Friday, 21 June 2013

What IS Autism, and why do we differ so much?

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about what exactly autism is, and why it is that, despite there being a whole range of things we have in common, we differ so much in how we express that autism. As the saying goes ‘if you’ve met one autistic, you’ve met one autistic.” But why is this so?

There are several obvious superficial reasons for our differences, including gender, age cohort, background, co-morbid conditions, and simply individual personalities. Yet it seems to me that none of these truly explain them. The other obvious difference is in our functioning levels – and here, I believe, we get somewhat closer to the crux of ‘what autism is’ – and yet miss it completely.

Let me explain this further. Through my lived experience of autism and several years of keen observation, reading, and listening to my autistic peers, I have come to the following conclusions :-

1) There is only ONE autism. That is, all the different labels or categories of autism, don’t really exist. There is only one condition, and you either have it or you don’t.

2) Autism is not a set of behaviours, but a qualitatively different neurological pattern. This pattern is inborn, immovable, and largely misunderstood. It means that the way we think, process, act, react and express our emotions, and how, where and what we focus on, is radically different to that of NTs.  

3) This different pattern is the one thing all autistics have in common, the ‘base line’ of our autism. The apparent differences between low and high functioning, are largely due to how well we are able to communicate with others. Because –

4) The core or fundamental autistic state is a non-verbal one, probably picture-thinking, reacting to the world viscerally, experiencing it as a wash of sensory feed, focussing on physical objects or our inner images/feelings, far more than on other people. This is where we all seem to start from, as young children. As we grow up, some of us are able to acquire verbal language, through which we become more aware of others, and start to learn concepts and skills. Even as adults, many autistics (including me) still think predominantly in images or surges of feeling, and have to ‘translate’ our thoughts into words to communicate with others. We can also ‘lose our words’ under stress. Nevertheless, it’s pretty obvious that it’s those autistics who have the most translating ability, ie are able to more easily acquire/hang on to/use oral communication, who are most likely to be labelled high-functioning or Aspergers rather than low-functioning or classic autistics. ‘Non-verbal’ equals ‘low-intelligence’, in most people’s eyes. Yet often when these autistics do finally find a way to communicate – eg, via computerised speech devices – they are frequently revealed to have a perfectly functioning intelligence, thank you. (And are often pissed off at those who think otherwise!)

So what, you might ask, about those kids who not only have no language, but lack any other sign of ‘normal’ development, eg aren’t toilet trained, can’t dress themselves, scream constantly, etc? My gut feeling is that again, this is largely due to the communication barrier. If you can’t understand what people are saying to you, how can you grasp what they want of you, in regard to (for example) using the toilet rather than filling your pants? If you don’t even realise that communication is possible, how do you express your pain, except by screaming? Even those of us at the high-functioning end of the spectrum, especially as young children, have had the experience of knowing something, but not realising it needed to be communicated to others, and even when we did realise it, of not having the words to do so.

I admit I am not a scientist or doctor, or researcher of any kind, and my theory might sound strange or even controversial to many. Yet there is some evidence to support it. Consider, for instance, the experiences of a friend of mine, whose child is one of those lower-functioning autistic children – nine years old and non-verbal, not toilet-trained, etc. A while back, he started a course of (highly modified) ABA therapy. He is now able to use a communication ‘book’ to get across his needs (and like many children, persistently requests candy for breakfast, even though he never gets it!), and now has his first echolalic word – “No!” What fascinated me though, was her comment shortly after the therapy started, that he “didn’t seem to realise before that he could communicate with others”, that this idea was a revelation to him. Also, more recently, she has said she feels his problem with understanding spoken language is due to that “when we speak to [him] he most likely has to translate this to pictures or to whatever way his brain interprets things. On a good day, some of the message might make it through, depending on how familiar he is with those words in that order. On a bad day… none of the message will make it through. It will be a garbled mess.”

Or consider the chapter in the Loud Hands anthology, by Amanda Baggs, where she talks of how the verbal abilities of autistics like herself are “rarely stable… [it’s like] climbing a cliff.. we climb up to able to talk or understand language, and the moment we get distracted we fall back down to where words don’t exist, and have to climb up again, if we can.”[1] She implies that the more ‘rational’ and ‘verbal’ autistics don’t experience this cliff, but I’m not so sure. I think we are very likely to fall down it when we’re exhausted, ill, under severe stress, close to meltdown or shutdown or sensory overload, or already in it. We might also let ourselves slide down it for a while when alone and relaxed, perhaps communing with nature, or simply engaged in our favourite activity, temporarily giving up the struggle to express ourselves in words, and just ‘being autistic’.

I have no idea why some can ‘translate’ or ‘climb the cliff’ well, and others can’t, what difference in our brains dictates this. It’s something that I believe needs far more research – only, as the ‘experts’ seem to be far more focussed on finding cures and/or discovering more ways in which they can ‘prove’ the autistic state is an inferior or pathological one, rather than on things that might actually help us, I’m not holding my breath that it will happen. I do however feel it’s a line of enquiry which might prove helpful for all autistics, but most especially the non-verbal, if someone did find out the reason.

[1] Baggs, Amanda, pg 233, ‘Untitled’, in Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, ed by Julia Bascom/The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, 2012, The Autistic Press, Washington DC, USA.