What is Autism?
(a guest article by Nick Walker from his blog Neurocosmopolitanism)
About the author
This text by Nick Walker is an introduction to the topic of autism. This concept, based on the principle of neurodiversity, is not just an unfounded opinion. Nick Walker is an autism scholar, Adjunct Lecturer of psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, founder and editor of Autonomous Press, an independent publisher dealing with "Disability and neurodiversity, paths of identity and life experience". In addition, Nick Walker is autistic. This text was originally published in English on Nick Walker's blog, "Neurocosmopolitanism" and has been translated into German by White Unicorn e.V.
How many websites are there that have a page called something like “What Is Autism?” or “About Autism”? How often do organizations, professionals, scholars, and others need to include a few paragraphs of basic introductory “What Is Autism?” text in a website, brochure, presentation, or academic paper?
I’ve seen so many versions of that obligatory “What Is Autism” or “About Autism” text. And they’re almost all terrible. For starters, almost all of them – even the versions written by people who claim to be in favor of “autism acceptance” or to support the neurodiversity paradigm – use the language of the pathology paradigm, which intrinsically contributes to the oppression of Autistics.
On top of that, most of these descriptions of autism – even many of the descriptions written by Autistics – propagate inaccurate information and false stereotypes. Some are so bad that they actually quote the DSM.
Of course, there are also a few really good pieces of “What Is Autism” text out there. But for the most part, they’re rather personal pieces, about the authors’ own unique experiences of autism, rather than general introductory definitions.
What is needed is some good basic introductory “What Is Autism” text that is:
1.) consistent with current evidence;
2.) not based in the pathology paradigm;
3.) concise, simple, and accessible;
4.) formal enough for professional and academic use.
Since I couldn’t find such a piece of text elsewhere, I wrote one. And here it is.
I hereby give everyone permission to reprint the text below, in whole or in part, whenever you need a piece of basic “What Is Autism” or “About Autism” text. Please do credit me for writing it (and of course, a proper citation is a must in academic writing). But really, as long as credit is given, anyone can go ahead and use this text for free.
This piece has been reprinted in the book The Real Experts: Readings for Parents of Autistic Children, published in 2015 by Autonomous Press. For purposes of citing this piece in academic work, it’s generally best to cite the printed version.
The text has been translated into several languages, the external links above the flags lead to the pages where the translations are published:
WHAT IS AUTISM?
Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant.
The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable.
Autism is a developmental phenomenon, meaning that it begins in utero and has a pervasive influence on development, on multiple levels, throughout the lifespan. Autism produces distinctive, atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing.
One analogy that has often been made is that autistic individuals have a different neurological “operating system” than non-autistic individuals.
According to current estimates, somewhere between one percent and two percent of the world’s population is autistic. While the number of individuals diagnosed as autistic has increased continually over the past few decades, evidence suggests that this increase in diagnosis is the result of increased public and professional awareness, rather than an actual increase in the prevalence of autism.
Despite underlying neurological commonalities, autistic individuals are vastly different from one another. Some autistic individuals exhibit exceptional cognitive talents. However, in the context of a society designed around the sensory, cognitive, developmental, and social needs of non-autistic individuals, autistic individuals are almost always disabled to some degree – sometimes quite obviously, and sometimes more subtly.
The realm of social interaction is one context in which autistic individuals tend to consistently be disabled. An autistic child’s sensory experience of the world is more intense and chaotic than that of a non-autistic child, and the ongoing task of navigating and integrating that experience thus occupies more of the autistic child’s attention and energy. This means the autistic child has less attention and energy available to focus on the subtleties of social interaction. Difficulty meeting the social expectations of non-autistics often results in social rejection, which further compounds social difficulties and impedes social development. For this reason, autism has been frequently misconstrued as being essentially a set of “social and communication deficits,” by those who are unaware that the social challenges faced by autistic individuals are just by-products of the intense and chaotic nature of autistic sensory and cognitive experience.
Autism is still widely regarded as a “disorder,” but this view has been challenged in recent years by proponents of the neurodiversity model, which holds that autism and other neurocognitive variants are simply part of the natural spectrum of human biodiversity, like variations in ethnicity or sexual orientation (which have also been pathologized in the past). Ultimately, to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgment rather than a scientific fact.