Let’s talk about quirks, in connection with autism spectrum conditions. 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.’
Being 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…’
There 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?
At 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
It 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.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog 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!
Also published on Medium.