrase would get stuck in Sam’s head, and his voiceover would loop it in a variety of tones and cadences. Eventually, Sam would blurt the word out regardless of his environment, such as when he greeted Beth and Evan by shouting “twat.” A lot of autistic people can relate to getting something stuck in their head and having to say it. I was worried at first that the show would drop this behavior after the first episode, but it did reoccur. 

There are a few things that I felt were missing from Atypical though. Some aspects of Sam’s life were glossed over despite being important in the life of a real ND, such as how he got his job at Techtropolis. Was he in some sort of job placement program for autistic teens, or was Elsa just really good at drilling Sam on application and interview procedures? Not a lot of detail went into the types of therapies Sam received as a kid either, though it is implied that he did not start having one-on-one sessions with Julia until a year or two before the show started. Even though we see Elsa’s mom group, very little mention is made of the children of those moms, except for Louisa’s son Christopher, who gets a few minutes of screen time. Are these ABA supporters? Is ABA going to be addressed at all? A few references are made to “replacement behaviors”, but we get no explanation of what these behaviors are. I wondered if these behaviors had any connection to masking (pretending to be NT), which got no mention in the series. The mom group corrects Doug, insisting on person-first language, but Sam seems to show no preference for whether he prefers to be called “autistic”, “a person with autism”, or “on the spectrum”, and all three of these terms are said in his presence. The last thing that seemed absent was comorbidity. Autistic people have a higher chance of developing anxiety disorders, including OCD, and Sam shows what I think are some pretty blatant OCD traits. Wanting to complete Casey’s birthday ritual because that is how they do it every year could be passed off as just part of Sam thriving on routine, as autistic people do, but fearing that if they do not complete the ritual, Edison the tortoise will die? That sounds more like an obsessive-compulsive cycle. Having to knock four times before opening the wardrobe is not exactly an autism-only behavior either. Sam is also quite particular about his food, yet no mention is made of ARFID, an eating disorder that a ton of autistic kids struggle with, or any gastrointestinal issues, another common comorbidity. 

I cannot talk about Sam without talking about the other characters around him and how they interact with the autistic protagonist. Sam’s mom, Elsa, starts the series out as a quintessential Autism Mom, schedule board and support group included. I am relieved but surprised that she did not own any puzzle piece paraphernalia. It turns out though that Elsa is a meddling yente with everybody she knows, and the fact that one of her kids is autistic is just a bonus. Doug, on the other hand, is initially distant with Sam and questions whether his son even enjoys his presence, but he ultimately becomes the better parent for Sam because he recognizes that Sam needs to be independent. Elsa is still tempted to do everything for Sam to the point that he feels infantilized, even sending Paige over to make sure the stove is working correctly. Casey, Sam’s sister, sometimes resents Sam for getting more attention from their parents, and this leads to Sam’s ultimate lesson in becoming less self-centered and more considerate of others, which is appropriate for a teenager to learn in a dramedy. Casey sometimes messes with Sam by teasing him or punching him, but if anyone else tries to do the same, she goes into protective mode. There are times when Casey goes too far with antagonizing Sam though, particularly during their fight after Casey moves an already-stressed Sam’s toothbrush one too many times. Paige, Sam’s on-and-off girlfriend, initially comes off as viewing Sam as a pet project or an experiment, leading to some harsh words from Casey, but she grows protective of Sam to the point where she screams herself hoarse on the last day of school because some other classmates wrote mean words in Sam’s yearbook. Paige’s loud, hyper-bubbly personality and lack of respect for his boundaries (cue her touching his stuff) presents a challenge for the more reserved, territorial Sam, which is good for a first relationship because it teaches Sam what he does and does not want. One thing that bothered me about Paige was that she restricted Sam from talking about his special interests, while she could blather on about whatever she wanted. After their first breakup though, Paige drops this hypocrisy and their relationship evolves to them talking however much they feel comfortable, though Sam still has to learn things like being considerate of his girlfriend and asking how she is feeling. My favorite side character would have to be Zahid, Sam’s friend from work. Zahid does a lot of things right in terms of being Sam’s friend without even trying too hard. He talks to Sam not as if he is “that special kid”, but as a younger bro who needs a little guidance but is ultimately the more logical, dependable anchor for spontaneous, live-in-the-moment Zahid. He respects Sam’s sensory needs, asking permission before hugging him and remarking that he remembers Sam liking pressure, and he offers life lessons that are more natural and less clinical, if a bit misguided. The clinical side of things comes from Julia, Sam’s therapist. She answers Sam’s questions about socializing and dating, and apparently does a bit too good of a job understanding Sam because he develops a crush on her. (I joke, of course, Sam’s crush was not Julia’s fault). Julia is understandably upset and shocked when Sam asks if she loves him, but she later apologizes for yelling at Sam and gives him one last bit of guidance. 

Overall, Sam’s autism is not treated as a plague or as something that makes him any more inspirational than the average person. When his guidance counselor suggests that he write his personal statement on his autism, Sam responds that that would be like someone writing about having ten fingers and ten toes. He does not view being autistic as an accomplishment or a superpower at this point, though he does embrace his eye for detail when going on the quest to find Zahid towards the end of Season 3. In his narration, he speaks of his autistic traits just as part of himself, not totally good or bad. He does not complain about disliking light touch or brag about his overpreparedness. By presenting his autism as a part of himself that just is, he nails neutrality in a way that I still cannot. This turned out to be a looooong review, but considering how well-known Atypical is, I did not want to skip anything important. I would give it a strong eight point five out of ten. This series, above all else, tells a real, relatable story. Sam Gardner is one autistic individual with one set of autistic traits, and the inclusion of his narration and unique sound editing choices make it so viewers experience his life up close and personal. This show really could have been an anti-autism scare-tactic ad, and it could have been an inspiration porn fest, but it went the neutral route instead. I would love to see more autistic actors given the spotlight in the new season since they cannot really replace Gilchrist at this point, and I would also like to see some of the themes that were left out of the show so far. Maybe have Sam meet a late-diagnosed female classmate who is learning to unmask? Again, Atypical is a heartfelt story with a relatable and realistic protagonist, and no one should be afraid to watch it. 

10 Similarities Between Discovering Autism and an LGBTQ+ Identity

Before we get into this list, I would like to apologize for my period of silence. I have been preoccupied with finals, moving off-campus and back home with my parents, and all of the anxiety associated with that. Transitions are hard for me, and I cannot think of a good simile to compare them to right now without it sounding forced. Second and more to the point, I would like to wish everyone reading this a happy and safe Pride Month. This month is rather important to me because there is a lot of overlap between the neurodivergent community and the LGBTQ+ community. (I like to call us QUILTBAGs, but I fear that will never catch on). I am a newly-discovered bisexual woman, and since I came to terms with my sexuality after I was diagnosed as autistic, I noticed a lot of parallels, a lot of similar landmarks, between the two journeys. I decided to post this list to share my experience and to celebrate the intersection between LGBTQ+ folks and NDs. 

  1. The Denial

Sadly but truly, I was afraid of both identities throughout my life. I have mentioned internalized ableism before, in my Neutrality post, and how it made me block out any signs that I could be autistic, or have OCD or paranoia, for that matter. I ignored my                    similarities to ND characters in books, and I was terrified of other people finding out that I had trouble with things like eye contact or understanding that my left was opposite to the left of someone facing me. A similar thing happened whenever I had feelings for someone who was not a boy. I brushed it off as being envious, as wanting to be that person (most of the time it was a girl), or just wanting a friendship with them. Whenever an adult talked about having a relationship with someone and hastily added “or she” after mentioning a he, I would think, “Haha, very funny, that will never happen.” I had cemented myself as the designated straight friend as well as the designated mentally healthy neurotypical. 

  1. The Curiosity 

I have always found it interesting to learn about types of people and their different cultures and ways of living. This extended to the queer community. I used to watch Buzzfeed videos with titles like 15 Bisexual Girl Problems and think, “Why am I watching this? I am straight.” followed by, “Oh well, at least I can be supportive.” This was the same period of time when I was reading about autism through Facebook posts and child development books. Whenever I learned someone in my life was autistic, I would try and study them by asking questions and making observations about their lives, and I did the same thing with queer people. The world of LGBTQ+ seemed magical and fun, and I have the type of mind that is drawn to variation and color within humanity and life. Even with the thought of “that’s not me”, I did not want to miss out on learning.  

  1. Looking to Media for Answers

Beyond books, blogs, and YouTube videos, I subconsciously searched for myself in fictional characters and in celebrities. I felt similar to people like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter and Ian Lightfood from Onward, and later found out that a lot of people headcanonned them as ND. I also saw a lot of shipping between characters of the same gender that did not take place in the canon story, and I always internally cheered whenever a queer kiss took place onscreen. As for real people, I was aware of autistic icons like Einstein, who mostly showed up in the math and technology world, but the famous NDs I really loved to hear about were Temple Grandin and Greta Thunberg, both autistic girls who loved nature and were not afraid to raise their voices. I also began to collect “bicons”, as in bisexual icons, such as Gaby Dunn and Freddie Mercury. These people were like me before I knew what I was like, and they showed me how cool it could be. Where canon failed, headcanon succeeded, and still does, to the point where it is a whole category on this blog. This is why representation matters, people!

  1.  Testing Myself

When I had started accepting the fact that I could be autistic, I was using a lot of online tests and checklists to confirm my suspicions. Eventually, I went to a specialist for a formal assessment. By contrast, there is no doctor to tell you that you are bisexual. There is no “gay test”, no matter what Big Mouth told you. However, I could still test and experiment on myself. When I told the Technician that I thought I might like girls as well as boys (and anyone in between), his first instinct was to send hentai at me to try and figure out what “my types” were. It was fun, and it made my sexual discovery process seem more methodical and systematic, which the scientific side of me liked. In a way, I felt like I needed some kind of outside authority to approve my bisexuality for me, just like I needed the formal diagnosis. I wish I were stronger in myself so that I could just declare it on my own, but that is not the case, which brings me to my next point. 

  1.  The Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the worst. I could be living my best autistic life, and another autistic person makes a meme or brings up a trait that I do not resonate with, which sends me on a spiral of doubt. I start to wonder if everyone, including myself, got it wrong. Sometimes I feel like I am not autistic enough or that I have been faking it to everyone. The imposter feelings surrounding my sexuality are a bit more streamlined these days. I know full well who I am attracted to, but my experiences say otherwise. I am currently in a committed, monogamous relationship with a guy, and have never been with a woman, so I sometimes feel afraid to call myself bisexual. Logically, I know that sexuality is based on attraction, not action, but I still sometimes feel like an attention-seeking liar when I make a “swings both ways” joke one minute and mention my boyfriend the next. I feel like the world is going “go on, do the gay thing” the same way it sometimes goes “you don’t look autistic.” 

  1. The Early Signs

Most of my autistic traits had been hiding in plain sight since I was a kid. When I made my outline of evidence, most of the points on there were from before I was ten, and they had just slipped by everyone, including me. I did the same thing with non-boy crushes. Just a couple of months ago, I remembered a girl from summer camp the year I was thirteen and realized that I had had a crush on her. At the time, I had interpreted my strong feelings as friendly, and the fact that I was distracted by her boobs as wanting to look like her. I partially blame my struggle to interpret emotions, especially since attraction is a tricky one to pin down even for NTs, but I also blame the societal expectation that being straight is default and therefore as a girl I would like boys. My parents used to tease me about a potential crush whenever I mentioned a boy from school, but they never did that with girls, so I grew up assuming that girls were not for crushing, at least not for me. I did not consider it as a possibility. This feels similar to when people passed over the possibility of me being autistic because I could speak. 

  1.  The Fear

I wish I did not have to include this one, but I do. Whenever I enter a new space, whether that be a Discord server, a class, or just a public park, I think about how visible I want to be and how best to let these strangers know I am autistic. I fear not being accepted, being infantilized or otherwise treated differently, or being disbelieved. I worry about talking about my autism too much and whether people will think I am using it to try to be unique. I happen to live in a state where LGBTQ+ people are quite accepted and bisexuality is at least acknowledged as a thing, but I still worry. Bisexuality has a reputation as being just a phase or a claim to attention, and I fear being associated with that. As I mentioned in point 5, I fear the expectation that I “perform” or “prove” my sexuality for strangers.

  1.  The Community and Friendship

One of my favorite parts of being autistic is meeting other ND people and hearing their stories. I would not have figured out what I was without people like Tech and the Drummer to compare experiences with. I have discovered what a positive, accepting, and intersectional place the online ND community can be, and I feel quite at home there. I mentioned being the designated straight friend in point 1, and that is because a lot of people I have felt close to throughout my life have been LGBTQ+. I never had a homophobic phase because I grew up with people like them. Bisexuals in particular have an established meme culture (werewolves and finger guns, anyone?), and autistic people have their own inside jokes too. Yes, there are rifts and there are fools in every crowd, but for every a-hole I have met in either community, I have met five who would have told that person off. 

  1. The Power of Self-Identity

I am going to be real here, the QUILTBAGs love their labels. Not that I am complaining; I love to categorize. There are at least three words for “person who is attracted to people of their own gender as well as people of other genders”, but I call myself bisexual because it makes the most sense in my head. I also accept queer as an umbrella term. In the same way, I choose to call myself autistic because that is what I am, and I do not view autism as an affliction or a separate plane from my natural self. I also use ND, for neurodivergent, to connect myself not only with other autistic people but also with ADHDers, dyslexics, and others. Other people who are not me have the freedom to use whatever words they want to describe their neurodivergence and/or their queerness or transness. My friend Thesaurus Boi calls himself crazy, and Tech will tell you he is an autist. I know people with attraction profiles like mine who call themselves pan rather than bi, or forgo a label altogether, and the fact that we can do that is a beautiful thing. 

10. I really wanted this list to have ten points, but I only thought of nine. This feels like something out of the Stormlight Archive. Happy Pride, and do not give your money to companies that do not support you. Stay gold!

L from Death Note, My Favorite Headcanon Autist

Let me fangirl for a minute. Death Note is my favorite anime. I have a minor obsession with death and how death gods are portrayed in fiction, and the Villain Protagonist trope is something I wish I saw more. What excites me most about Death Note though, is the character  of L Lawliet, the not-so-villainous antagonist and master detective. I do have a bit of a crush on him, but I would be just as happy being his friend. When I expressed this to the Technician, he said that “L’s superpower is ASD.” My response was “Thank you for saying this so I don’t have to” because, well, Tech was right. L shows a number of autistic traits, making him the first Type 2 representation on this blog. 

First of all, L’s detective skills are top of the charts, literally. The top three detectives in Japan are himself and his two aliases. He works days and nights on solving mysteries, to the point where the rest of the police force doubt he ever sleeps. This makes perfect sense if you think of criminal investigation as a special interest. He even claims to “collect” criminals, and collecting, especially in relation to special interests, is another common autistic behavior. The reason he is so good at it is because he would rather do that than any other activity. (Except maybe eat sweets, but more on that later). L is shown to use his powers of deduction in other contexts, such as the entrance test where he first sees Light. 

Speaking of that scene, remember how he was told off by the proctor for sitting oddly and he claims that his reasoning skills will drop by forty percent? This may be slightly hyperbolic, but not irrational. Autistic people tend to sit in unusual ways, including with their knees tucked up to their chests like L does, because they have altered proprioception, the sense of their bodies in space. If L were to sit with his feet on the ground, he would be receiving the wrong amount of sensory input, and that would distract him from his work. He also has a crooked posture when standing and walking for the same reason. L’s vision and hearing are heightened, which is why he is often seen in near-darkness and he notices the tolling of the bell when the rest of the team seems oblivious to it. In the flashback to the orphanage, a variety of sounds are heard, including a child crying, to show how noisy L’s world is. L’s stance on touch is kind of ambiguous because the other characters do not attempt to touch him often, but he seems to be under-sensitive to it, having no trouble shaking hands with Light upon meeting him, holding Watari’s hand as a child, or being kissed on the cheek by Misa. However, being forcefully grabbed by Aizawa causes him to freeze with anxiety, so maybe he can only touch if he initiates or is warned first. 

L stims with his food in multiple ways. He loves sugar, and there are few scenes when he is not eating cake or some other sweet. Some autistic people eat as a self-stimulatory behavior (stim), and that includes favoring a certain flavor, like sweetness. L also plays with his food by stacking it or lining it up in a pattern, which counts as a stim but for his eyes and hands. He is frequently seen biting his thumb, especially when he is thinking, another oral stim. I cannot find any clips of him rocking back and forth as a stim, but with the way he sits, it is not improbable that he does this. 

As for social things, L is a known oddball who is either unaware of it or, more likely, does not care. His voice is rather monotone, and his facial expressions tend to be slightly delayed and slightly exaggerated, as if each smile or smirk requires extra thought. Some of his smiles look creepy or forced. Tone and facial expressions tend to take more effort for autistic people, and our attempts at expressing emotion may seem “off” or unnatural. L often lacks situational awareness, like the scene when he assumes Light and Misa are irritated with him because he has cake and they do not. Autistic people sometimes have a tendency to assume everyone else thinks the way they do, and that looks like what L is doing here. He would be annoyed if Light was eating cake and he was not, so that is the conclusion he jumps to when Light is annoyed with him. He also sees nothing wrong with tagging along with Misa and Light on their dates, and is genuinely confused when he is called a pervert over this. This is hilarious and relatable, not being aware of boundaries regarding couples and ending up being an accidental creep. L often avoids eye contact and appears uncomfortable in large groups, which are well-known autism characteristics. 

Overall, L manages to be a relatable and endearing autism representation as well as an interesting cerebral hero. His special interest is put to use while not seeming overly savant-like, though your mileage may vary there. While he is not confirmed as autistic, individuals in the autism community relate to L and celebrate his strengths. If you have not already watched Death Note and are looking for some autism representation in a crime anime, please go and watch it. (Or not. I do not own you). I will hopefully have more headcanon posts up soon.

Just a Thing: Finding Neutrality in my Autism

I follow a lovely autism education profile on Instagram known as The Autisticats. While reading one of their older posts (scrolling back is fun sometimes), I read about the poster viewing one of their autistic traits as “sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing, but mostly just a thing.” This stuck in my mind because for most of my life, my views on autism have been extreme. 

When I first learned about autism, I thought of it as a curse. Reading through the parenting and child development books while hiding in the back of my local bookstore, I became familiar with the pathological view on autism, as a defect that caused pain and isolation. It did not help that those books leaned toward certain traits, or as they called them, symptoms, that were less true of me, such as delay or lack of speech and bodies so sensitive that a hug would send them to tears. I watched as Temple Grandin got bullied, underestimated, and overstimulated on-screen, and felt relief that that was not me. The general public’s reaction to someone being autistic tended to be along the lines of “poor thing, I’m so sorry”, and I had no idea what the actual autistic people thought. I did not know, at the time, that I was one of them.

Shortly after those times, I became aware of the “superhero” perspective of autism. I remember the first autism-centric Facebook page I followed: Planet Morgan, Aspie Superhero. I read about this adolescent boy who, despite being bullied to the point where he feared going to school, considered himself superpowered. Seeing his Dragon Ball drawings, I believed him. I learned about historical figures who may have owed their fame to autism, such as Mozart with his amazing memory and dedication to music. Sharp memories, superior puzzling skills, keen eyes, innovation…all portrayed as strengths, as well as autistic traits. Then I met my friend the Technician, who introduced me to a whole other level of autistic pride. He fully owns his label as his identity, calling himself “an autist”, and I bet you can guess what his “superpower” is. 

When I was anticipating my evaluation, I was on an extra lookout for all of the things I struggled with, everything I did wrong. That was a painful state to be in, looking at myself as defective. I had to remember the joy I had seen autistic people express, as well as the sorrow, and I added a section in my outline dedicated to my loves and strengths. Being around other ND people for the first time in my life made me embrace my stimming (especially the happy rocking and leg shaking) in a way that I had not since I was in elementary school, made me see my echolalia as fun rather than annoying or as an inferior form of communication, and made me admire my community’s straightforwardness and lack of hinting and expecting you to read between the lines. (I can catch a drift no more successfully than I can catch a ball). I was spoiled by spending all day with my autistic and ADHD friends online, laughing at the silly neurotypicals and talking about plans to start an ND colony on Mars. 

This was…too far. When I come back into the “real world”, I remember that I am a social minority, and that my identity is classified as a disability. There are days when I do curse my autism, days when I wish I had normal ears that could still follow a conversation with white noise and other people’s voices going on in the background, a normal mind that could tell when it was okay to join in and when I was supposed to hang back, and normal interests that lined up with my peers in the hallway or my relatives at family gatherings. (Why are we talking about politics instead of the personifications of death in various novels? Is that not more fun and interesting)? Even when I laugh at my body not recognizing that the reason I cannot sleep is because I need to pee until I am close to bursting, I wish I could feel that cue sooner. At the same time, when I spend hours working on a composition, or I am the only one in the room who knows how “nimrod” became an insult, I can thank my autism. Like many autistic people that I know,  I find joy in small things in life, such as the feeling of sunlight on my back or the way a field of mustard looks and smells after the rain. “Find your strengths” has become a catchphrase of mine to help other NDs feel more comfortable in their skin. 

But most of the time, my autistic traits are just part of me, regardless of whether they are good or bad, strengths or deficits. Yes, I get confused if someone types a joke at me and does not specify humor with a tone indicator. Yes, I take my jacket off and on five times in twenty minutes. And yes, I just finished listening to the soundtrack to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder for the second time this week because it tickles my brain exactly the right way. These are all parts of me, and I do not have to assign morality to them. I have found my identity, and I am on the road to acceptance. My autism is part of me, and it is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.

Elon Musk Outed Himself as Autistic, and I Am Not Thrilled

If you have been on the internet in recent years, you probably know who Elon Musk is. He is a CEO of multiple companies as well as being a champion sh*tposter. He also hosted Saturday Night Live yesterday, which included revealing that he has “Asperger’s Syndrome”. (There is a whole post I could write on why I refuse to use that term). Elon Musk is autistic. And I am here rolling my eyes. 

I am not thrilled to have another billionaire tech and engineering CEO join our ranks. I have been seeing this figure my whole life. The isolated technical genius man who uses his knack with math and machines and his entrepreneurial skills to found and head a successful company. Or, alternatively, he is only good at one thing and he uses his rich parents’ money to invest in a company. The public theorizes that he is autistic, and sometimes it gets confirmed, but sometimes it does not. I am not comfortable with the general public understanding autism as the portrait of the rich, technologically, mathematically gifted man. I am none of these things. Well, I could be mathematically gifted if I chose to keep learning math. I sort of stopped after high school.  However, I am far from rich, I am so technologically inept that I have to use WordPress for this blog while someone like Steve Jobs would just program their own website, and I am a woman! Yes, women and non-binary people can be autistic too. When I first saw that Musk had “come out” as autistic, my first reaction was to text multiple friends (also autistic) that, “No more techno-billionaires can join our ranks until someone does a comb-through of every writer and actor that has ever been deemed ‘eccentric’.” Autistic people have all kinds of occupations and hobbies, including writing (hello) and acting, and we are tired of being overlooked. In fact, Musk is not the first autistic person to host SNL. That honor goes to actor Dan Aykroyd back in 2003. I do not want other autistic people to look at guys like Musk and think they are “bad at being autistic” because they are not CEOs or are interested in things besides technology and engineering. 

The other problem with this is that Elon Musk is not a good person. He is openly ignorant about a spread of things, from COVID-19 to trans rights, is horrible to work under, named his son something pretentious and unpronounceable, is yet another dragon hoarding wealth when he could be donating it, and has shown support of curing autism. He is a traitor as well as a rich jerk. I am not even going to cite sources here because there are too many. Google is free, have at it, I dare you. Musk perpetuates yet another negative stereotype with his unlikeable behavior. People are already saying things like “Asperger’s? No wonder he’s such a dick!” Autism does not inherently mark someone as a horrible person, and neither is it an excuse for being a horrible person. I may be autistic, but I am not shouting at a woman asking why she has hair on her face. My friends and I are not little angels, but we do try to be good people, and for most of us, hurting someone is the last thing we want to do. There are fools in every crowd, and the neurodivergent community is no exception, but like any community, we do not want our label to be synonymous with “jerk.” 

There is something nagging at me while I write this post, and that is my perceived lack of gratitude. Some readers are probably thinking, “Aurelia, what’s wrong with rich jerks coming out as autistic? Aren’t you grateful for the publicity and attention that autism is receiving?” There is a difference between positive and negative attention, and there is such a thing as bad representation. As cliche as it sounds, there is power in representation. I look at Musk and want to shout, “That’s not me! Not all of us are like that!” I want to be able to see people like myself in the news, and I know that people in my community would benefit from that too. Instead, people like Musk keep getting publicized, to the point where people disbelieve me because I am not like him. It is almost like the neurotypical public wants to hate on and make fun of autistic people, at least when they are not worshipping them. Why else would they continue to accept autism as this thing that makes you a rich jerk when evidence to the contrary is right in front of them? You are probably noticing a theme here, and you may have also noticed that I have not said anything to invalidate Musk’s autism. I have accepted the fact that Musk has autism as true, and I will continue to do so until absolutely solid evidence against it is brought to light. That is unlikely to happen because no one should have their diagnosis scrutinized and questioned, even a man like Musk. His claim that Neuralink could cure autism is the only reason I have to say “you can’t sit with us, Elon.” The tech CEOs are not banned from sitting at the autism table because they are tech CEOs. The same goes for the generally unpleasant and unkind people. If you are autistic, you can sit with us, but those who come up to the table cannot only talk to those like Musk and walk away thinking they have met the entire crowd. Those at the table cannot shove others off for not being tech-obsessed, not being heads of companies, not being rich white men. Autism is colorful, varied, a welcoming umbrella of traits and experiences. So why not open the lens and expand the public gaze beyond Elon Musk? 

10 Things Autism is Not (Though They Can Appear Together)

Autism is multi-faceted, varied, and difficult to explain without oversimplifying. It is a spectrum, which is in the name, a mosaic of traits and characteristics as colorful as the rainbow infinity symbol used to represent neurodiversity. However, there are some disorders and ways of being that people mistake autism for. The following list contains ten of those, compiled to clear up confusion and bust some common myths. Some things on this list are comorbidities, meaning they are separate conditions that can occur along with autism, but they do not have to. Autism is not…

  1. A Mental Illness

A lot of people are out there confusing neurodiversity and mental illnesses. According to Psychology Today , neurodiversity is a cognitive difference which can be autism, ADHD, a learning disability like dyslexia, or schizophrenia. These differences, still classified as disorders by many, are genetic and present from birth. Mental illnesses, on the other hand, develop overtime due to environmental stressors. Mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, develop in a large amount of autistic people, but they are not present from birth, but autism itself is. 

  1. Just For Children

There are autistic adults, and we deserve recognition too. Autism does not just go away like baby fat as kids grow up, and many people do not get diagnosed with autism until they are already over eighteen years old. I got my diagnosis when I turned twenty. Autistic characters in fiction are most often children, and most “autism awareness” advertisements focus on children, but this is misleading. 

  1. Down Syndrome

I have rolled my eyes so many times from seeing autism confused or compared to Down syndrome, especially in internet memes, that I am surprised my eyes are not permanently stuck in the back of my skull. Down syndrome, also known as trisomy-21, is a chromosomal abnormality that causes physical differences and cognitive impairment. Since it is caused by an extra chromosome, Down syndrome can be identified using a karyotype, and people with Down syndrome have a characteristic appearance. Autism’s genetic markers are nowhere near that obvious, and autism has no physical markers. If you hear autism and think of short stature, flat hair, small eyes, and a short neck, you have the wrong disorder in your head. 

  1. Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disability is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a significant deficit in both intellectual functioning (the ability to learn and solve problems) and adaptive functioning (communicative and practical skills). Intellectually disabled people score about a 70 on IQ, which means they learn slower than their typical peers. I know what you are probably thinking, autistic people can take longer to learn too, but the reason for that is different. Autistic people are impeded by how material might be taught, and they tend to have strong memories and reasoning skills, which traditional IQ tests lean heavily on. Intellectually disabled people, on the other hand, struggle with those skills and often end up learning later no matter how they are taught. Intellectual disability shows deficits across the board, whereas autism often manifests as skewed ability, as in performing low in some areas but high in others. Intellectual disability can be comorbid with autism, but it is not a given symptom. Do not assume an autistic person is “slow”. 

  1. Savantism

Ugh, I hate this misconception/stereotype. A savant is someone with spectacular, almost superhuman skill in one specific area, but average or below average performance everywhere else. These are the human calculators, the prodigious musicians, the prodigious readers with photographic memories. Yes, there are some autistic people who are savants, but they are few and far between. More likely, you will find an autistic person who has a great love for a certain activity, leading to extended practice and enhanced ability. There is no miraculous natural gift, only passion and hard work. I blame films like Rain Man and A Brilliant Young Mind for making autistic people look like supercomputers. 

  1. A Disease to be Cured

April just passed, so you have probably seen all of the ads for organizations such as Autism Speaks (or as I like to call them, Autism Unspeakable) painting autism as this scary, negative thing that takes children away and tears up families, a lot like cancer. There are parents and teachers who describe their children or students as being locked inside themselves, prisoners in their own uncooperative bodies. Some companies speak of curing autism and ending the “epidemic”. This hurts. A majority of autistic people, including myself, do not want a cure. Sure, being autistic sucks sometimes, but it also makes things fun and interesting, and I would not be myself without it. Most of my problems could be solved if the general public were a little more accepting, a little more patient. Maybe we should be curing ableism, not autism.

  1. Complete Purity and Innocence 

As offensive as painting autism as a disease is, the other side of the coin is just as bad. Some neurotypicals like to think that autistic people are these pure, innocent angels who were brought to this earth to soften people’s hearts and inspire them to be kind and selfless. “Autism moms” are praised just for doing their jobs, and actual autistic people’s images are preserved as fragile and uncorrupted. I have news for you: there are autistic people who have sex, do drugs, swear, wear clothing other than modest pastels, make jokes including dirty ones, and do plenty of other things neurotypicals do that are not exactly considered “pure”, but are nonetheless considered “normal”. If you need a neurodivergent person to come into your life so you can pat yourself on the back for being their friend or caretaker, I suggest you ask yourself why you need to use another human to elevate you with karma points (or whatever your belief system is), because that is what we are. We are human

  1. Psychopathy or Sociopathy

According to Mental Health America, psychopathy and sociopathy are both slang for antisocial personality disorder. These individuals are often impulsive and deceitful, though not always violent, and they do not feel guilt or remorse. They are stereotypically “evil”, though they can hide themselves in normal societal positions. Autistic people can be mistaken for psychopaths or sociopaths because of the misconception that we do not experience empathy or emotions. The truth is that we do, but we may struggle to express our own emotions or identify them in others using nonverbal cues. Autistic people do not generally go out of their way to harm others, and lack of understanding of unwritten social rules does not make them dangerous. 

  1. Introversion

An introvert is a type of person who recharges their social and emotional batteries by being alone, as opposed to an extrovert, who does so by being with others. Yes, some autistic people are introverts, but that is not everything that autism is, although they can look similar from the outside. I define myself as an “anxious extrovert”, and I am autistic. I thrive on interaction with friends and love to meet new people, but since I am autistic, I do not always know how to interact with others successfully, and fear of rejection or messing up can make me hesitate, which is where the anxiety comes in. I also do not do well with the unexpected, so I have to gather a lot of information before agreeing to meet up with someone. Some autistic people avoid parties or other social events because of sensory issues too. Again, autistic people can be anywhere on the scale of introvert or extrovert, so do not assume the autistic person in your life is happier alone. 

  1. A Monolith

One of my favorite quotes is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This means that we are not all the same, and you cannot project your perceptions about one of us onto all of us. Autism, like I said before, is a varied spectrum, and while we do all have things in common, we do have even more qualities that make us individual and different, just like any other group of people. We are not one stereotype, one box, one cookie cutter character. We can be anyone. Well, except a neurotypical. That is just part of the definition. 

Love on the Spectrum, from an Autistic Perspective

Love on the Spectrum is a reality TV show that was filmed in Australia for Northern Pictures for the ABC in 2019. It features seven single autistic people as well as two autistic couples and how they navigate the dating world. I decided to watch it and see whether it portrayed autism in an accurate, positive light. I admit, my expectations were low. I told a friend right before I started, “I’m going to try watching Love on the Spectrum tonight. This is either going to be fun or torturous.” I was fully bracing for cringeworthy moments, which were present, but I was also pleasantly surprised.  

Let’s start with the positives. Each member of the cast was presented as an individual person, not as a stereotype or caricature, so I felt like I had met them. Everyone got time to talk about their special interests and the things that made them happy, including Ruth with her pet snake, Mark with dinosaurs, and Kelvin with his anime and manga. There were a lot of cute and happy moments, including two marriage proposals, but I especially enjoyed seeing the cast connect on dates, such as when Amanda said she liked to collect toys and dolls, making Michael’s face light up with joy. Including couples was a smart move because it showed successful love stories. In other words, there were people who connected and stayed after the first date! Some quotes made me laugh, like when Lotus said, “Haha, yes, the autistic girl likes Minecraft.” As another autistic girl who likes Minecraft, I felt exposed in a good way. A couple of good points were raised about what autism was and how people should not be prejudged because of it. Chloe’s quote “What does an autistic person look like?” is something I have wanted to say for a long time. There was also some intersectionality between autism and other disabilities. Chloe was partially deaf, Olivia had a tic disorder, and Lauren had cerebral palsy (which meant she was especially delighted to see the waddling penguins because they walked like her). 

The cast did have some shortcomings, however. First of all, it was rather white, with Kelvin and Marcus being the only people of color. I was also disappointed at how few LGBT+ cast members there were considering the overlap between the ND and the LGBT+ communities in real life. I felt that having one confirmed asexual (Michael) and two bisexuals (Chloe and Lotus) was not enough. Even though everyone was in their twenties, the heavy involvement of the cast’s parents made it feel like they were still in high school. It makes sense that they needed people for an outside perspective, but did the parents really need to be present for the dating coach sessions? This is especially considering the intentions of parents like Michael’s mother, who kept her son’s diagnosis a secret from him until he was thirteen. 

The show seemed to be made more for neurotypicals than for autistic people to watch, so it felt voyeuristic at times. It kind of had the same feeling as those videos of cute animals making friends, like “awww, look at the autistic people going on their little dates and holding hands.” This might just be my distrust for reality TV talking, but a few moments felt contrived. For example, Chloe’s dad told his daughter that if she started to get nervous, she could excuse herself to “powder her nose”. Chloe took this literally, and when her dad explained that it was an expression, her response was “but it’s not honest.” I suspected that this exchange was scripted in order to show one of the few features of autism that most NTs were familiar with, taking figurative speech literally. 

The worst case of neurotypical interference, however, had to be including a neurotypical dating coach to instruct autistic people who were paired up with other autistic people. Jodi Rogers, the coach in question, could have been a lot worse, being a sunny presence who recognized the individuality and the strengths as well as weaknesses of autistic people. However, she should not have been the one to give advice in an autistic-autistic dating context. If the main cast had been paired up with neurotypicals, then her presence would have made more sense, but that was not the case. For example, Jodi had to teach Andrew that some people lie about having personal issues or being busy to avoid a second date and suggested that this was what Evie did to him. This was a necessary lesson, except that Evie was most likely autistic as well (they met at a disability-centric speed-dating event and she would have fit the pattern), and therefore more likely to be telling the truth since autistic people tend to be more blunt about not wanting to see someone again. The cast were instructed to make eye contact while they were talking, which is uncomfortable for most autistic people, including myself. A neurodivergent dating coach would not have bothered with that because they would know that two autistic people on a date most likely would not care that their date was looking somewhere else because they would be doing it too. Another moment of the same type that stood out to me, although it was with parents and not the coach, was when Maddi was having a “practice date” with her parents, and they criticized her for responding to a question with “no”. Their reasoning was that she needed to keep the conversation going, even if that meant being less than honest. This was not only obviously confusing for Maddi, but is potentially dangerous! “No” is a powerful word, and Maddi may have needed it to prevent a date from pressuring her into something she was uncomfortable with. 

One last criticism I had was the lack of focus on sex. Now, I know the show is called Love on the Spectrum, not Sex on the Spectrum (though there is an awesome subreddit with that name), and there is such thing as love and dating without sex, but they often coincide for NTs and NDs alike. When asked about what people in relationships do, Kelvin did not describe anything beyond “hugs and kisses” for the physical side of things, and none of the others mentioned being interested in things more risquee than that, except for Marcus’s brief mention of watching porn. Michael was aware of what intercourse was, but he was also vocally against it, to the point where I felt slightly shamed for being interested in it. The general idea seemed to be that while autistic people can date, they do not want sex, or worse, are ignorant unaware of it. This is problematic and false. Yes, there are asexual autistic people, but there are also some struggling with sex addiction, and some who have healthy sex lives, and regardless of neurotype or orientation, everyone deserves to be informed about sex. (I could make a whole other post about this, seriously). All right, stern tangent over, now back to the review. 

Love on the Spectrum has some blunders in representation and casting, and has a slightly voyeuristic air to it. However, it is also full of wholesome moments and has a generally optimistic message. I especially liked seeing autistic people represented as dimensional individuals rather than tokens or stereotypes. Overall, I would rate Love on the Spectrum at a seven out of ten. It is a step in the right direction for autistic people on TV, and I would like to see how it might change and improve.

The Three Types of Representation in Media

Sam from Atypical is a representation of autism. So is Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts. So, arguably, is Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. But how can that be true if only one of these characters is referred to as autistic in their source material? The answer is, being canonically autistic is not the only way a character can be relatable to autistic viewers. From what I have observed, there are three types of representation. This post and this site will mostly focus on autism, but the same principles apply to other disabilities and even other characteristics such as being LGBTQ+. 

Type 1, the canonical or confirmed character, is what most people think of when they hear “representation in media.” This character’s diagnosis is named, either within the story (Type 1A) or by the creator (Type 1B). There is a high possibility that if a character’s diagnosis is mentioned on-screen, it is either the main premise of the work, or it will become a recurring plot point. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, some of these stories need to be told. However,  it can get tiring after a while, especially since neurotypical characters get all kinds of plot points that are unrelated to being neurotypical. Ideally, a canonical autistic character would be as whole, developed, and unique as a neurotypical one, but that is not always the case. Too many writers end up writing a stereotypical character, also known as a character with Hollywood Autism. Poorly-written characters may also be the butt of jokes without ever being truly humanized, or they may be portrayed as perfect angels (the Inspirationally Disadvantaged trope). These are bad representations! If you are writing a disabled character, please do not do this! Another common trope is that of the Disability Superpower, when the character’s weaknesses are turned into strengths. This is more acceptable, at least with autism, because autistic people do recognize that they have strengths that differ from those of NTs. However, no one appreciates a very real struggle being pushed aside for plot convenience. 

What about Type 1B?  Being confirmed by the creator off-screen makes it easier to include genres like high fantasy and historical fiction, which tend to not feature worlds where words for autism, ADHD, OCD, or schizophrenia exist. Instead, the character is described as “odd” or “mad” and given the traits that match which condition the creator intended to represent. They may be labeled as Cloudcuckoolanders on TVTropes.org. Brandon Sanderson does a great job of researching and including neurodivergence and mental illness in his writing by using this method, and I look forward to delving into characters such as his Steris Harms in the future. Characters who don’t have their diagnosis mentioned on-screen are less likely to be walking plot-devices or stereotypes, but they are also more often written as side characters. This seems to hold true more for autism than for mental or physical disorders, but I hope that changes in the future. 

Type 2, my favorite type, is the implied or headcanoned character. These characters are written with a lot of traits that align with a certain neurotype or disorder, to the point where fans peg them with it. However, they are not confirmed by those who wrote them, so there is no telling how intentionally the traits were included. It could be that one rogue writer thought, “You know what would be fun? Secretly writing this character as autistic.” It could be that they based the character on someone they knew who happened to be ND. It could be that they chose some traits at random, the fandom squinted hard enough, and now their character is an icon! Implied characters might also have the Cloudcuckoolander tag, as well as the Ambiguous Disorder tag. Sometimes, a headcanoned character can be confirmed and become a Type 1B character. Like I said before, Type 2 representation is my favorite, and I cannot wait to share headcanons with you. 

Type 3, the allegorical or coded character, is where you place characters whose narratives and experiences match those of autistic people (or other minorities) but are not actually part of that group. I brought up Groot at the beginning of this post. He is an autistic-coded character because he only says three words but understands everything his friends say to and about him, which autistic people, who often have speech delays, can relate to. However, he is not literally autistic because he is a tree alien with a neurology that is totally different from a human’s. A lot of alien characters are Type 3 autism representation, as are a lot of characters with a Fish out of Water narrative. This is the most subjective and the most viewer-influenced type. Even if the writer did not intend to appeal to an autistic audience, fans may still see themselves or loved ones in stories. For me, the film Mean Girls was a crucial part of my autistic self-realization, and the word autism is not said anywhere in the movie. (And I would remember because Mean Girls has one of the most quotable scripts of all time). 

On this blog, you will see commentary on all three types of representation. Hopefully, this adds another layer to your experiences with media. If there are disabled, neurodivergent, or otherwise atypical people reading this, I hope you find the positive, real representation that you’re looking for. Typical creators making diverse characters, I hope you learn from this and future posts. Everyone else in between, I hope I have opened your mind and that you notice representation in places you might not have before.

Hello, I’m…

Hello, I’m Aurelia. Well, actually, that is not my name. Aurelia Lightcaster is a pseudonym, and any names of people in my life have been changed. But right here, right now, Aurelia is what you should call me. My pronouns are she/her. I study music in California, and I have lived in the same state my whole life. My interests are music, mythology, sexuality and kink, cats, and names. And those are just the main ones! I enjoy being out in nature, but I also like curling up with a good book and chatting with friends online. I guess I should get to the point already, even though I do not like sharing the unusual things about my brain when I introduce myself. I am autistic, and I also have OCD, generalized and social anxiety, depression, and paranoia. I started this blog because I want to tell my story, and that story is still in progress. 

When I was a baby, I spoke very early, before six months, according to my mother. I did not learn to walk until over ten months later. I almost never played, especially not with other kids, and adults had to verbally explain concepts such as taking turns to me; I did not pick them up naturally. At age five, I was brought into a room at the local school, where a strange woman asked me questions and told me to perform tasks. I remember her name, and that we specifically played a word association game together. I do not remember being told why this meeting took place. Meanwhile, I was seen as an outsider among my peers, even at that age. This continued and intensified as I grew older. I remember telling my parents tearfully that I had no friends, being the last picked for group projects, having kids act like they were my friends and then change their minds after a few weeks. In fourth grade, a boy in my class told me that I walked funny, and that people thought I was [the r slur] because of that and because I “couldn’t spell my own name.” While my name was unusual, I had mastered spelling it six years before that, but the comment still stuck with me. (But that is another post). That same year, my mom showed me the biopic film of Temple Grandin, which was my introduction to the word autism. In my fourth-grade brain, I viewed it as something other than me because I liked being hugged, I had learned to speak early, and I did not think in pictures the way Temple Grandin did. 

In middle school, I spent a lot of my weekends at the local bookstore, hiding in the graphic novels, the youth chapter books, or, for some reason, the parenting section. I also acquired Facebook. As I read (probably outdated) books and (rather personal) Facebook pages on autism, I tried to tell myself I was just an ally, and that I was not one of these kids. At the same time, I wondered whether I had fallen from the sky, whether there was a wall of glass separating me from other teenagers, or whether everyone was having the same problems I was but simply coped with it better. My parents were insistent that I was just a normal kid, and I had seen the emos, those kids who used depression and anxiety as brands, and I did not want to be them either. In 12th grade, I met someone who made me look into myself. They watched me stumble to the ground, weighed down by anxiety, and they hugged me and told me exactly what it was. It was that year that I saw a therapist and got my mental illness labels. Autism, however, was still out of the question. It remained that way for a whole other year. 

August 1st, 2019, was the day that started me on what I liked to call the “suspectrum” path. I was on the bus to visit the Opener (my friend from the previous paragraph), when I noticed a boy sitting in front of me. I would later learn that this was the Technician, who would become one of my greatest friends. He asked me, “Are you an autist?” I told him no at first, despite his thinking “this person is like me,” but then I remembered one particular blog, and one particular checklist. It turns out, I had a multitude of characteristics of an autistic girl, and I had been overlooked. I spent a year gathering evidence, with the help of Tech and any other autistic brain that I could pick, and in November 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, I was diagnosed with autism. 

That is the basic timeline. I can tell so many stories, but still only be telling one, because I am one person. And Temple Grandin was one person, and so was Samantha Craft. My story though, is about having a part of me not recognized until my adulthood. I am Aurelia Lightcaster, and I slipped under the radar.

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