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Why Tom Clements’ Guardian feature on autism draws criticisms from the autistic community

Why Tom Clements’ Guardian feature on autism draws criticisms from the autistic community

The recent UK newspaper article ‘What is autism? How the term became too broad to have meaning any more’, by Tom Clements, has drawn criticisms from some quarters. Namely that (since the amalgamation of autism diagnoses into the phrase ‘autism’), he seemingly leans towards Aspie supremacy, e.g. wanting to distance himself from the word autism; and also that he uses dated and dehumanising language for those that have a lower IQ than himself. Here, this author considers some of the points within his article that have drawn such criticism.

Autism is a natural difference in processing

A man is shown in shadow to illustrate an article on autismThe original study that promoted the Guardian article is very broad, extensive, international and convincing, and lead researcher Professor Laurent Mottron was not necessarily being dismissive of autism when he found, as Mr Clements reported, that: “The objective difference between people with autism and the general population will disappear in less than 10 years. The definition of autism may get too vague to be meaningful.” Professor Mottron proposed that the diagnostic practices for autism have broadened, leading to a false increase in prevalence, adding that autism is a distinct condition, and also a ‘juxtaposition of natural categories’. This surely goes hand in hand with what neurodiversity advocates (whom Tom Clements is dismissive of) believe, e.g. that autism is a natural difference in processing (not an intrinsic disability, illness or disorder). Mr Clements draws from Professor Mottron’s quotes that autism could become ‘medically meaningless’, however this doesn’t seem to be what Professor Mottron implied.

Intelligence surely does not equate to spoken language?

Mr Clements cites ‘less verbally able autistic people being marginalised from the discussion’ (due to the neurodioversity paradigm), however, surely ‘less verbally able autistic people’ simply need to be given a chance to voice their opinions, which is what should have happened within Mr Clements’ own article, to make the feature more broad, and less opinionated. It is clear from the very many non-verbal autistic writers, bloggers and vloggers (e.g. Carly Fleischmann, Ido Kedar and Naoki Higashida,) who are sharing their stories online and in books, that just because one can’t speak, it doesn’t mean one is not articulate and intelligent. Intelligence does not equate to spoken language. The Guardian should surely have balanced Mr Clements’ views, here.

Mr Clements uses dated and ableist phrasing and rhetoric like ‘severe’ and ‘mild’ autism, as well as person-first language (person with autism), which is becoming more unfashionable, and even offensive to some people. Although, on his own website (see below) he does more frequently use identity-first language, e.g. ‘autistic people’, so perhaps the Guardian had a hand in changing his phrasing.

(Interestingly, Robert Chapman, writing on Psychology for Today, recently proposed ‘making better make sense of autistic disablement’ by drawing on the notion of intersectionality, developed by feminist theorist, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Mr. Chapman suggests using phrasing drawn from intersectional feminism, and applying it within the framing of cognitive disability, e.g., to quote Mr. Chapman: ‘When someone is, say, autistic and learning disabled, then they [could be considered to be] part of a third intersectional category (i.e. that of ‘learning disabled autistics’)… This framing allows us to acknowledge the complexity of autism without dehumanising different disabilities under the term ‘severe’, and [avoids] autistic people ‘talking over’ those autistic people with intersecting disabilities. For on this model, the only people who should be taken as the voice of any given intersectional identity are those that fall within their intersection.’)

What makes someone disabled or disordered?

black and white graphic to illustrate black and white thinking styles for autism blogMoving back to Mr. Clements’ article, the main opportunity that the Guardian missed by publishing the feature is the aspect of WHAT makes someone disabled or disordered. There is a significant school of thought that places autism as predominantly a difference in processing, and believes that it is co-existing conditions that make one cognitively disabled, and in Mr Clements’ words: ‘prone to lashing out and soiling themselves’. It would have been pertinent to bring in a co-author or add a panel with an expert’s opinion to discuss the types of condition that would affect ‘an autistic person with an IQ of lower than 30’, and lead to ‘cracked skulls and savage bites’ (again in Mr Clements’ dismissive words); maybe cognitive and intellectual disabilities, and conditions such as Fragile X and epilepsy. Mr Clements doesn’t have any intellectual disabilities, whereas his brother does – but they are both autistic, with traits that meet diagnostic guidelines for processing differences. (Which include, according to the fascinating study that Mr Clements quotes: Emotion recognition; theory of mind (the ability to understand that other people have their own intentions); cognitive flexibility (the ability to transition from one task to another); activity planning; inhibition; evoked brain responses (the nervous system’s response to sensory stimulation), and brain volume.)

The lower end?

The amalgamation of all autism spectrum neurologies into the one diagnostic heading of ‘autism’ has, as Mr Clements explained, caused may individuals to agree that autism needs dividing (once again) into separate conditions, perhaps even starting with the reintroduction of Asperger Syndrome. (Despite its unpleasant connotations with Hans Asperger, even though he did not coin the eponymous diagnostic phrase himself).

This author concedes the point that ‘contemporary autism discourse and research are both skewed in favour of the verbally able autistic population, at the expense of the most vulnerable.’ One can see what Mr Clements was getting at; however saying that: ‘The lower end of the autism spectrum [should be] treated with the seriousness it deserves’ does use dehumanising language. Surely we need to stop referring to loved ones (as presumably Mr Clements’ brother is) as being at the ‘lower end’ of anything, and should publish articles that help delve into the neurology of autism, and look at the co-existing conditions that make someone ‘severely autistic’, as Mr Clements writes? (Or, to use more acceptable language, lead to the person having higher support needs.)

Mr Clements does seem to have some neurodiverse leanings, and admits on his website that he had been: ‘Conditioned to do all in my power to conceal [his brother] Jack’s disability and to be ashamed of his obviously autistic behaviours,’ but does concede there that: ‘Autistic people are a varied bunch of individuals with a multitude of different strengths and weaknesses.’ Mr Clements describes his own autism (on his website) as: ‘A difference in neurology that has both good and bad sides’, and charmingly explains that: ‘Autistic people tend to see life in much higher resolution.

(It is also worth noting within a feature that touches on neurodiversity, some new phrasing. The neurodiversity paradigm is widely said to represent the concept that autism is a difference in neurology (as opposed to a disability), and was first used by Judy Singer, an autistic social scientist, in a publication called The Atlantic, in 1998. However, Ms. Singer has recently stated that: ‘Neurodiversity is NOT a synonym for neurological disability, divergence or difference‘. She reportedly now prefers the term ‘Neurominorities’ for those with ‘atypical cognition’.)


What is neurodiversity, in the context of autism?

So, back to the Guardian article, and to conclude: presumably, the original, interesting research made its way to the newspaper news desks, and Mr Clements was invited to give his unique take on it. But with some more balanced writing, it could have been a much more inclusive feature.

The book Autism from A to Z by Kathy CarterA little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about autism. The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

What is neurodiversity, in the context of autism?

What is neurodiversity, in the context of autism?

It is worth exploring what neurodiversity means, in the context of autism. Many adult autists that support the neurodiversity paradigm don’t need the concept spelling out, but we here at, we have many more people that are ‘new’ to the world of autism asking about it, than we do autists who are fully paid up members of the autie club. (Please note, this content represents the author’s opinion. There’s no real wrong or right, as all of us who are involved in autism in any capacity have experienced different exposure to it, eg. from our own ‘autistic’ perspective, or as a parent/carer/family member/educator. Please don’t berate us for expressing an opinion!).

black and white graphic to illustrate black and white thinking styles for autism blogThe neurodiversity paradigm, when applied to the discussions around autism, represents the concept that autism is a difference in neurology, as opposed to a disability. The term was first used by Judy Singer, an autistic social scientist, in a publication called The Atlantic, in 1998. People who support the neurodiversity paradigm tend to prefer to use autism spectrum neurology over words like disability and disorder – however the various identifications and descriptions within the overall debate do lead to differences of opinion. (Interestingly, Ms. Singer has recently stated that: ‘Neurodiversity is NOT a synonym for neurological disability, divergence or difference’. She reportedly now prefers the term ‘Neurominorities’ for those with ‘atypical cognition’.)

Autism is, at its core, widely considered to be a difference in processing. The neurodiversity movement believes that while clinical interventions for specific co-existing conditions or issues that cause challenges (like talking therapies for anxiety, speech therapies for language delay, or medications for epilepsy, as examples) are widely advocated, autism itself is not necessarily a disease or disorder. (It is worth remembering however that the UK’s Equality Act and the Children And Families Act both class autism as a disability, as does the National Autistic Society – so anyone going through autism assessment, and issues connected to education or any local authority intervention or support, will likely come across the terms disorder and maybe disability, whether or not they use them within their own vocabulary.)

Let’s consider some of the differences of opinion mentioned above, and why some individuals may have different viewpoints. For example, many individuals who are autistic, with few additional conditions that are debilitating, and with minimal support needs, may not consider themselves to be disabled (or even differently abled), or to have a disorder. They may simply identify as having autism spectrum neurology. Negative issues or traits (relating to socialisation and communication, as examples) are only disabilities in that social context – in a different environment, they may cease to be a difficulty at all. Other individuals, most notably parents of autists, might argue that their son or daughter’s autism is ‘disabling’, and does make the son or daughter feel ‘disordered’.  (Some autists themselves also feel this way.) It simply depends on one’s own experiences and exposure to autism.

rl in black and white to illustrate autism article on black and white thinkingSome parents of autists may support the medical paradigm (which can be seen as the opposite of the neurodiversity concept), because having a ‘disorder’ diagnosis can mean access to necessary support and services. Gaining an autism diagnosis can be a lengthy process, and sometimes the last thing on one’s mind at this stage is vocabulary, and the distinctions of being neurodiverse or differently abled.

There is also the question hinted at above, of what makes one disabled – to what extent is it a social issue, in terms of access and infrastructure, as well as awareness? E.g. Is it a condition that disables you, or the lack of infrastructure and support in the community? If you go ‘into’ any social media support group consisting of autistic individuals and their families (and perhaps also to ‘real life’ social support groups; although these probably evoke more polite responses!), you will find a myriad of opinions on this subject. Often, when discussing the neurodiversity paradigm, people assume there is a wrong and a right, or a true and false, based on their own experiences of autism, when in fact we are all allowed an opinion on what autism is, and what it means to us. To reiterate, it simply depends on one’s own experiences and exposure to autism. Some people also question what neurologies neurodiversity should include. For true diversity, surely all neurologies should be included, just as in the case of ethnic diversity, where all ethnicities are included? However, if the online autism community is to be believed, some people seemingly want neurodiversity to be a select group; for example, to include autism and ADHD, but perhaps not dyslexia or dyspraxia. This author advocates that for true diversity, all neurologies should be included within the banner or umbrella

Continuing the discussion over the use of the word disability versus the neurodiversity paradigm, there is also the issue of co-existing conditions to consider, in terms of whether it is these conditions that make one ‘disordered’ or disabled (or differently abled). After all, autism is at its core a processing difference; but would the addition of a further condition make one ‘disabled’ or ‘dis-ordered’? Of course, it depends on the individual.

Two females talking _ to illustrate communication between NTs and autistics: ASC ASDIt is also worth adding that neurodiversity advocates are firmly against any behavioural ‘therapies’ and interventions such as ABA, that are coercive in any way, and seek to make autists appear more neurotypical, or NT. (This aversion does not include conventional, respected therapies such as talking, play, speech and language and occupational therapies.) The behavioural therapies targeted at autistic individuals, that alarm neurodiversity advocates so, essentially seek to break down what the ‘therapist’ sees as either desirable or undesirable behaviours into repetitive steps, rewarding the autistic child for actions the ‘therapist’ deems appropriate. Some parents of autists may claim (while their offspring are still children) that the behavioural training they arranged for their autistic child has helped, or seen benefits; but this author remains to be convinced by a single autistic adult who has endured behavioural training that such ‘therapies’ are in fact beneficial, rather than a system that’s akin to teaching dogs obedience skills, or not to bark excessively.

Moving back to the medical versus social paradigm – here’s an example of the medical paradigm in action. To compete as an autistic athlete under Para-athletic guidelines, one is considered to have an ‘intellectual disability’, as per guidelines in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics Classification Handbook – see: . (However, the definition here does talk about functioning and adaptive behaviour; conceptual wording that neurodiversity advocates surely can’t argue with). Intellectual disability is defined by the IPC as: ‘A limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills, which originates before the age of 18’. (As in the case of British autistic swimmer Jessica-Jane Applegate MBE, classified as S14, e.g. a swimmer with an intellectual impairment).

However, as we have discussed elsewhere on the site, autism as a neurology does not necessarily equate to intellectual disability. Only around half of autists are thought to have intellectual disabilities as well. One can see how problematic such semantics are for the international Paralympic committee, however! By virtue of the whole concept of the Paralympic movement (developed seventy years ago), people with ‘physical, visual and intellectual disabilities’ – are considered eligible to compete against one another in their chosen sport. E.g. the para-athletic system is based on a medical disability model. Presumably if you are an autistic para-athlete labelled as having an intellectual disability, even if you don’t consider yourself intellectually disabled, you accept the ‘label’ in order to compete in your sport, and focus more on the ‘softer’ description of having limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour.

Perhaps some of the issues concerning whether to embrace the neurodiversity paradigm or not stem from all autism profiles being grouped together. When there were more functioning labels in use, it was perhaps easier for individuals to find their clan. Now that we (autists) are all in the same clan, trying to find common ground with other autists and their family members can be problematic, as the spectrum (and our individual experiences of autism) vary so much.

The author’s view

While I do massively support the neurodiversity paradigm, equally, the words disability and disorder don’t offend me as an autist and a parent of a neurodiverse child, if someone else uses them without malice. It is down to each individual, and their experiences shape their language. I don’t actively consider myself to have a disability, but I can see why the National Autistic Society refers to autism as a disability as part of a social, political and legal model. I don’t mind the abbreviation ASD (with D for disorder), but I understand that many followers of my articles prefer ASC (e.g. C for condition), or even more preferably, ASN (e.g. N for neurology).

However, I do think there is a good argument for sometimes including ASD and ASC as terms online. This is because with schools and clinicians using the terms, and the clinical studies that underpin a degree of our understanding of autism using medical terms like D for disability, providers of information need to make it easy to find online. If you are someone starting on your autism journey (as an individual, family member or professional), you want access to facts and information.

 I wish there was less division within the autism community, especially between the parents of autists (who sometimes use terms like ‘Autism Mom / Mum’, which really riles autists!), and the autistics themselves. Furthermore, the idea of making neurodiversity a select club that only people of certain neurologies are eligible for is galling. And I often get challenged on the language I use in writing (e.g. mentioning ‘disorder’) because an individual has a different opinion to me. But we are all entitled to our own opinions.

The book Autism from A to Z by Kathy CarterA little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism. The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

Is your learning style also your autistic Achilles heel? Your sensory downfall?

Is your learning style also your autistic Achilles heel? Your sensory downfall?

This author has been thinking lately about how we learn (from a sensory perspective), and how autists’ sensory challenges affect this.

female child in a ball pool - illustrating autism article on spectra.blogThe primary or dominant learning styles of all individuals are said to use the three main sensory receivers: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic – the latter is essentially learning by doing, and includes ‘tactile’ learning – eg. a physical type of learning.

Essentially, all individuals use memory and perception to learn – and these two elements are often different in autists. All of us use all of the three main learning styles to a degree, however we do tend to have a preference for one.

Very young children are generally taught (in an educational setting) using movement-based methods; older children’s teaching is often more visually presented; and for older students, including those moving into college education, auditory learning is more usual. Good teachers would presumably use a blend of teaching techniques, and recognise individuals’ dominant learning styles, and adapt the learning as required.

An autist’s dominant learning style

Helping identify an autist’s dominant learning style can help an autistic child access their education, and could reduce stress. As an example, a young autistic boy this author knows, aged six, struggles (as a kinesthetic learner) to remember a text he has to read at school, which is then directly followed by a comprehension question – all read by the boy on paper.

He would be greatly helped by teaching techniques that involve touching, building, moving, or drawing a subject, in order to learn about it. He may also find it beneficial to hold something (like a fidget pen or toy, which can be tapped or held), while learning, to disperse some energy and aid focus.

Three girls are shown to illustrate that echolalia can be an early sign of autism.One point that I have been pondering is whether our dominant learning style is also our Achilles heel, as an autistic. For example, I am an auditory learner – I say things out loud to learn them, can recall information by simply hearing it, and work comfortably with sound in the background.

It is as if my auditory system is amplified

However my dominant autistic sensory challenges are also auditory. On a sensitive day, it is sounds, chattering, people’s mouth or eating noises, background noise, ‘grating’ noises like metal on concrete etc, that challenge my system the most.

So, it is as if my auditory system is amplified – and this not only allows me to effectively learn through auditory means, but also brings my system down when my auditory processing is overloaded. I can only speak as an autist and not for anyone else of a neurotypical persuasion, but if other autists experience this ‘ying and yang’ issue too, identifying it could be most beneficial, in terms of helping an autistic child access learning .

The autism research institute gives some examples of how autistic children may learn as follows:

If an autistic child enjoys looking at books (e.g., picture books), watching television (with or without sound), and tends to look carefully at people and objects, then he/she may be a visual learner.

 If an autistic child talks excessively, enjoys people talking to him/her, and prefers listening to the radio or music, then he/she may be an auditory learner.

And if an autistic child is constantly taking things apart, opening and closing drawers, and pushing buttons, this may indicate that the child is a kinesthetic or ‘hands-on’ learner.

The organisation states ‘It is important that educators assess for learning style as soon as an autistic child enters the school system and that they adapt their teaching styles in rapport with the strengths of the student.’

Boy draws, to illustrate childhood autism articleOf course, not all learning takes place at school, and the same theories can be replicated at home.

It really does make sense to work to a child’s strengths rather than ‘squash’ them into a learning methodology that doesn’t ‘fit’ them!

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions.

The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.

We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

The book Autism from A to Z by Kathy Carter

Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

‘Will the family understand an autism diagnosis?’

‘Will the family understand an autism diagnosis?’

A mum we know whose child may be autistic was recently asked whether her parents, the child’s grandparents, would understand an autism diagnosis.

The mum wasn’t sure, and her companion remarked that she doubted the grandparents would understand.

Image illustrating article showing the grandparent of autistic child ASD ASC.The connotations were that in their day, no one (outside of psychiatry circles), had heard of autism. Children of different neurologies were unkindly labelled at school, and you just had to get on with the card you were dealt.

But this got us thinking; no matter what your level of understanding, awareness and education about autism, and no matter whether you are an active computer user and are au-fait with the tools available on the internet, surely not understanding autism is a choice?

Most people do not understand physiological or neurological conditions unless we are involved somehow in the field – in fact few of us understand in a true sense the vast majority of topics, unless we have studied them.

But when you need to learn about something, most of us have the capacity and the resources to do our best and find out more. Not understanding autism is a luxury parents of autistic children are not afforded. Gaining education and awareness about the condition that affects your loved ones is surely a priority?

Grandparent with an autistic child (stock shot)The importance of learning more about the condition applies to lots of people surrounding an autistic individual, and ideally family members and anyone involved in their education should endevour to find out more. There are plenty of simple, bullet point resources outlining the very basics of autism (e.g. the main challenges the individuals face, and how to support them at home, and in the school or workplace environment) available; not just online, but also in libraries. The National Autistic Society is a good place to start –

And even if some of the library books may not be completely up-to-date or concise, the library staff are usually very happy to help with research, and accessing and printing information sourced online. It really feels that not understanding something is a bit of a cop-out.

None of us are educated about anything, unless we go out and seek to improve our knowledge base!

The book Autism from A to Z by Kathy CarterA little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

Autism and anxiety – if A is for autism, then it is most definitely also for anxiety

Autism and anxiety – if A is for autism, then it is most definitely also for anxiety

Anxiety and other similar problems are rife in the 21st-century, but for many people the issues are episodic or caused by an obvious external factor.

(Anxiety UK reports that anxiety disorders are very common, with 1 in 6 adults regularly experiencing some form of ‘neurotic health problem’, and the most common neurotic disorders being anxiety and depressive disorders. More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life, reports the organisation. Source –

Anxiety can really be considered to be part of your autistic DNA…

A man is shown in shadow to illustrate an article on autismHowever if you are on the autistic spectrum, for many individuals, anxiety can really be considered to be part of your autistic DNA. There is very little in the way of hard and fast stats and figures to indicate anxiety levels among autists. (The National Autistic Society states that autistic children and young people can experience a high ‘base level’ of anxiety every day. ‘Autistica’ advises that anxiety is ‘common’ in autists.)

Spectrum News reported that the reason we see ‘classic things’ like social phobia and generalised anxiety [in autists] is because people on the autistic spectrum have unique, distinct ways of perceiving the world. They reported in 2017 that Psychologist Connor Kerns, assistant professor at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia, USA, is working with others on new ways to measure both ordinary and unusual forms of anxiety in autistic people. There are links to hers and others’ studies on anxiety and autism HERE.

Is a degree of anxiety an inbuilt factor for someone who is autistic?

But through this author‘s communication with other autistic individuals, and from collating information, it seems that a substantial degree of anxiety is an inbuilt factor with autism.

Many autists would for example describe their anxiety (on a scale of 1-10) at being at five, just as a baseline. Just getting through the day with all of the run-of-the-mill, usual challenges can be very stressful for autists; it is as if our neutral state is to have a certain level of anxiety.

If you know about autism, then the reasons for anxiety are obvious

Tony Attwood’s disparagement humour. Good-natured fun, or bullying, exploitative and offensive?If you know about autism then the reasons for this anxiety are obvious. Probably a major factor is social masking – trying to fit in with the world, and say and do things that others consider appropriate – which can be exhausting and stressful.

If you are an undiagnosed autist, there is the constant feeling of being different and not fitting in, or failing at being your best self. Very stressful! If you are a child, this is compounded by all of the developmental issues, and social and educational expectations.

Just the neurological differences for autists, in terms of elements like executive function, memory, sensory issues, emotional calibration and communication, can bring about a sense of anxiety. And this is without all of the usual stresses concerning finances, places of education, workplaces, relationships and so on.

The pressures are anxiety-inducing to an autistic child

For a school-aged child, or more specifically a child who is educated at school, the pressures of fitting in and completing school work when you have issues like executive function difficulties and possibly other comorbid autistic conditions can be immensely stressful and anxiety-inducing.

It is no wonder that unexplained anxiety is often one of the first things that parents of undiagnosed autistic children notice. And it is no surprise that so many children hold it together emotionally at school, and let out their emotions at home, leading to unhelpful third party comments like: ‘Well, he / she doesn’t seem to be very anxious at school.’

Personally speaking, e.g. from the author’s own autistic experience, I can say that my anxiety never goes away, but it is manageable. However, this has only really come about with an autism diagnosis.

Talking therapies, mindfulness etc can help, but really the key is perhaps to know your own autistic spectrum. (See our blog on this subject below).

Aspie-superpower days – why autists may be on an ‘autistic spectrum within a spectrum’? We look at the different ‘autistic’ days…

Know your own autistic spectrum

Two men walking, to illustrate autism articleSo what do we mean by this? We mean, what triggers you; what overloads you in a sensory or social capacity; what external factors cause frustration; anger or upset; what sensory challenges affect your mood? What activities that you are engaged in (whether this is social activities, or within the educational action setting, workplace etc) make you stressed? Which family members, friends, associates or workplace colleagues are drains or fountains? (Drains being the people who drain you of your emotional energy, and fountains being the people who replenish it).

Would it be feasible to stay away from the drains to a degree, no matter who they are?

Or is there a way to educate the people around you further about what you need to do to reduce your anxiety day-to-day, in a self-care capacity?

Targeting anxiety as an autist

There are of course age-appropriate medications available for anxiety, in addition to therapies, dietary and exercise interventions and natural remedies as well, which individuals or their parents can discuss with the relevant healthcare provider.

But let’s look at it simply – if you had a severe allergic reaction to a type of animal or a plant, would you constantly be in close proximity to the animal or plant? Would you take a job in that field? it would be inadvisable, for your health. Yet many of us on the autistic spectrum continue to do things that cause an unpleasant reaction to our bodies.

Anxiety is a psychological response which can have physiological consequences. Noticing one’s triggers, or the triggers for a child, is a massive step on the road to managing anxiety.

Man on bed to illustrate that Autistic burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload

Autistic burnout – Burnout is a physiological symptom of system overload.

Anxiety that builds up is a factor for an autist heading to autistic shutdown, autistic meltdown or even autistic breakdown or burnout. Stories abound of young autistic adults reaching key developmental stages in their life, for example the start of high school or the start of university, and then having a complete emotional breakdown.

 Noticing one’s own anxiety levels can be immensely helpful

Noticing one’s own anxiety levels can be immensely helpful in preventing these incredibly detrimental occurrences. For example, noticing: changes in appetite or interest in food; an increase in harmful repetitive processes (including thoughts), and self stimulating behaviours that are detrimental; general apathy and lethargy; a lack of patience with people and reduced capacity to socialise to one’s usual capacity; and even a change in one’s heartbeat, if you use a health / activity tracker.

In children, are they ‘acting out’ a little more (behaviour that challenges is often a big ‘red flag’ sign); or having more meltdowns or episodes of sadness?

Are they finding it harder to regulate their emotions; withdrawing into themselves; exhibiting more self soothing stims; having difficulties in their place of education; becoming more controlling of their environment, or experiencing increased levels of perfectionism?

Mother and son - illustrating an article stating - If you are the parent of a child that you think may be on the autistic spectrum, you will almost definitely get asked the question: ‘But why would you want to give him or her a label?’Helping autistic children to identify their own responses could be very useful.

If a child is experiencing any significant number of the above signs, it could be time to reduce their sensory challenges and level of socialisation, reduce the demands put upon them, and do whatever is needed to help them recalibrate in a safe place, with plenty of downtime that meets their needs.

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism.

The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences.

We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.

Quirks and autistic attributes

Quirks and autistic attributes

Let’s talk about quirks, in connection with autism spectrum neurologies. A quirk is a little difference, or something unusual – the Cambridge English Dictionary describes it as: ‘An unusual habit or part of someone’s personality, or something that is strange and unexpected: Or, an unusual habit, or type of behaviour.’

Woman with flower to illustrate an article about autismBeing quirky is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be a trait that makes someone fantastically individual. Lots of people are described as being quirky, and it can be a compliment; think of all the movie stars, artists and singers that you know – it is likely that the quirky ones stick in your mind the most.

An individual ‘look’

Many people on the autistic spectrum can be described as quirky. They may look quite individual – sensory challenges for example may dictate an away-from-the-norm hairstyle; meanwhile, the realisation that they don’t fit into a typical mould, combined with their creativity, could influence embellishments like tattoos, fashion, hair colours and piercings.

 Autistic special interests

Autists are known for their special interests, which can be unusual or less mainstream than their peers’ interests. Somewhere, there is an autist with a keen eye on the life cycle of the Lesser Spotted Serbian Wood Warbler, Albanian number plates of the 1980s, and vinyl b-sides of a now-defunct record company based in Hemel Hempstead.

Autists tend to thrive on repetition and patterns, so anything with a regular element to it appeals to the autistic brain; for example collecting certain items. The ‘collection’ and ‘special interest’ elements often intertwine, meaning autists develop real expertise in their area of interest. Read more about autistic special interests here.

‘We’re all a little bit autistic aren’t we…’

Woman with eyes closed _ to illustrate article on communication between NTs and autisticsThere is a lot of talk about the large amounts of people of all neurologies that have what could be described as autistic quirks or traits, and this leads to the well-worn phrase: ‘We’re all a little bit autistic aren’t we.’

Put simply, no, we are not all a little bit autistic – autism is a type of neurology that is diagnosed when person matches a designated set of criteria.

What is meant by the above term is that all of us have traits which autistic people often also have; for example quirks in the way they do things, repetitive habits, hyperfocus, attention to detail, shyness or introversion, and many more human traits.

But to have all of the aforementioned quirks or traits does NOT make you autistic.

It just means you have quirks in the way you do things, repetitive habits, hyperfocus, attention to detail, shyness or introversion.

It is no surprise that the phrase ‘We are all a little bit autistic aren’t we?’ gets banded about, as it is shared from person to person – in this author’s personal experience, I have heard therapists, clinicians and educators use it (when really they shouldn’t!), when it is actually a confusing phrase. Thus, it is a matter of education.

 In the general, NT population, ‘quirks’ aren’t autistic traits, surely?

White female smiling - used as stock shot for autism articleAt Professor Tony Attwood’s 2019 presentation, ‘What you need to know about Autism’, presented by the ACMAH, Professor Attwood told delegates:
Autistic [type] characterisations are like a jigsaw of 100 pieces [e.g. 100 autistic traits] – I have never met [someone non-autistic] with less than 20 pieces, and never met someone with autism with 100.”

By Professor Attwood’s calculations, at least twenty per cent of neurotypical (NT) individuals have some ‘autistic type’ characterisations or traits.

This author does feel however that calling traits (or quirks) such as those linked with difficulties with social communication and social interaction (shyness, introversion, lacking confidence socially);  restricted patterns of behaviours (eg. obsessive compulsive disorder-type behaviours, playing with one’s hair or tapping one’s feet repetitively), and those traits linked with sensory challenges (eg. disliking the feel of clothing labels, or avoiding a certain texture of food) AUTISTIC TRAITS adds to the confusion. In the general, NT population, they’re not autistic traits, surely? Doesn’t it make sense to say that only in an autist, are they autistic traits?

Autism is a neurological difference in processing

The premise that we ALL have a selection of quirks, but that autists simply have more is fine of course, but there does need to be some clarity, to get away from the ‘We’re all a little bit autistic aren’t we…’ phrase. ‘We’re all a little bit quirky…’ is an improvement! Autism is a neurological difference in processing, and simply having a collection of traits or quirks without this difference in processing does not make someone autistic.

It is important to celebrate one’s quirks

A picture of a couple holding hands to illustrate autism articleIt is important to celebrate quirks of course, and specifically to celebrate one’s autistic quirks. For a start, an autistic special interest invariably makes the individual an expert in that field – and many autistic individuals are highly creative, for example enjoying hobbies and careers in fields like photography, writing, graphic design, fashion and crafting. That ‘quirk’ could be the unique selling point that creates an income stream for the autist, or sets them out as a specialist, and an innovator. It could be the element that makes them the perfect friend.

Another reason to celebrate quirkiness is that being different is not necessarily a bad thing.

Following the crowd means you can get lost in the crowd – your voice may not be heard, you may go unnoticed, and you may coast along in the ‘middle of the road’. Having a difference, a USP, means you may take unusual and creative paths. No-one changed the world by being middle of the road! (Apart from, perhaps, the Scottish pop group, Middle of the Road, who bestowed upon us the song ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. The definition of how this song changed the world is up for debate.)


Back to celebrating our autistic quirks. Being different means being diverse, and diversity has shaped many key educational, economic, cultural, and societal issues. Look at the steps that have been made recently in terms of diversity of language, race, religion and gender presentation. The neurodiversity movement (described by The National Symposium on Neurodiversity as being a concept where neurological differences are to be recognised and respected, as any other human variation, and may include those individuals with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyscalculia, Autism, Tourette Syndrome, and others), is making great strides, currently.

Neurodiversity as a social model advocates viewing autism (and other neurologies) as a variation of human wiring, rather than a disease, and neurodiversity activists advocate for celebrating autistic forms of communication and self-expression. (Source – The National Symposium on Neurodiversity.) Neurodiversity advocates also promote the use of support systems that allow autistic people to live as autistic people (no need to ‘cure’ them or quash their autistic quirks!), and advocate simply asking autistic individuals about their experiences, to promote understanding and awareness (there’s even a hashtag – #AskAnAutistic).

So to conclude, let’s, as autists, give ourselves a break, and try to accept and celebrate our quirks.

The book Autism from A to Z by Kathy CarterA little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism.

The information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!

Our book ‘Autism from A to Z’ is now widely available – purchase here.