What is it like to be Autistic?

In an earlier post, I wrote a few comments about a definition of autism that I found appealing.

The difficulty with coming up with any definition of autism is that it’s really hard to capture the essence of what it’s like to be autistic. Even the best definitions leave me hankering for more. Give me more details. Give me examples.

As I have said on countless occasions, I have always known that I am different. Yet, I learned only fairly recently, when I was in my late 50s, that my difference has a name.

Autism is clearly a complex way of being in the world. It is not a disorder, it is not a defective way of being, it is just a difference.

Many gay people claim to have a sense they call gaydar (short for “gay radar”) which enables them to spot fellow gay people. Autistic people seem to have the same ability. Some call is autdar, by analogy. When we encounter one another, something just clicks. I am never so relaxed as when I am in a roomful of autistic people.

How is it that I can know that someone is autistic? Yet I do. Often, it is people I meet who tell me they are autistic or Aspergerian, and I say, “Of course you are!” Yet, it can also be people I meet casually, or people I think about who I have known in the past, or people I read about. How can I know? Yet I do.

In talks that I give, I often use cartoons. My favorite source is The New Yorker, but there are many other places where autistic humor appears. It isn’t labeled as such, of course, and probably not all cartoonists are autistic, but maybe many of them draw their inspiration from autistic people. In any case, when I present my favorite cartoons, they draw many laughs of recognition from audiences who are part of the autism community.

Here’s one.

Years ago, I lived with a woman named Joan. We have long since gone our separate ways, and although we’ve each had more recent romances, we remain good friends. She was with me in my pre-autism-awareness days, and we would often sit in the living room and enjoy a fire while we read our own books or magazines. On many occasions, I would not be in the mood to socialize, so I would take my arm and draw a line down the middle of the couch, telling her not to cross that line. It was my way of saying I didn’t want to be touched.

We parted before I became aware of my autism, but we talked about my discovery from time to time. At one point, she had an “aha” moment and looked at me, “When you did that thing about drawing a line on the couch you meant it, didn’t you? And at the time I thought you were joking!” No, it was no joke. I can be affectionate, but I can also have a need for distance. Does that define autism? Of course not. Yet, is there a single autistic person who could not relate to that? I doubt it.

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