top of page

What Makes Me Autistic

Updated: Jul 7

My autism self-diagnosis came after years of being fascinated by autism. 

At first, it was a “What if?” thought experiment. I’d been feeling commonalities with outspoken autism thought leaders like Temple Grandin, Austin Kleon, and the comedian Hannah Gadsby. What if I, myself, were Autistic? On Kleon’s recommendation, I read Neurotribes, Steve Silberman’s comprehensive history of autism and other related “medical diagnoses” of neurodiversity. I started bingeing TED talks by Autistic folks.

I found a lot of similarities.

In one of the first episodes of the Netflix show Young Sheldon, which centers on a gifted child who has many autistic traits, the title character decides he needs to understand humans better. He goes to the library and checks out the book How to Win Friends and Influence People

I have read that book four times.

I’ve actually written two of my own books for understanding humans better. The first, The Listener Poet’s Handbook for Working, was intended to train new hires at my nonprofit on the specialized skills of the job. One day in 2022, I checked in with a new team member who had just finished reading it. “It felt like a book on how to people,” she told me. Yep. I think that’s what I was going for. How To People is basically my favorite genre (after science fiction). 

The second is called What tf Is Actually Going On Here? It’s approximately 70 pages of explaining what I’ve figured out over the years about how to make this human existence thing work well. I wrote it as a guide for myself and printed exactly one copy for me to read when I start to lose the plot.

Recognizing myself as Autistic helped a lot of little things to fall into place. Patterns began to emerge. Quirky memories began to make sense. Three primary themes crystallized out of my research and self-examination:

  • Misinterpretation of common social cues

  • Obsession with “special interests”

  • Processing more information than others around me

I started keeping a list of Autisticky Frankie Things back in 2021. Below, you’ll find a selection of specific examples.

  1. My tolerance for unnecessary electronic noise is very low. Unlike many people who simply find it annoying, I am forcibly compelled to do something about it. When we got brand new air conditioning units in our apartment, I spent three hours carefully cracking their plastic cases open, digging out the circuit boards, and disabling the tiny electronic speakers with a butter knife so they would never beep. I superglued the little silencer switch on the side of my iPhone because I know I’m never going to want it to ring out loud. 

  2. Tags on furniture and clothes are virtually unignorable to me. I’ve removed thousands. I tear the long white plasticky ones off the couch cushions when I stay at AirBnBs. I’ve removed the disclaimer labels from the corners of bath mats at house parties multiple times. I once spent a satisfying hour with my handy X-Acto carefully cutting flapping foil safety warnings off of 40 feet of Christmas tree lights that were already installed on a friend’s Christmas tree. I didn’t ask for permission. It felt as obvious as picking up litter on their front lawn. 

  3. A friend who was creating a zine of kids’ activities around the house asked me for ideas. I immediately proposed a scissory Easter-egg hunt. Kids could search out loose threads on cushions and clothes to snip off. She rejected it on the premise that nobody else would find that fun (I disagreed).

  4. I have a natural proclivity for writing in a poetic rhythm called iambic pentameter. It’s not so hard to write in twos-times-fives, IYKWIM. 

  5. Smiling is an intentional behavior for me. Not all the time, of course, but when I take selfies in which I think I'm smiling, my facial expression is often flatly neutral upon review. Thus, I've willfully trained myself to smile more.

  6. Small talk, like superficial conversation about the weather, does not come naturally to me. It wasn't until I reframed it as “friendly noises” that it made sense as a behavior with value. I now understand it as part of the careful assessment people make when they meet strangers. Are you friendly? Are you regulated? Are you able to have back-and-forth conversations and listen? We find all that out with these “Sure is a hot day today” interactions. Experiencing the value of this, I embrace it.

  7. Anytime I leave the house with more than just what’s in my pants pockets, I have super glue with me. This enables me to take the initiative to fix little broken things nobody else seems to care about, even when I’m traveling. I recently glued a bracket under a table in a coworking place to keep a loose cable from touching my knee.

  8. Adapting to things that don’t function properly is hard for me. It's what drives me to learn how things work so I can modify and/or fix them. It was also my motivation to choose a career in experience design, a field that I find immensely satisfying.

  9. I insist on changing the way fridge doors open when they’re facing the wrong way for convenient use in a kitchen. Did you know you can do that? If I didn’t at least try, I would have a hard time not being distracted by the ergonomic clash.

  10. I adjust the water pressure in bathroom sinks. Ever go to wash your hands and the water’s so forceful that it splashes back up and gets your shirt wet? Besides being obnoxious, it’s also a ridiculous waste of water. I get down on my knees, turn the under-sink supply valves all the way off, then slowly turn them back on with the faucets on until the water flows at a reasonable rate for washing hands. I’ve done it at many dozens of restaurants and bars.

  11. My artwork tends to be very precise and detail-oriented. I leveraged intense scrutiny to create my series of typewritten portraits. The parallel lines that I draw around Kool-Aid spills in my large paintings are super satisfying to me. 

  12. I’ve kept my phone screen set on black and white for years. It makes the space peaceful; more like a soft, obedient bowl of oatmeal, less like a spazzy-frenetic bowl of Skittles. Eliminating the color reduces the information it presents me to a much more manageable level. 

  13. I like being nearsighted, for a similar reason as # 12. I have glasses for seeing things at a distance, especially when I’m driving, but most times I prefer to limit the non-proximal information. 

  14. I notice word patterns that others don't. This is especially evident with names, as I wrote in My Special Interest.

  15. Years ago, when my constant parade of “Wow, look at that!” observations became too much for my sweetheart Jess, we instigated a quota on things I notice when we’re walking somewhere together. I’m allowed to point out three things per trip. It’s been a real learning arc for me, realizing that other people don’t need (or want!) a perpetual tour guide.

  16. I have a high tolerance for pain. In college, one doctor literally wrote it into my medical record. When I scheduled my first colonoscopy, inspired by a friend my age who’d gotten colon cancer, I learned that if I chose to voluntarily forgo the general anesthetic, I would be able to return to work that afternoon. It was a no-brainer.

  17. I make lists. A lot of them. In the art book I wrote about my creative process in 2022, I detailed several of my more than one hundred active lists. The original “Autisticky Frankie Things” list from which these highlights were selected has 162 items on it as of today.

Wondering whether you might be Autistic? You may have heard there's a spectrum; this cartoony graphic shows how the spectrum is nonlinear. You might find this list of indicators from the UK National Health System helpful, too. I've also written a separate blog post, My Autism Starter Pack, with a bunch of resources that I have made a difference for me over the years.

# # #

1 Comment

Jun 01



bottom of page