Oftentimes people ask me what it is, or what it’s like, to be autistic.
I always give different answers, and I’m always telling the truth.
The thing is, I know they want a quick, ready-to-use definition they can identify to and imagine they understand me with.
But there is no such explanation.
So sometimes, I answer « well, tell me what it’s like to not be ! ».
Because I’ve been diagnosed for 5 years now, I spent most of that time trying to figure out what Autism really is, and what it is not, and I haven’t managed to do so yet.
Truth is, this is so slippery that even professionnals struggle to give an easy-to-use explanation.
Don’t go telling me that « social awkwardness » is a definition. It’s really blur and shapeshifter, and anyway, there is more than that to it.
I came up with a number of images for people to understand « fast ».
Untill the last one :
Being Autistic, it’s a bit as if you are a zoo.
Say that in an ideal Zoo, there is a defined number of families of species (classes) you want represented.
For the sake of similarity (with the DSMC-5), we will say 4 classes:
Mammal, Birds, Reptiles, and Fishes.
As you can see, there’s quite a wide range of choice as to what species you’re gonna put in your cages.
Now, consider (still, for the sake of similarity), that for the first 3 categories above listed, you have a span of 4 « orders » to choose from , and for the 4th, 3 « orders ».
It would go like this :
Mammals : Meat-eater, Sea mammals, Grass eater, Primate.
Birds : Passerines, Galliformes, Birds of prey, Walking birds.
Reptiles : Turtles, Snakes, Lizards and Crocodilians.
Fishes : Jawless fish, Cartilaginous fish and Bony fish.
Last but not least, to qualify as a Zoo, you need only 6 species animals, but to represent all 4 of the classes anyway. And the numbers of representatives of each species only has to be higher than 10.
So, to cut things short, let me give you an exemple.
The Anatolian Zoo will have 200 Caracals, 150 Okapis, 30 Peacocks, 10 Ostriches, 30 Rainbow lorikeet, 10 Golden pheasans, 15 Birds of Paradise, 30 Blue pinguins, 10 Californian Condor, 35 Eels, 10 Stingrays and 250 Komodo dragons.
And the Zoo in Zürich will have 200 000 Koi carps, 12 Great white sharks, 15 Platypuses, 100 Bog turles, 10 Kiwis and 1 500 Japanese Nightingale.
Even with only those 2 exemples you’ve got an idea of how specific Autism is to a person.
The first Zoo has quite common species, bordering on the exotic for some, average size, with almost reasonable numbers of each, but still quite invasive when you add up the space they all need. And it seems to have specialised in birds.
The second Zoo, on the other hand, has some very impressive and exotic species, but in very tiny numbers, and an enormous number of very tiny species. It’s not gonna need much space, but the space taken by the species is inversely proportionnal to the space taken by one individual of that species.
And of course, if you’ve got 30, or even 50 different species represented, but only 1 animal of each, then you’re not a zoo.
In very much the same manner, people with Autism exhibit symptoms that have to do with the 4 areas of diagnosis in exceedingly different ways and intensity.
For one, « Impairment in social interaction » will be a slight delay in body langage that make people feel a little awkard, when for the other it will be all the appearance of giving not the least shit about whatever has to do with you.
For one individual, « Impairment in communication » will show around 4, when they will be using words even their parents don’t know about, that they will have fished out of an encyclopedia, but around 8 or 10, they will have learnt to hide this specificity and look completely normal on that regard. The other one on the contrary will only ever be able to use the exact same sentence, on all tones of emotions, to express themselves.
Same goes for the other 2 domains : « Restrictive, repetitives, stereotyped patters of behaviour, interest and activities », and « Delays or abnormal funtionning before 3 y.o. »
Another similarity to consider is that people usually go to the zoo for it’s oddities. They like it there because it’s foreign, it’s new, it’s refreshing.
They wouldn’t live there.
Autistic people are the zoo, and like any zoo, they don’t live in an environment that suits them. They are made of so many different things that there is no such environment to be found anyway.
They live in or nearby a city, full of people that consider them as curious and entertaining things, but never fully as one respectable entity.
Again, this explanation of Autism is just like the others : a piece of the Puzzle. And understanding Autism is just like solving those 3D wood pieces puzzles of dynosaurs : If you have only the one piece, you have no idea what the puzzle is about. And as long as you don’t have all the pieces, you only have little idea of the global shape, and you are very likely to put pieces in the wrong place and understand the puzzle completely wrong.