What is Autism?

As April is known as Autism Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to answer the big question.

What is Autism? 

Using the definition determined by the scientists, Autism is a neurological disorder that is characterised by deficits in social communication and interaction. Those with Autism are restricted and controlled by their repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities and interests. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder, impacting language and motor skills. People with Autism also have some degree of sensory processing difficulties present. 

A general and quick summary. I need to add that though these deficits are shared by all those who are Autistic, the severity of how each person is impacted by the traits differs widely from person to person.

This is where things become a little complicated.

You see, neurotypicals have split those on the Autistic spectrum into two groups. High functioning and low functioning. 

When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, it was 2006 and when given the news I was told…

“Lucy, you are on the Autism spectrum. You have Asperger’s Syndrome, which means you are high functioning”.

Today I don’t believe you are allowed to tell someone ‘officially’ they are high or low functioning. To be honest that language is only really used by neurotypicals, the scientists and psychologists, but we will get to that in a minute. I believe it’s important to cover how the definition of the Autism spectrum is still changing and developing. 

What differentiates being high functioning and low functioning is, to put it bluntly, the appearance of one’s body language and behaviour. The more ‘typical’ one appears, the higher functioning one is considered to be. 

If Autistic but able to communicate using speech, if cognisant of the social ‘norm’ thus capable of modifying certain behaviours to fit in and not be identified as different. If on the Autism spectrum but show average or above intelligence, can live without assisted living, that is how one qualifies as ‘high functioning’.

Those considered ‘low functioning’ often can’t, or don’t, use spoken word. There is a lack of awareness to social convention so behaviour goes unchanged no matter where therefore flapping hands and arms, rocking, covering ears, humming or vocalising and at times hitting ones self is not held back or hidden indoors. ‘Low functioning’ Autistic people appear and may sound very different to the neurotypicals of the world thus they are considered to be ‘low functioning’.

Here’s the problem. Though there are distinct differences to people on the spectrum, it is a huge disservice to all on it to simply label them ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning. 

Someone ‘low functioning’ may not have the ability to self modify to fit in with the world of humans (if I may use my own phrasing), they may not be able to communicate using spoken word but that doesn’t hinder their ability to go out. 

Whereas someone eloquent and able to act ‘typical’ enough to be seen as ‘high functioning’, could suffer greatly from anxiety and not be able to leave their house without great difficulty.

Thankfully we have already stepped on to the path to getting rid of the terms low and high functioning, however the spectrum is still being seen as a straight line with two ends. Very autistic and mildly autistic. 

The truth is that Autism is a complex and incredibly broad ranging neurological disorder and every single person diagnosed places differently on the spectrum at different times. 

Fortunately as the awareness around Autism is building, the understanding is too, and there are many wonderful people who are finding ways to push the ways of thinking forward.

Here I share with you a wonderful, easy to grasp comic I came across recently explaining what the Autism Spectrum should really be looked to as, created by Rebecca Burgess.

The hope is that by sharing and spreading messages like the comic above, and people on the spectrum keep opening up and sharing their own life stories, the difficulties and the achievements, there will come a day that every single Autistic person is given the opportunity to become the best, well-rounded, independent person they can be. 


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