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Autism: A Definition.

Updated: Jan 3

Autism: Socially unacceptable expression of intolerance for one’s conditions. ~Frankie Abralind

You may already be feeling incensed by the definition I’m offering above. This is controversial territory: I’ve been encouraged by well-meaning people to be quiet about my position on autism. In most forums, I am. I agree that it’s probably wise.

This is my blotism aug, though. It’s what you came here for.

Let’s start by breaking down my definition.

  1. Socially Unacceptable. I’m making the point that autism, as a label, is in the eye of the beholder. What may manifest as unacceptable to you may be perfectly fine, even desirable, where I come from. [see examples in my Autism Welcome Here post]

  2. Expression. If I don’t demonstrate a certain behavior, you’ll never know I’m capable of it. This is why “masking” is common amongst many autistic folks: if you can hide or restrain a behavior that’s brought you criticism in the past, you can avoid that criticism in the future. If you’re an excellent banjo player but you’ve never played the banjo in front of someone else, you won’t be surprised if nobody gave you kudos for your banjo skills, would you?

  3. Of Intolerance. My autism shows up when I see a better way for things to be (read: when I don’t like the way things are). It’s why I’m such a careful layout designer and such a focused, precise painter. It’s also what I mean by “getting fussy” when I’m apologizing to my sweetheart for my occasional rude behavior. My autism shows up a lot when I’m going through a TSA checkpoint in an airport. I refuse to carry my bags back and forth along 50 meters of empty tensabarrier zigzag; I’ll risk the wrath of security every time by ducking right under.* If I’m forced to do it anyway, I'm at risk of acting embarrassingly rude, even indignant. *Yes, I recognize that I’m leveraging white privilege here. This sad truth is worthy of note: it’s significantly more dangerous for people of color to embrace their autism in many parts of America. This underscores the importance of encouraging society to embrace autism via accessible accommodations and more evolved experience design.

  4. For One’s Conditions. Autism is more about the conditions than the person. Imagine you’re intolerant of sand. You don’t just hate the beach; you hate sandboxes. You’re uncomfortable around hourglasses. If you touch sand, you recoil violently. If you get sand in your shoes, your sheets, or, heaven forbid, your mouth, you’ll pitch a tantrum nobody’s gonna forget for weeks. Autism! Voilà! Unlesssssss, what if you’ve never encountered sand? If you grew up in a landlocked urban center and have never, ever been exposed to the vile stuff? No tantrums. No recoiling. No hours of recovery necessary. The label, the “disorder,” never even crosses anybody’s mind.

Next, let’s look at the currently-accepted definition of autism provided in the medical standard directory of all known psychological ailments, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5):

Diagnostic Criteria for 299.00 Autism Spectrum Disorder: [source: CDC]
"To meet diagnostic criteria for ASD according to DSM-5, a child must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction (see A.1. through A.3. below) plus at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors (see B.1. through B.4. below).”

Whenever we talk about the “official” definition of autism, it’s important to note how much that definition has changed over the years (and with each successive edition of the DSM). Steve Silberman’s illuminating book Neurotribes provides a detailed history of this. I heard about Neurotribes from the artist Austin Kleon, one of my heroes, and I read it cover to cover earlier this year. I recommend it strongly, though I’ll caution that it’s filled with heavily-researched detail and does not constitute light reading.

You can read the full text of the DSM's negatively-biased criteria, which includes lines like “abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation,” on your own by following the source link above.

I’m stopping my quotation here for two reasons:

  1. I bristle at the starting place that neurodiversity is a “disorder.”

  2. The foundational use of the word “deficits” is prejudiced and disturbs me. It dishonors the distinct value brought by nonstandard perspectives on this world.

Isn’t it wise to approach the elephant from a variety of angles? Aren’t we all experiencing it differently? How about we come at it with encouragement for accommodation of abnormality, rather than diagnosing an abnormal individual as having a disorder?

Autism is not diphtheria. Its characterization is elusive. When we define it as a disorder, and seek to treat it out of existence, we risk obliterating the neurodiversity that makes us beautiful.

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