I feel as if I say this until I am blue in the face, but it’s worth repeating: autism does not have a ‘look’ and is an invisible condition. Not everybody on the spectrum shares the same traits and none of these signs on their own can offer conclusive evidence that somebody is autistic. Nevertheless, there are a number of telltale signs that may indicate whether somebody is on the spectrum.
Some of these ‘classic’ signs include:
- Difficulty interpreting social situations (both verbal and non-verbal communication), e.g. inability to detect jokes, sarcasm, meaning behind facial expressions and tone of voice etc
- Not expressing emotion through the face or voice-speaking in ‘monotone’
- May either be verbal or non-verbal. Some people on the spectrum may not speak at all or may only speak very little. Others may speak very clearly (and maybe over-elaborately) but nonetheless will struggle to pick up on many of the social cues taken for granted by neurotypical (non-autistic) individuals.
- Appearing to be insensitive or uncaring, rarely going to others for comfort and preferring to retreat into their own space when feeling overwhelmed socially, spending a large amount of time alone and behaving in ways that others might find strange or immature (another post in and of itself)
- Repetitive behavioural patterns such as always following the same exact daily routine (eating the same food each day for example)
- Trouble grasping practical, motor-related procedures, e.g. working a machine or tying shoelaces
- A difficulty with accepting changes to a routine
- Highly focused interests that often become obsessive, sometimes obscure in nature
- Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, smell, tastes and so on, sometimes leading to anxiety or bodily pain
Everybody’s autism is different. For example, somebody with low-functioning autism could (or could not) be a person who barely speaks at all, doesn’t regularly show any clear emotion through their face or speech, and is upset enough by a change to their routine that it leads to a meltdown, by which I mean a sensory overload which causes something akin to what a neurotypical person might experience with a panic attack. They could struggle with numerous motor-related tasks to the point where they may need a carer to look after them on a daily basis. Like I said, that is an example. Nobody, whether high or low-functioning, possesses the exact same set of traits.
For more info on the difference between high and low-functioning autism, I recommend this article here:
Let’s now give a profile of me and how I’m affected by autism according to the points I laid out above. Specifically, I have a form of autism known as Aspergers so I will refer to my condition as both autism and Aspergers below.
Generally speaking, I come across as a polite, well-spoken man. I have an excellent (in my case above average) knowledge of language and words. Growing up I sometimes spoke over-elaborately, using complex, unusual words in conversation simply because I knew them, without giving any thought to whether they were appropriate to use in that situation. Nevertheless, I do not pick up on many of the social cues that others take for granted. Internally I often feel uncomfortable in social situations, particularly ones that involve large groups of people, but these symptoms rarely manifest themselves in an obvious physical way beyond me ‘shutting down’ and keeping to myself. It may take me longer to realize that somebody is making a joke or being sarcastic for example. It is also worth noting that my condition (at least in my case) renders me totally incapable of being able to determine whether another person is interested in me romantically. I will not pick up on the body language or social cues that indicate attraction. Therefore the unspoken rules of flirting are totally lost on me. The only way I can possibly know if somebody is interested in me is if they tell me so outright.
I have a good understanding of facial and vocal expressions which is a trait that many with the condition do not possess. On occasion, I may appear to be insensitive as I do not always consider the effects that my words or lack of empathy have on other people. This is somewhat remedied by the fact that I am quick to offer comfort once I realize somebody has been upset by me or is otherwise distressed.
With or without the Aspergers, I am an introvert by nature. I honestly think that is part of me regardless of being autistic, though no doubt enhanced because of it. I spend the majority of my time alone following solitary pursuits such as reading or writing. I will happily go out on my own to engage in activities others would see as social events, such as going to the cinema to see a film. Whilst I have only a few close friends, they are all people who I trust completely and feel totally comfortable with. My policy with friends has always been quality over quantity, and I rarely exhibit too many of my classic autism traits when in the company of the people I feel secure with. In my case, anxiety definitely brings a lot of my autistic traits to the surface. If I am doing something practical and I know somebody is watching me, I will find the task much harder. This may not seem too unusual until you realize that my autism puts me at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to carrying out motor-related tasks.
I have always had difficulty grasping many practical things that others find easy. For the most part, I am capable of completing the majority of daily tasks without much trouble: things like cooking, driving, doing housework etc. Other things pose much a greater challenge. It took me many years, for example, before I could tie my shoelaces without help. Putting together something from scratch (like a kit lawnmower) is my idea of hell on earth. My hand-eye coordination is undeveloped in comparison to others of my age. Sometimes I may approach practical tasks in a manner that appears illogical to non-autistic people, because of the different way in which my brain functions. Often I still get the task done to the same standard, however, which is why I often become annoyed when others try to ‘correct’ my way of doing things. It is not necessarily right or wrong, just different.
Whilst routine is important to me, I do not need to follow a rigid unwavering pattern. Big changes to my established routine are certainly jarring to me and often require a bit of preparation on my part. I will never like the concept of change, but I’m perhaps more accepting of it than others on the spectrum.
As some people will know, I have a number of highly intense interests (sometimes obscure ones) that I pursue with great passion. Sometimes these interests can become all-consuming. Some of them are only temporary interests whilst others have been ongoing throughout my life. Growing up as a child, some of the things that became obsessive interests included church clocks, bird-watching, elephants and mammoths, military vehicles and films such as The Jungle Book, Ice Age and the Star Wars saga. My interest in Tolkien and his fictional world of Middle-earth has been a lifelong interest that has retained its intensity throughout the years and into the present. I am a powerhouse of knowledge on the subject (if I do say so myself). The one part of my life’s routine that is truly repetitive in the autistic sense is that I keep returning to these interests and in doing so often fail to ‘widen my horizons’ as non-autistic do when they explore new areas of interest. I regularly listen to the same music to the exclusion of everything else, for example.
Although I had sensory issues with food growing up and deliberately avoided trying anything new, this has become much less of a problem as I have aged. I don’t tend to initiate physical contact (e.g. a hug) with another person unless I am very close to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t enjoy it, however. In all likelihood, this stems more from a lack of confidence than from my Aspergers. Not reading social cues clearly doesn’t help, which is why I generally leave it to others to initiate that kind of thing with me if they want to. Loud noises or any noise that is particularly unexpected can sometimes unnerve me, though this wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to anyone else. During the days of my church clock obsession, this happened regularly: having waited around for anywhere up to an hour for the bells to chime I would suddenly get nervous during the last few minutes of waiting. It was the anticipation of the noise, not the noise itself, which caused my nervous reaction. I don’t recall ever having any sensory issues involving smell, colours, lights or anything else.
There are also a number of positive traits I have inherited as a direct result of my autism. By and large, I think the positive traits outweigh any difficulties that autism has caused me; but that’s for another post, in future.