The following definition of the core of autism reflects a collective effort of the autistic community. The current version of the definition has been extracted from this call for action, which in turn reflects observations made by a range autistic people from all corners of the planet in online conversations about the core of autistic experience.
Autistic readers are encouraged to validate this definition against their own experience and to point out any aspects that
- don’t seem familiar, and which therefore should perhaps not be considered part of the core of autism,
- or that seem to be missing from the definition, but refer to experiences made by the majority of autistic people, and therefore should be added to the definition.
You are invited to submit feedback in the comment box below.
This definition can also be validated against the growing number of individual experiences that are collected and published as part of the Mosaic of Autistic Lenses project. Please consider contributing to this important project.
It would be fantastic if Mosaic of Autistic Lenses project could over time develop into a repository of several hundred (and possibly many more) autistic lenses. The Mosaic of Autistic Lenses project has the potential to develop into a rich source of valuable information for the autistic community, in particular for young people who are in the process of finding their way into the adult autistic community, and for researchers interested in developing a deeper understanding.
What is autism?
Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant that can not be understood without the social model of disability. Members of the autism civil rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that extends the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope of identities by recognising autistic traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species.
All autistic people experience the human social world significantly different from typical individuals. The difference in autistic social cognition is best described in terms of a heightened level of conscious processing of raw information signals from the environment, and an absence or a significantly reduced level of subconscious filtering of social information.
Autistic children tend to take longer to learn how to decode non-verbal signals from the social world, in particular signals related to abstract cultural concepts related to the negotiation of social status.
Many autistic people are also hyper- and/or hypo-sensitive to certain sensory inputs from the physical environment. This further complicates social communication in noisy and distracting environments. With respect to autistic sensory sensitivity there are huge differences between autists. Some autists may be bothered or impaired by a broad range of different stimuli, whereas others are only impacted by very specific stimuli.
Individually unique cognitive autistic lenses result in individually unique usage patterns of the human brain, and often in unique levels of expertise and creativity within specific domains of interest and related autistic inertia and perseverance.
Autistic inertia is similar to Newton’s inertia, in that not only do autistic people have difficulty starting things, but they also have difficulty in stopping things. Inertia can allow autists to hyperfocus for long periods of time, but it also manifests as a feeling of paralysis and a severe loss of energy when needing to switch from one task to the next.
Autistic neurology shapes the human experience of the world across multiple social dimensions, including social motivations, social interactions, the way of developing trust, and the way of making friends.
The autistic human experience involves the following set of cultural artefacts
- Language(s), including various idiosyncratic forms of communication
- Written rules for interaction, in particular in relation to interacting with the physical and biological world
- Tools of all kinds
- Knowledge related to the making and use of tools
Autistic social motivations
- Acceptance – acknowledgement as a living human with basic human needs, in particular love, access to food and shelter, and autonomy over own mind and body, as well as unique needs
- Truth – as it appears through the lens of our current level of human scientific understanding
- Recognition – attribution of creative agency
Autistic social motivations are intrinsic and navigate the tension between mutual assistance and the acquisition of new levels of knowledge and understanding, including access to specific objects of study and any required tools.
In summary, autistic people don’t have hidden agendas, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation in competitive social environments.
Autistic social interactions
Autistic collaboration involves sharing of knowledge and working towards a shared goal of generating new levels of knowledge and understanding. The individual innate moral compass mediates the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire learn about the world.
- These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of new discoveries from children to parents
- Education of parents by the children focuses on teaching about the focus and boundaries of individual areas of interest
- Sharing of knowledge and asking probing questions is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
- Adolescence is a period of intensive knowledge acquisition, where individual areas of interests are explored in great depth, and where in the absence of autistic peers with compatible interests new knowledge is often shared with parents
The autistic way of developing trust
Is based on experienced domain-specific competence. Autistic people:
- (when young) assume everyone is telling the truth;
- (when older) can become very cynical;
- can be fooled by people who appear to be logical but who have no scruples fabricating evidence;
- are slow in learning the cultural significance of social cues, and can’t reliably read social cues in an environment of sensory overload.
The autistic way of making friends
To construct trusted relationships and friendships, autistic people apply an explicit goal oriented approach:
- Search for people with shared interests, usually online
- Confirm a shared interest
- Start having fun by knowledge sharing
- Explore what can be achieved with joint capabilities and capacities
- Embark on significant joint projects to have more fun
The limits of labels
Those who identify as autistic operate on an internal moral compass that does not place much if any value on social status and related cultural rules.
In all social contexts that relate to one or more of the group identities of neurotypical people, autistic people will be identifiable by their atypical behavioural patterns, and by the level of exhaustion they suffer by attempting to blend in to the local social context.
When autistic people attempt to blend in (by masking) it is to avoid suffering the consequences of non-conformance – and not to gain or maintain social status.
Autistic people are the most productive if allowed to self-organise in teams with a clear autistic / neurodivergent majority, such that interactions with typical teams are limited to the mutual exchange of knowledge and tools in accordance with the agreed purpose of the team, and such that autistic people are not expected to continuously conform to the social expectations of the surrounding culture.
If you are wondering whether you identify as autistic, spend time amongst autistic people, online and offline. If you notice you relate to these people much better than to others, if they make you feel safe, and if they understand you, you have arrived.