by Guy Shahar
Published: 28th November 2023
There are a lot of common conceptions (mostly mis-conceptions) about autism, and all of them concern what are perceived as its disadvantages; the difficulties that autistic people face because of their “condition”.
This is unfortunate because it masks the true nature of autism, and gives autistic children, from the very youngest age, the belief that there’s something wrong with them. They are invited to feel that their autism is a handicap that they’ll always be burdened with.
Yet, understood correctly, many of the features of Autism offer us all a glimpse into a potentially much better way we can all live together. Here are a few examples:
Common Conception: Autistic people have difficulty communicating with others. They do not have the inherent capacity to understand social cues, body language or the nuances of how language is used as others do. This may be because they are less interested in connecting with other people (see the next section for more on this), preferring to be on their own. They do not naturally show interest in others, preferring to talk at length about their own favourite subjects irrespective of and insensitive to how this is going down with the other people. This inability to relate socially to others is one of the major disadvantages of Autism.
The Reality: It’s true that autistic people generally lack the inherent capacity to understand the social cues of non-autistic people, just as non-autistic people generally lack the inherent capacity to understand the social cues of autistic people. It’s not a one-way street, and they do have social cues of their own which just happen to be slightly different.
Indeed, groundbreaking research by Catherine Crompton of Edinburgh University shows the exact opposite – that in a wide range of social tests, the results of autistic people were on a par with those of non-autistic, when interacting with their own type. However, both groups struggled when it came to interacting with the other type.
There were no significant differences between the social skills of autistic and non-autistic people (and autistics actually surpassed non-autistics on some measures), but because they’re a small minority in society, it’s easy to wrongly assume that it’s the autistics who have the problem and the so-called “normal” people epitomise the ideal way to be. This has now been shown to be incorrect.
A lot of the perceived differences may simply be down to misunderstandings. The different intonation or choice of focus or expression of autistic people have a completely different significance than if these were being used by non-autistic people, where they may signify a different intention or attitude. It is not uncommon for autistic people to be thought of as insensitive, sarcastic, grumpy, selfish or just stupid for this reason alone.
There may also be differences in certain milestones that are reached at different ages. It may be that many autistic children naturally develop their social skills much later in childhood, while developing other skills much earlier, for example around cognition or maturity in other ways. But when they are assumed to be deficient in some way because they are not “achieving” according to the expected roadmap of milestones for a child (which are based on the experiences of non-autistic children only), their feeling of self-confidence and hope is likely to be a casualty. If a belief that they struggle in a certain area is instilled in them – when in reality there is no struggle (they are just following a different roadmap) – then this can be self-fulfilling as it can seriously undermine the progress that they were otherwise on course for. Coupled with the widespread intolerance of the ways autistic people communicate and express themselves, an unnecessary problem is thus perpetuated.
With a little understanding and acceptance, there would be no need for any sort of barrier due to any differences between the social instincts and abilities of autistic and non-autistic people. There could be a lot more joyful exploration and fulfilling interaction between them.
Lack of Empathy/ Living in Their Own World
Common Conception: One of the reasons why autistic people don’t have much social skill is that they prefer to be on their own – this is, after all, the root of the word “autism”. They’re not particularly interested in other people and do not naturally have the capacity for empathy or care for another’s well-being – it’s simply not on their radar. Research shows that they are much more cognisant of objects and things than they are of other people and their activities. They prefer to create an internal world, where they can feel safe and enjoy life in their own way oblivious to what’s going on around them.
The Reality: In my experience, autistic people need company and affirming relationships as much as anyone else. They may develop an awareness of this need at a different stage of life (not when the traditional “milestones” are supposed to have been reached), but it is no less profound. They have just as much need for connection and intimacy, and can feel the loneliness and pain when these are absent as much as anyone else.
Their well-observed preference to be on their own is a superficial not a fundamental preference. It’s due to the overwhelming pressures of most types of relationships as society constructs them today. It’s observable that the closer 2 people get to each other, the greater both the risk and impact of conflict, betrayal and pain become. It needn’t be that way, and hopefully one day it will become far less common, but generally in society, it still is. As we will see later, such a state of affairs is far from optimal for anyone, and most especially for an autistic person.
This is also a possible reason why interest in social relationships is often delayed beyond its natural point of emergence. Autistic children are likely to have experienced so much negativity from relationships at home, school or elsewhere. Relationships, which they need as much as anyone else, have come to feel too scary to allow themselves to pursue or even put any hope into. So they learn to live without for as long as they can. And then when the instinctive need for such relationships grows so strong that they can’t ignore it any longer, they pursue and approach them with understandable social anxiety, personal baggage and a lack of suitable relational models, due to the adversity that they have endured in relationships up to that point.
This commonly results in failure and feelings of humiliation or of having been judged and rejected. The result is a gradual withdrawal from the social world, as the person has met with levels of adversity that no longer feel endurable, and so turns away. This can happen in varying degrees and at any stage of life from very early childhood to middle-age or later. This is what is generally assumed to be an aspect of autism when it is no such thing – it is an aspect of the trauma that they need to go through in order to interact meaningfully with a society that doesn’t seem to understand their needs or have any interest or patience to try.
The flip side of this, of course, is that while autistic people may have a lower tolerance of judgement, conflict, manipulation, blaming, competitiveness, one-upmanship, etc, which makes the sort of relationships that are common in society so difficult for them; the sorts of relationships that they are built for and would instinctively create if given the space to do so would be more often based purely on mutual respect, affirmation, care and support.
If we can look behind the presumption of disability, we can start to see the asset that resides there what the rest of society can glean from it; and evolve our society to be inclusive and accessible to them too, so that they no longer feel they have no option but to withdraw. Wouldn’t such sorts of relationships ultimately benefit everyone?
Literal Use and Understanding of Language
Common Conception: Autistic people are not able to understand figurative or diplomatic use of language and only feel comfortable with strictly literal sentences that communicate precise information. This extends to their often bluntly stating facts that others might find difficult or offensive with no appreciation of how this might land for the other person. Inference, sarcasm and so on cause confusion for them as they have no innate ability to read between the lines of what is being said (though a basic understanding of inference can sometimes be instilled, with a lot of work).
The Reality: It’s true that indirect communication is not a concept easily grasped by many autistic people. Let’s consider what might be problematic about it for them.
From my own experience (as an autistic person), I have found I can appreciate such forms of expression from the point of view of humour or even observation of others, and to feel comfortable using such humour at times. However, as a means of self-expression, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
I don’t see this as a deficit of understanding or a missing mental capability, but rather as a manifestation of differing values. After all, what generally is the purpose of, let’s say, softening what we want to say by making it less direct, while putting the responsibility on the listener to understand what our real message is? We might like to pretend to ourselves that it’s to lovingly cushion the other person from hearing something that they might find difficult. Sometimes we need to pass on information that might be tough for them to hear, and so by using softer language and making things less direct or blunt, we make it easier for them to accept and absorb.
But in reality, this is rarely the case. In my observation, the speaker is rarely anywhere near as concerned with the feelings of the other person as they are with their own self-image. Who wants to see themselves as a baddie who brings pain to others, or to experience a strong reaction from them? It’s much easier to deliver the pain in a way that is, on the surface, far more reasonable, and whose impact, being less easy to pinpoint (though not less intense), is harder to react to. That way, we get to see ourself as moderate and kind.
But being the recipient of such a communication style is far from a pleasant experience. You need to work out for yourself what they’re trying to say and can never be completely sure that your interpretation is quite what they intended. There’s often confusion around this. You’re also deprived of the opportunity to clarify or respond, as the message is not overt. If we were really concerned with softening the blow to the recipient, this would not be the way to do it.
And there’s a very real danger of sowing the seeds of unnecessary future disharmony. A sensitive person will tune into some part of the speaker’s underlying feelings and judgements, either during the conversation or it may become clearer later, at which point they may feel manipulated and subtly resentful. A less sensitive person may not, and may be oblivious to the core of the message that was conveyed to them, which may lead the original speaker to feel unheard or disrespected, which could eventually lead to an unexpected eruption of anger from them. I have both observed and experienced these two types of outcomes many times.
From an autistic point of view, clarity, respect and integrity are far more important. We make it clear and unambiguous what we want to say so that the other person is left in no doubt. It might be important feedback or a statement of our own needs or calling out something that others may not (for reasons of “diplomacy”). Usually, there’s no ill-will in it at all – though this may be read into it by a non-autistic person due to the fact that they themselves would only resort to such direct expression after all avenues of indirect communication have been exhausted. For Autistic people, to begin with a direct approach, and to bring up what needs to be brought up clearly and early on rather than stalling for as long as possible, is more often a matter of profound respect for the other person and is intended to lead to a constructive way forward.
As long as there is genuine good will on the part of the speaker and genuine humility on the part of the recipient – and why wouldn’t there be both? – then straight-talking both ways is the surest path to clearing the air quickly and positively, leaving mutual respect intact and avoiding residual suspicion and ill-will.
When put like this, it is surprising to hear the ways that autistic people prefer to operate described as problematic or impaired in some way; while a preference to over-complicating situations by obscuring what it is intended to be conveyed is considered a perfectly healthy norm.
If an autistic person were to observe that people of more typical neurology had a problem with authenticity, and that – for example – even when overwhelmed with negativity, they find it difficult to express directly how they feel, preferring instead to use coded signals so that they can maintain the façade of reasonableness while relying on others to recognise and decipher these signals, commonly leading to misunderstanding, disappointment and longstanding unexpressed animosity; it wouldn’t be a particularly respectful or charitable (or clinical) analysis. It would be tribal and patronising, even if there may be some truth in it.
The way to build a more harmonious world lies not in criticising or pathologising the ways that other types of people differ in behaviour from our own type, but in recognising the common humanity behind the neurological façade and in using this recognition to build bridges of understanding, respect and accommodation in all directions.
Truth and Lies
Common Conception: Autistic people are so literal they don’t even have the flexibility of thinking to know the difference between a truth and a lie. They readily believe whatever they are told and do not seem to even be able to conceptualise that something might be a lie, let alone to themselves say something that isn’t true.
The Reality: It’s astounding that this is considered a limitation. It’s not that autistic people do not have the machinery to be able to tell the difference between truth and lies – I believe that they actually have a much greater innate intuition to know when something is trustworthy or not, when such a question is on their radar – but they often don’t use this intuition because it doesn’t occur to them that anyone would degrade themselves to the extent of lying.
We have been given the faculty of communication so that we can share information, feelings and perceptions with each other. It’s an important aspect of our being able to live together in a society and community. The purpose of such a faculty is severely undermined by the introduction of lies.
Another essential element of being able to live in civilisation is the ability to create culture. This enables us to use social norms to enforce basic principles of living, like being able to be sure of the sanctity of our wellbeing or our property, and also to know what behaviour to expect from each other and thereby avoid disappointment and constant anxiety.
Unfortunately, however, the various cultures of the world (each in their own ways) then go on to impose cultural obligations that unnecessarily introduce complexity, obfuscation and the sort of indirect communication we discussed the last section, and the routine use of lies to explain or justify ourselves. The intention may be to give ourselves some sort of advantage, or even more damagingly, for the purpose of self-deception so that we can maintain a particular image of ourselves and avoid facing the truth of what we really are; but the result is that we again undermine the foundations our own wellbeing.
This doesn’t make any sense to autistic people, who again, I believe, are naturally inclined towards being open and upfront about who they are (authenticity is a part of their make up, not a choice) and who are not at all inclined, in their essential nature, to judge or condemn anyone else for superficial reasons. It often happens that autistic people face an unexpected backlash when out of respect and with only good intentions they tell a truth that might not be completely convenient to the recipient, or when they fail to force themselves to laugh at a joke that’s at someone else’s expense, which saddens rather than amuses them. They are again being judged according to what such a response would signify if it were uttered by a non-autistic person. For them, there is nothing malign intended. Resentment can build, of course, as a result of the feeling of injustice from being apparently wilfully misunderstood and condemned, but it takes a lot for them to get there.
So, an inclination towards a world of mutual acceptance, non-judgement, respect and transparency is generally an unseen part of autism. Only the surface elements – like the fact that autistic people are less constantly conscious of the possibility of lies – are noticed, and when they are they are perceived as a limitation, as if the great ideal is to use lies as a common tool. It’s another example of where looking beneath the surface can reveal something that might perhaps be instructive.
Common Conception: Autistic people find it difficult to manage stress and end up being unable to regulate themselves emotionally, leading to a lack of control and meltdowns. They don’t have anything like the same level of resilience to daily stresses and strains as other people do.
The Reality: It’s easy to be resilient when there’s no challenge. A blind person can bravely withstand the brightest light without any problem; a deaf person the most piercing sound. Because of their sensitivity – both sensory and emotional – the experience of these daily stresses and strains is of a different order for autistic people from what non-autistic people undergo. Added to that, each autistic person, with few if any exceptions, has been through a traumatic history of being repeatedly and consistently misunderstood, wrongly judged and ill-treated as a result. Taking into account the reality of this experience and the fact that autistic people still find the strength to continue their lives and sometimes even find moments of joy in between the constant onslaughts suggests that they have a remarkable level of resilience – far more than most people need to find. It’s not because there’s anything inherently resilient about them, but that this is just what’s required in their case in order to continue with life. They’ve been forced to develop that resilience on pain of survival. And wouldn’t anyone find themselves melting down every so often if their tolerance levels were routinely heavily exceeded?
Now imagine what the life – and the contribution to society – of an autistic person could be if they weren’t subjected to the unnecessary parts of these challenges (which is most of them), and thereby forced to use their valuable resources in coping with them.
Common Conception: The senses of Autistic people are out of balance – with over-sensitivity in many areas (though sometimes also a corresponding under-sensitivity relating to other senses). This causes immense problems for autistic people who can’t easily cope with what feels to them to be the high level of stimulation necessary for normal daily life.
The Reality: It is true to say that many autistic people have a different, usually higher, level of sensitivity as far as sensory experience goes (and I would suggest that, contrary to popular belief, this extends to emotional, cognitive, energetic and other forms of sensitivity). However, the rest of the common conception above is full of assumption and evaluation, and once again amounts to pathologising autism.
Who’s to say that the levels of sensitivity of non-autistic people are optimal? These things are all relative. If a typical non-autistic person were taken to a community where, for example, everyone was used to loud music pumping everywhere 24 hours a day, blinding lights flashing down the streets, regularly having to sift through raw sewage with their hands in order to meet whatever expectations that community had in terms of their norms, and so on, then their senses would be overwhelmed in the way that autistic senses are in the world we’re all used to. They would find themselves there in the same situation as autistic people find themselves in here, and would be thought of as aberrant and talked about in a similar way by the locals there.
Everything is relative. It is often said that autistic people tend to be “over-sensitive”. Why don’t we say instead that non-autistic people tend to have “blunted senses”? The autistic person is always going to be in the minority and so it’s easy to perceive their differences as an unfortunate analogy, rather than to look at what possible benefits their level of sensitivity can bring.
There are of course great benefits to having a neuro-typical level of sensitivity. It gives you the resilience to experience a much broader set of situations without being over-whelmed and to venture deeper into unknown circumstances without being thrown off balance. But there are costs too. The depth of perception needs to be reduced in order to achieve this breadth. Fine nuances between different sounds and sights and feelings are less detectable, and the significance of certain things, or subtle but important patterns may be completely missed.
Reverse those advantages and disadvantages and you have the autistic situation. It’s not that autistic people are more impaired or that there’s an optimal norm that autistic people are not able to achieve, it’s just that there’s a difference in balance between capacity for breadth and depth of experience. That’s all. And, as with most of these common conceptions, this is yet another example of: if we bring the capabilities of autistic and non-autistic people together to be able to achieve what neither can alone, then we have a collective superpower. If we waste our energy pathologising the ways and make up of others because they exist in a different balance to our own, we constrain ourselves and our society.
There’s another aspect to what is considered to be over-sensitivity in autism, which could help us to empower autistic children. Somebody (an autistic person) wrote to me some time ago, angry with something I’d written about how our charity’s services work. He thought my descriptions were nebulous and contained nice thoughts and words that were ultimately fatuous and empty. He wrote, derisively, “You can’t love a child out of a sensitivity to texture.”
I explained to him that any reputable developmental psychotherapist would have plenty of examples of exactly this happening. And it does make sense. We can all tolerate a limited amount of adversity without it really bothering us too much. If a child’s limit is far exceeded simply in the day-to-day experience of being misunderstood and feeling that their needs cannot be met and that they’re treated harshly and unfairly, then anything beyond that is going to be seriously amplified as an irritant. The slightest irritation, which under more favourable circumstances could be filtered out as a minor annoyance, when placed on top of all the (unnecessary) adversity they already have to undergo, suddenly feels too much to deal with. So, when you remove that unnecessary adversity (through love and understanding and trust) and empower the child to feel safe in their environment and to be calm, then the unpleasant sounds or textures, while still irritating of course, are no longer enough to exceed the limit of easy tolerance. I’ve certainly had that experience in my life – I’m sure we all have – when environmental factors (including relationships with others) have had a huge effect on whether or not something that I’m sensitive to bothers me.
He had the good grace to recognise the truth in this and to adjust his perspective on how all of this works. If we can all follow his example in this, it can only bring great benefit to very many.
Common Conception: There is no common conception about idealism in Autism.
The Reality: Every child is born an idealist. You can see it in the angelic smiles of the very young that are rarely seen in adults. You can feel it in the deep satisfying joy that toddlers get from having the whole family together to share wonderful experiences, or from stories where everything ends well and the characters live happily ever after.
It doesn’t last forever. A child soon learns that the world doesn’t live up to their inherent ideals and isn’t going to give them all they feel they want and need, and that in order to survive, they’ll need to take care of their own needs (and this is intensified as ego later develops). It is a deeply painful revelation, and is typically dealt with by detaching from their child-like sensitivity to others to some extent and building some sort of wall around the heart to protect themselves from the magnitude of the pain caused by the world having failed in what they’d like to see as its responsibility to them. In turn, they feel to some extent absolved from their own responsibility to others for the maintenance of the ideal with which they came into the world. They turn their attention instead towards trying to ensure their own survival in a dangerous world where they have been left to fend for themselves. For many, maintaining and improving their perception of their place in the “pecking order” becomes a driving priority through their entire life.
This is a natural and inevitable process in the evolution of each individual through his or her life at this stage of the evolution of humanity. What is less inevitable is the intensity or the flavour or the speed of this process. And it’s different for each person depending on their make-up and on the environment they’re born into.
This process happens for autistic as well as non-autistic people, but with some differences due to their respective make-ups. Autistic people do not generally detach themselves from their connection with others so easily or turn a blind eye to their ideals. The tend to have a much more integrated perception of how interconnected everything and everyone is. It takes much more to turn them towards a life of harshness where they are ready to aggressively compromise the needs of others in order to appease what they perceive as their own. It can happen, but it takes much more for them to resort to it, and when they do, they tend to be easier to reach and to awaken to the harm that they are doing, which is not in line with how they naturally feel they want to be.
They are more likely, in fact, to internalise any fear or anxiety rather than try to offload it onto other people, which is why they can often seem withdrawn or cut off from their surroundings. It does not occur to them to hurt or judge and criticise others in order to help process their own negativity.
And when others do that to them, it has a much greater impact on them than for those who routinely give and receive such hurt and criticism as part of their routine way of living. This is due largely to their enhanced sensitivity, but also to the inherent respect they have for the world and the people around them. Hurting others simply does not feel like a viable option for them, and so when others do such things to them, it feels much more like mindless savage cruelty.
All of this is hard to observe when looking at autistic people from the outside and seeing what in some circumstances may look like impenetrable detachment. As with so many of such misconceptions, it is usually quite the opposite. It indicates a profound connection with and respect for others that’s so overwhelming they need to take some space to recuperate.
Such space would not be necessary if their experiences weren’t so overwhelming, and their experiences wouldn’t be so overwhelming if we could each maintain a level of respect for each other. Again, it’s what we’d all say we wanted, but the fact that autistic people not only want it, but need it, means that they act for all of us as a reminder of what would be ideal and a source of inspiration should we ever become interested and willing to take advantage of that.
Is Autism Really a Disadvantage?
So, Autism is only a disadvantage if we take the current cultural framework to be something desirable, verging on perfect. Otherwise, Autism points the way to a potential vastly improved future of society, if humanity ever decides to choose an optimal course rather than expect autistic people to simply adapt to a state of affairs that is suboptimal for them and most probably for everyone else too.
After all, if we lived in a society full of prejudice, would it be desirable to lose our “weird” sense of equality and to start to treat people unequally ourselves, or would we keep to our values and hope that eventually, the majority will find it in their hearts to understand where we’re coming from? In a world of violence, would it be desirable to lose our “naïve” feeling that peace is the only thing that makes sense and to join in the hostilities, or would we hold on to what we feel within and act as a beacon for others if they ever become open to listening?
These examples are easy for most people to understand, as prejudice and violence are not considered ideals that we want to aspire to (even though, sadly, they still exist in abundance). The choices are obvious.
But Autistic people live their entire lives facing these sorts of choices across most areas of their lives. They are forced to live with a completely different way of being to the prevailing culture – a way that makes much more sense to them but which is currently dismissed, or mostly not even noticed, by the rest of society.
Imagine a world in which we all lived in the way that autistic people have no choice but to rely on; where they weren’t marginalised for being a little different and where their experience of life was understood and drawn on. In view of all of the above observations, would it be a world that we’d prefer to live in, or would we opt to continue in this world dominated by fear, greed and indifference to others?
Looked at in this way, Autism is not a curse that afflicts a few poor unfortunate individuals, but rather a glimpse into what is possible for humanity, should we decide to truly understand it, learn from it and evolve in this direction rather than judging it as something undesirable and pitying anyone subject to it.
Perhaps the biggest difference between autistic and non-autistic people might be that while many non-autistic people would like such an evolution of society and can see how it would be beneficial, autistic people, due to their sensitivity on many levels and their immutable idealism, depend on such an evolution for their balance and well-being in a much more fundamental way. Dependence is sadly a much more powerful motivating factor than aspiration.
I’m not saying (as the title cheekily implies) that autism is a perfect blueprint for an ideal future world; only that there’s a lot to learn from it, and if we all come together and draw on the best of what autistics and non-autistics bring, there is enormous potential for a greatly improved future for all of us.
At the very least, let’s ensure our autistic children carry this self-affirming understanding of autism so that we don’t add a misplaced sense of inadequacy to the already considerable difficulties that living in a world like the one we have created presents for them.