Do you think maybe you have some of the characteristics of people with autism? Did your score on the Autism Quiz on this site suggest that you might be autistic? Has someone suggested that your behaviors are a little or a lot unusual might be “spectrumy”? Are you worried that having autism can be stigmatizing or that it makes you crazy? Not so fast. Get the facts.
People with autism with average to high intelligence but who have difficulty with social skills used to be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (named after the pediatrician who first characterized the condition in the 1940s). In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), Asperger’s was merged and renamed, to be one form of the new “autism spectrum disorders” (ASD). But the term “Asperger’s” persists among many people who have called themselves “Aspies” for years. Why? Because, they feel that Aspergers emphasizes their positive attributes. Because it gives legitimacy to their less disabling form of autism and is therefore a route to getting services they need. It gives some of them a feeling of community and positive self-esteem. And it’s just plain easier to say than “I have autism spectrum disorder without intellectual disability and needing Level 1 services.” For that reason alone, “Aspie” is probably not going to go out of the vocabulary of those who identify with it.
Having autism as part of your make-up can be a gift, but to discover the positives requires you to first accept yourself for who you are. Greta Thunberg, the young environmental crusader, has said “Aspergers is my superpower.” She is a voice for teens and adults with autism. She is also a model for self-acceptance.
Facts about Autism you should know:
A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder does not mean that you are defective or mentally ill. A diagnosis is only a starting point for helping a person and those who care for them to better understand who they are and what they might need to learn to navigate the neurotypical world. It is not a negative judgment on who you are.
Your autism doesn’t need to be cured. For decades, autism was seen through the lens of a medical model. It was classified as a disorder; something that needed to be cured. Despite the fact that it is still listed as a “disorder” in the DSM-5, it is now generally understood that it is a neurological difference, not a disease. Instead of looking at autism through the lens of deficits, psychologists look at it through a multidiversity model. People with autism can be very different from neurotypical people, it’s true. But if you have autism, you are a perfectly okay autistic person.
A diagnosis can be a relief. For some of my clients, having a diagnosis of autism has been a great relief. Having grown up confused within themselves and perhaps bullied by others for their differences, they have felt isolated and suffered low self esteem. The diagnosis helps them make sense of their personal history. Most important, it provides direction for what to do to become more connected with others and less critical of themselves.
You may wonder if maybe you only have a little bit of autism. It’s not true that some people are a little bit autistic, some a lot. Autism is not like sound, with a range from soft to loud. Autistic traits are better described as being on a wheel. An individual may have some traits but not others. Different traits are also expressed differently and to different degrees by different people.
You are unique. There is a saying: “If you have met one person with autism you’ve only met one person with autism.” Every person on the autism spectrum is unique, with a unique set of strengths and a unique set of challenges. Your positive traits can balance any difficult ones. You are as special as the next person.
You have positive traits: Yes, you are unique. But you may share some positive traits with others who are on the spectrum. People with autism are often reliable and extremely honest. They tend to be very accepting of others. They are persistent in their pursuit of something that interests them and therefore are able to see details and possibilities that neurotypicals sometimes can’t. They often have exceptional memories and an exceptional ability to attend to details.
You are smart: Yes, you do have some challenges — usually in the area of social skills. The truth is that you are not that different from everyone else. Most people have to learn how to conform to at least some of the rituals, routines, and expected behaviors that help people get along. Neurotypical people develop those skills in the process of growing up. Such skills may not come so “naturally” to you. But you are smart! You’ve learned other things. You can learn these skills too. A therapist who specializes in ASD can give you the coaching you need to catch up.
You may also need some help with anxiety. About 40% of young people with autism have at least one of the anxiety disorders. The good news is that it is treatable. You can work with a mental health professional to learn new ways to handle stress.
You are lovable: There are people in the world, both other people with autism and neurotypicals, who look for your special kind of intensity and intelligence. Look at the biographies of famous people who are said to be on the autism spectrum and you will find that most found friendships and romantic love.
You are in good company: Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Nikola Tesla, Stanley Kubrick, and Daryl Hannah are frequently mentioned as being people with autism. Many university professors, researchers, IT specialists, award winning animators, and other particularly smart, innovative people are thought to be Aspies. Their intense, even obsessive, interest in one area made them the experts they are.
Are you a person with autism? Embrace your superpower. Learn how to make it work for you. If you are uncertain or unsuccessful at work, in friendships, or in romantic relationships, get the coaching you need and deserve. You do not have to figure it out all on your own.
Dr. Marie’s personal recommended reading list for adults with Aspergers:
- Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate: A User Guide to an Asperger Life by Cynthia Kim
- Look me in the Eye: My Life with Autism by Jon Elder Robison (actually, all of his books are helpful)
- Different Not Less: Inspiring Stories of Achievement and Successful Employment from Adults with Autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD by Temple Grandin
- The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband by David Finch
- The Other Half of Asperger Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder): A Guide to Living in an Intimate Relationship with a Partner who is on the Autism Spectrum Second Edition by Maxine Aston and Anthony Attwood