What is Autism, Really?

by Guy Shahar

Published: 5th July, 2016

To many who come across autism in passing, it is considered a disability, through which people are rendered in some way deficient, having the handicap of not being able to function as normal people and (this part is usually unconscious) of being less valuable than those who do not have autism.

I would suggest that the reality is starkly different.

The most obvious difference between autistic and non-autistic people is the degree of sensitivity. For an autistic person, opening the curtains on a moderately sunny morning might feel like having a very bright flashlight shone directly into their eyes at close range; a plate falling onto the kitchen floor might sound as disturbing as standing next to loud drilling on a building site without any earmuffs. The National Autistic Society has produced this very short but powerful film to give us a glimpse of what it must feel like to constantly experience this sort of sensory overload.

But rather than being a deficiency, isn’t this a great attribute – an acute ability to perceive the detail of sensory information? Isn’t it a more refined way of using our senses for what they are actually for than the rest of us have? The problem isn’t with the autistic person, who has been blessed with these great abilities, but with the rest of us who have allowed our sensory processing to be blunted in creating a world for ourselves in which constant extreme sensory stimulation is used as a substitute for excitement. We seek out busy environments with flashing lights and loud noises as a means of having what we call a “good time”. We build shopping centres in confined indoor spaces where the sound resonates, and spend hours at a time there. Even the most benign children’s films are aired at great volume in cinemas, with loud, sudden, intense emotive music. Over time, our senses have adapted to the increasing prevalence of this sort of thing as the new norm, and we have learnt to withstand it. The already heightened senses of some autistic people have not. In a world in which we didn’t feel this compulsion to over-stimulate ourselves in this way and unintentionally overwhelm our autistic brothers and sisters, their sensitivity wouldn’t be problematic; it would be a huge strength, as their refined senses would be a great asset to us all. Instead, we curtail this great potential and class them as disabled.

A less discussed aspect of the sensitivity of autistic people is the emotional part of it. It is often assumed that an apparent lack of understanding of or reaction to emotional expression is indicative that there is no sensitivity to it at all. Again, I would suggest the opposite. Someone raising their voice a little will affect an autistic person not only on the level of the sound itself, but much more so on the level of the intensity of the emotion, which they may feel powerless to stop entering them. While a non-autistic person may be able to laugh off somebody else’s annoyance or anger, an autistic person’s great emotional sensitivity might mean that it is experienced as enormous pain. I believe that this is related to a natural inclination they have to be supportive, caring, trusting and ready to put the well-being of others above their own. This is the way they are eager and willing to behave. When they are unable to display this – because the prevailing culture of casual cynicism and negative emotional displays would assure them a response more often than not of indifference or even cruelty – they have little choice but to hide away inside. The reactions of others are deeply painful to them. They do not have the option of feeling okay with the negativity that is around them and are not given any positive way to be able to interact with it.

Again, in contrast to our own blunted emotional processing that enables us to give out and to deal with intensely negative emotions while carrying on with daily life, the refined emotional capability of an autistic person – which would otherwise be a great strength as their inherent kindness and good-will was allowed to have full expression and make a massive contribution to our world – is stifled.

In the book, Transforming Autism, which explores this perspective at greater length, I use the example of a set of very sensitive kitchen scales which can measure to a hundredth of a gram vs a set of robust industrial scales. If a 5kg rock was dropped onto each of them, the industrial scales would be unaffected and go on working as normal, while the kitchen scales would at best start to malfunction – giving unreliable or incomprehensible readings – and at worst be destroyed. The kitchen scales, being so refined, can give a much better quality of reading than the industrial scales could ever do, but at the cost of their resilience. The analogy is obvious. Think what the growing community of autistic people could bring to this world, how they could improve it – in ways we could never imagine and could never hope to do ourselves – if only we let them; if only we recognised the richness and refinement within each of them that they came here so ready and willing to give; if only we didn’t keep piling 5kg rocks on top of them.

Autism is not a disability. It is a condition of enhanced sensitivity which enables those who have it to bring great perception and loving care into the world. In other circumstances, where calmness and mutual consideration reigned, they could not only be fully integrated into the world, but become pioneering leaders, setting an example for the rest of us. But the condition is fragile. Through our own sensory over-stimulation and competitive adversarial mentality, we prevent the expression of their enormous potential and create a world that is intolerable for them to live in. Being relentlessly bombarded with unnecessary stimuli, excitement and negativity, they are unable to function at what would be their astounding best, and are forced inward and onto a reliance on coping strategies just to be able to withstand it all. And then we give them a label and shove them off into a quiet corner where we don’t need to look at them.

Let us consider autism from this perspective, and begin to respect and appreciate for what it is the unique individuality of each autistic person.

This article was first published in Autism Parenting Magazine a few days ago.  The magazine is offering a free electronic issue to any parent or carer (or actually any reader) who would like to read a copy. Here is the link to go to to get your free copy of Autism Parenting Magazine.

Another more in-depth article followed on from this in November – The Beautiful Reality of Autism, which went on to form the basis of our TED talk.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “What is Autism, Really?”