(This is totally unscientific and unempirical, but based on anecdotal observations from conversations with hundreds/thousands of other autistic people -- both with formal diagnoses and without them, both speaking and nonspeaking, etc. -- it just seems that all of these characteristics are *more common* in autistic people than they are in nonautistic people, and that the more of these kinds of characteristics someone has, the more likely they are to be autistic. Obviously anyone who isn't autistic -- which includes neurodivergent people who aren't autistic -- could have any one or more of these characteristics too. And of course, there are characteristics of being autistic that seem to be really common in autistic people, especially as compared to nonautistic people, that I don't have.)
Like many (but of course, not all) autistic people, I ...
- Keep an erratic sleeping schedule, and am often nocturnal by both instinct and preference.
- Absolutely suck at executive functioning, which involves planning tasks, prioritizing tasks, initiating tasks, following through on tasks, meeting deadlines, organizing complex multi-step tasks, etc.
- Have very uneven skills academically, but present as conventionally "gifted." I functioned really, really well academically from K - 12, and then when I went to college, a lot of coping skills died. I developed some stuff, sure, but I know some stuff went straight out the window too, because huge changes, and also almost total lack of structure/scaffolding. ("Now you're an adult, and you must be totally independent, and if you can't do that, too bad f u.")
- Have hypersensitivities in all my senses (to noises, to smells, to tastes/textures, to touch/tactile sensation, to sights), which create both (1) sensory-seeking opportunities (I still rub a silk sleeve over my face -- the very same one I've had since I was 3 and I'm now 22; also, tassels tassels tassels -- yes I did in fact get a picture of myself inside the White House rubbing a tassel there all over my face) and (2) sensory-averse reactions (I am physically hurt by a lot of fluorescent lights; also, touching me lightly -- not firmly -- hurts).
- Tend to be more oblivious to surroundings/background information/implied knowledge. (This includes social knowledge -- everyone else picks up on updates in people's lives/doings much sooner than me; spatial knowledge -- I can't recognize the same location in the dark versus in the light and also won't realize that objects/buildings/things exist unless they're explicitly pointed out to me; etc.)
- Frequently speak in circles, because I have extreme frustration when I believe the other person/people do not understand what I'm trying to communicate, so I attempt to rephrase (and can rephrase an infinite number of times, and go on for-fucking-ever with this unless stopped).
- Take great pleasure out of intense fascination with particular topic areas in ways that non-autistic people often do not.
- Relate to other people (and show that I care about them) specifically by seeking out gifts/activities/internet memes/other tangible or observable things that relate directly to their preferred interests or activities, but am often perceived as just creepy or weird by non-autistic people for doing this.
- Absolutely hate crowds and crowded locations because they're overwhelming and drain me of energy to start, do, or finish things, or just to concentrate, or just to survive.
- Occasionally lose the ability to produce oral speech even though I usually have the ability to use oral speech, especially when under extreme stress or exhaustion.
- Stim, like by using my tongue around my mouth in specific ways, or touching specific kinds of textures, or spinning in circles for a long time, or playing with water forever, including in fountains attached to government buildings, which results in being yelled at by security. (I stim when I'm anxious, when I'm bored, when I'm upset, when I'm happy, or when I'm excited. Also when I'm trying to communicate to another autistic person that I exist and am also autistic.)
- Tend to like certain types of structure and routine in ways that are not typical for non-autistic people. For example, whether playing with toy cars, Barbie or Bratz dolls, or Star Wars action figures, I would always line up all of the figures in specific orders/formations and three-dimensional spatial locations in my play area that almost never changed, which confused the hell out of all of my non-autistic friends/playmates. In another example, I'm also totally okay with eating literally *the exact same thing* for every meal for months on end, and this does not bother me.
- Extremely detail-oriented. For example, I write novels and do collaborative writing style roleplaying, and in both, I typically develop in immense detail aspects of constructed languages, socio-economic-political systems, cultural norms/histories, etc., as well as populating worlds (both those based on the real world and those that are totally sci-fi or fantasy settings) with hundreds or thousands of characters thought out in depth.
- Am highly attracted to and empathetic with animals (like cats and dogs) and fictional characters, which I feel are like real people and whom I care about in the same way I do as real people.
- Tend to take an incredibly long time to develop close friendships with people, and am constantly afraid of losing any of the friends that I have, because many of my closest friends in the past aren't my friends anymore (often but not always because they decided to not be my friend because I wasn't cool).
- Was severely bullied throughout school, both by other students and sometimes by teachers, for being an obvious weirdo. I'm usually perceived as out of touch, socially awkward, weird, abnormal, and just not with it when compared to a lot of my peers.
- Won't shut up when I really care about something, and am often perceived as arrogant, stuck-up, a know-it-all, full of myself, showing off, etc. even though I'm just trying to share information that I think the other person will care about or benefit from having.
- Don't really think in linguistic concepts/language. I think both visually and conceptually. So my thoughts happen in images (still pictures, moving videos, or four-dimensional fluid shapes/lines/fields/things-that-aren't-describable-but-I-probably-sound-like-I'm-under-the-influence-of-LSD-now) that represent concepts.
- Hate group work. With the burning passion of ten hundred thousand flaming suns gone supernova.
- Can be both hyposensitive (not that sensitive) or hypersensitive (so much sensitive) to pain. Like, I scream and cry when getting shots. But after having my wisdom teeth out, due to combination of apparent stoicism and serious sensory aversions to any pills ever and most liquid medications, didn't really take any pain meds once I went home.
- Tend to be either really good intuitively at doing a thing, or really, really suck, and I keep sucking at it in the same pattern of sucking at it.
- Think systematically or in patterns. See above. (Example: If I'm worried or anxious about something, I will repeatedly go over every possible outcome, from the best possible one to the worst most catastrophic one, and everything in between, in great detail as to how/why each could happen, and the likelihood of each outcome, but despite knowing rationally that the most catastrophic ones are usually not that likely, will still anxiously panic over the possibility they are true.)
- Rely on scripts (entire encounters, types of situations, for behavior, or for what to say, etc.) for like 95% of my interactions involving other people, including other autistic people.
- Really, really like the feeling of pressure against my body. I often sit with legs/ankles crossed so I feel the pressure, or with my hand between both knees (I've learned that people assume I'm sexually touching myself in public if it's any higher up my leg). I like to sit so that my legs/ankles/feet can press against the legs of chairs or tables. I like to fall asleep with my arms tucked under my torso. Weighted blankets are awesome.
- Have some super awesome fine/gross motor skills, and some totally sucky fine/gross motor skills. For example, I have highly calligraphic scripted handwriting, and do black and white drawings in pen only (no pencil involved ever) with highly detailed cross-hatching. But then again, I've never reliably learned how to tie my shoes or do monkey bars or jump rope or hula hoop like most other kids I grew up around did.
- See squiggly bright lines and dots of various constantly-shifting colors whenever I'm conscious, which includes as I'm falling asleep too. (I'm sighted, which means I'm neither blind nor low-vision -- not sure how/if blind or low-vision autistic people have these things.) Some people call them "the floaters."
- Always see the world in static (like the kind of "noise" that makes photos not great quality). Someone asked about this on the Facebook, and yes, I have the thing where I always have thought I was seeing molecules or something everywhere, in all lighting and wakefulness/sleepiness conditions, because the whole world is comprised of these tiny dots that make up literally everything I perceive visually.
- Have HIGHLY vivid, frequently narrative dreams, many of which I remember in incredibly detail. (Many of mine are also lucid.)
- Am synesthetic, meaning I experience many kinds of sensory input as *other* kinds of sensory input. Like, listening to music or even someone just talking, produces colors and shapes and yay.
- Will re-read or re-watch entire books or movies or tv shows -- or specific scenes in them -- that provoke deep, intense emotional reactions in me.
- Am highly empathetic to the point of over-empathizing. I may not always be able to process cognitively what I'm experiencing (see point below), but I am overwhelmed by the emotional responses of people around me -- which includes things I read on the internet, because I'm experiencing them as the other person does. (Not in the way of, I know how it is to be them when I'm not them or don't have the same experiences, but in the way of, their anger settles in me, or their sadness settles in me, and I can't get rid of it.)
- Have trouble identifying/naming and separating/distinguishing all of my emotions or even bodily sensations.
- Am not antisocial. I'm an introvert, but I display a lot of outwardly extroverted-seeming traits, like talking to lots of people, going to events with lots of people, and having people over my place. Social interaction can be fun (or can suck massively, depending on who is involved and what they do to/around me), but it's draining. I need lots of extra time to recover. This is true even if the other people involved are also autistic.
- Desire to have some amount of environmental control that it seems like nonautistics tend not to have (either in general, or as intensely). Like, I get really anxious if other people touch or move my belongings/possessions, even if they're people I know really well and trust in general.
- Show that I trust others by opening up to them, emotionally and about my experiences.
- Often feel marginal and like an outsider (not just because of various marginalized experiences/identities that I have) even when I theoretically should be able to belong to a particular group.
- Typically have gravitated to be friends with people who were significantly older or significantly younger than me, and not my age-peers.
- Tend to do activities the exact same way all the time (like how I make pasta sauce or mint hot chocolate) even when I learn a better/easier way to do them. This extends to what I order in restaurants. (I love trying new foods, actually, but if I know I have a favorite thing, why wouldn't I order my favorite thing? Why would I order a second or third favorite thing?)
- Experience distinct auditory processing disability stuff. I hate conference calls maybe almost as much as ISIS hates the existence of everyone-who-isn't-ISIS. I will almost never understand your name the first time you tell it to me unless it's also on the business card you're handing me or the name tag stuck to your shirt / hanging from your neck or the placard in front of your face. You have to repeat it.
- Can't recognize faces. (It's called prosopagnosia or faceblindness.) As a sighted person, yes, I do see your face. I am capable of seeing people next to each other and realizing they do not look identical, even if they present their gender very similarly, are close in age, have similarly sized/shaped bodies, and are from the same racial group. But I can't reliably tell people apart in sequence, or out of context from when/where/how I usually encounter them, or after a few days or weeks or months since regular contact. I can sometimes, to varying degrees of reliability, recognize people on other characteristics, like voice, manner of speaking, posture, body movement, other distinctive physical features, or hairstyle (including facial hair when someone has it), but not by face. I can also figure out if someone else knows me often by their body language (like prolonged eye contact, suddenly smiling, or referring/addressing me by name when I'm not wearing a nametag or ID), but I have no clue who they are and will *never* have the experience of feeling like I recognize someone but not remembering their name. Half the time I'm faking that I know who you are. Just tell me your name up front next time.
- Have significant trouble in group settings including purely social, unstructured ones. I can never tell if it's my turn to talk, or if there's an opening where it's okay to jump in with a comment/question/story in the convo, and frequently, by the time I figure it out, it's too late and suddenly I'm interrupting someone and have just become an accidental asshole.
- Collect random shit I don't actually need but am somehow convinced I will need later. Like receipts. Dating back to 2004. And fortunes from fortune cookies. And tags from clothes. Literally everything. All this totally useless stuff that it pains me to toss out because what if I need it one day.
- Have vastly varying periods of total distractibility where absolutely nothing happens even things that really should (like eating food) and periods of doing ALL the things!!!!!!!!!!1eleventyone where way too many things somehow happen. I don't reliably have the same abilities, skills, or energy/capacity to do the same things from one point in time to another.
- Can hyperfocus for hours at a time on ironing out the tiniest of details necessary to complete one activity/task, to the point where I forget that things like pissing/shitting/eating/drinking liquids are things that a body generally needs to do. For over 18 hours sometimes.
- Hate tags. Yes, tags. They are horrible. Why do people insist on putting them on clothes? Anywhere? Ever? But seriously, especially the really large, stiff ones in some shirts right where the neck is.
- Suffered for having my extremely thick, easily tangled hair (which used to be very long, especially as a kid), which meant I went through what both my partner and I call the Daily Torture Session. It was worse than just frustrating or annoying. It was actually painful and it sucked. And no one would believe me most of the time, because they assumed I was just exaggerating or being overly dramatic. But it's true.
- Often begin to talk louder and louder, especially when I'm excited about something (which can include being excited about knowing about something), without realizing it, or being aware of exactly how loud others perceive me as.
- Constantly grind my teeth or chew on my own tongue (to the side of my mouth). I'm not sure if it's a pressure-seeking thing, or another kind of sensory-seeking, or a specific kind of stimming, but it's been a thing my whole life, and was the reason I had to get a retainer when I was a kid. I know a lot of other autistic folks who bite or chew on their fingers, hands, or arms as well as or instead of doing the teeth grinding thing.
- Have a very powerful and strong, intuitive sense of justice and fairness. It hurts when something seems wrong, when someone seems like they're being fucked over. I usually immediately relate to and identify with the underdog or the outsider.
- Don't care much about certain types of reputation/outward perceptions of me (like, buck the system; think whatever you want to think; fly that freak flag high; I'm here and queer get used to it; I once showed up to a White House event in a t-shirt while everyone else was in Western Business Attire; etc.) but am also extremely anxious about what others think of me vis a vis my character, my integrity, whether I'm worth being/having around.
I'm sure there are many more, but another thing I have is anxiety around lists because I'm always wondering if I left something off the list (and usually do/did). (Bonus! If you keep coming to this page enough, you might notice I keep adding to this list, for the reason stated earlier in this paragraph!)
No really, I wasn't kidding about the White House tassel thing:
From December 2013, inside the White House. Clearly the thing to do is to find the nearest large fluffy tassel and rub your face all over it in stim-heaven.
My original description:
The tassels on the drapes were SO STIMMY YAY. (Pretty sure this is not the normal way to act in the White House. OH WELL.)
A total stranger took this picture because I apparently was hilarious? So I got them to email it to me, for your viewing pleasure.
Photo by Nicole Shambourger.
Image: Me dressed in a dark pantsuit and patterned, embroidered red scarf, very happy, sticking my face into a giant tassel decoration on drapes in the Green Room of the White House.
If you are wondering or questioning whether you or someone you know might be autistic after reading this post, here are some resources that could be helpful:
- Atypical Autism Traits (gender neutral version)
- Real Social Skills
- I Think I Might Be Autistic: A Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis and Self-Discovery for Adults by Cynthia Kim
- Ask An Autistic by Amythest Schaber
- Who Can Call Themselves Autistic?
- Autism Women's Network's Autistic Women Welcome Packet
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network's Welcome to the Autistic Community Handbook