What Is Autism?

On any website that is even tangentially related to autism, you are very likely to find an "about" section for autism itself. Most of these are terrible. They generally frame autism as a disease or disorder, promote stereotypes, ignore the social model of disability, say things that are blatantly false, list only negative traits, make positive traits sound like negative ones through lingual gymnastics, or have a combination of all of these problems. If the website is a business, it's very likely that their information comes from hate groups, and even Autistic people themselves often copy from medical journals written by neurotypicals.

Luckily Nick Walker, author of Neurocosmopolitanism, has supplied an explanation that anyone who credits him is free to copy, and which is based on evidence and not opinion. What follows is that explanation. Parts I either disagree with or thought could be improved are replaced by bold lettering written by me. This altered version is also free to copy as long as you credit Nick.


Autism is a pervasive human neurological variant, or neurotype. The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood. Current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by 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 patterns of thought, movement, interaction, and sensory processing. One metaphor that has often been made is that the autistic brain is running a different operating system from non-autistic individuals, similar to the way in which Macintosh and Linux are two different operating systems.
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 the underlying neurological commonalities used to identify people as autistic, autistic individuals are vastly different from one another, as much so as neurotypicals. Some autistic individuals exhibit exceptional cognitive talents: About 10% are believed to have savant skills. However, in the context of a society designed around the sensory, cognitive, developmental, and social needs of neurotypical 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 be disabled. Autistic children usually have difficulty learning and internalizing the subtleties of social interaction, including body language and unspoken rules. Non-autistic individuals similarly have difficulty understanding autistic body language. Difficulty meeting the social expectations of the neurotypical majority 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 primarily rooted in rejection by non-autistic individuals.
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.

1 comment:

  1. Your discourse is clear-headed, Daniel.

    Suicide prevention, as the king of antipsychiatry argued, is the shame of medicine.

    And this is not to suggest that psychiatry is medicine. It is rather the epitome of evil.

    To conclude with the words of a famous undead, “There are far worse things, awaiting man, than death.”


Comment policy: We tend to let most things slide because any message has the potential to inspire a productive, educational, and/or entertaining conversation. Still, we reserve the right to delete comments for any reason we decide is worthy, so don't be an asshole.