What sorts of people I tend to relate to, identify with, etc.


I’ve written before about there being different sorts of autistic people, and relating more to some sorts than others. I’ve never been able to articulate what it is that makes up the sort of people I am more likely to relate to, because it’s always been intuitive. But I think I’ve finally figured out some of the elements. So here are my rather self-centered “wow this person is a lot like me” sort of criteria:

Autistic or autistic-type stuff

  • Exceptional spatial abilities. This does not necessarily mean exceptional visual abilities, although it can. I mean the ability to map space, no matter what senses are used to do it. I’ve met a blind man with a diagnosis of “severe mental retardation” who has better spatial abilities than I do, and mine are pretty good. I don’t think he was using vision to map things, but he was mapping them.
  • A sense of all languages and all symbols as being foreign languages, and as continuing to be foreign languages no matter how superficially proficient we become at them. A sense, not philosophical but gut-level and often uncomfortable, that language and other symbol is a strained abstraction that we throw together over reality without ever touching it.
  • Figuring out some major aspect of language-as-communication-non-autistic-style much later than normal (if ever), and therefore having understanding of something from before that.
  • Perceiving what surrounds us in ways other than most people would. Not just “hypersensitivity” but a whole different understanding. For instance perceiving my wrist brace not as a “wrist brace” but as a potentially bitable pattern of a certain texture and color and so forth. (No, not because of “weak central coherence,” because of a very different perceptual organization.)
  • Having different perception of this sort be common enough (not just fleeting) in our lives that we understand the world mainly through that kind of pattern, not through intellectualizing categories. (Not that we necessarily can’t intellectualize categories but this would be as much of a “second language” as language, and viewed as a clumsy backup if anything.)
  • Approaching language from this same sense of pattern, rather than the usual approaches to language.
  • Having deliberate movement distant and elusive. (Automatic, cued movements might not be.)
  • Having many “typical skills” appear and vanish and appear and vanish, rather than staying put.
  • Having many shifts in abilities, whether seemingly “progress” or “regression,” on a regular basis.
  • Going from extremely athletic and agile to closer to immobility with age (er, much younger than most people do, that is).
  • At least sometimes requiring assistance moving.
  • Shutdowns regularly, not just sometimes.
  • Ability to read and use the same sort of body language I can read.

Life experiences

  • Institutionalization, in nearly any form.
  • Having a wide variety of ways you’ve been viewed and categorized (from “no future” to “good future” etc).
  • Having most of your most important abilities viewed as non-existent, worthless, or both.
  • Having at least a little background of being valued on an equal level with non-disabled people, regardless of professional decree of “severity”.
  • Having experiences with both integration and segregation.
  • Coming from an extended neuro-atypical family.
  • Noticing at some point that the world seems to have no place for you, reacting against that, and having that response medicalized.
  • Having people constantly confused about what you can and can’t do and attributing all kinds of traits and motivations that aren’t there.
  • Knowing one of the unspoken “institution languages”.

Personality traits

  • Sense of justice.
  • Lack of reflex-level trust of authority.
  • Belief in love (not the romantic kind) as something other than an emotion or a fuzzy feel-good stereotype
  • Not exactly a personality trait, but mystics in the old-fashioned, non-fluffy, not-synonymous-with-“psychic”/”occult” sense of the word (quite often not the people you’d suspect, and not going to be parading themselves around as special). For lack of a better term.
  • Either reserved or “autistic” about display of most emotions, but not unemotional. Just not throwing emotions in your face and demanding a response.
  • Optimistic pragmatists. :-) (Meaning people who are very practical but don’t use being “very practical” as an excuse to never change anything or to assume that the status quo is all there’ll ever be.)
  • People who will treat political problems as political rather than emotional, more likely to view political change as a solution rather than the “therapy culture”
  • Understanding and happiness with the fact of being autistic, at the same time as not necessarily being the stereotypical “HFA/AS” type.
  • Enjoying spending time with people without necessarily talking.
  • Not trusting that something exists just because psychiatry or some other such profession says it does.

Note that this list isn’t exhaustive. It’s not meant to be diagnostic of anything. It’s not meant to say this is the best way to be autistic, or the only way to be autistic, or the differentiation between autism and Asperger’s and HFA and LFA and all that crap. Not all of it even has a thing to do with autism. These are just the things I end up identifying with in other autistic people.

It’s also important to note that some of the things I’ve listed in ways that sound like deficiencies, I’ve only listed that way because I don’t know the words for how to say what I really mean. “Lack” of certain kinds of thinking means a whole kind of patterns and perception and so forth that most people seem unable to use. I don’t know how to describe that. “Lack” of certain kinds of movement… likewise, only I have fewer words. Many things that involve “not learning” one kind of thing, are that way because there’s something else going on, “underneath”, that I can’t describe.

This isn’t even “the only people I want to be around”; I’ve had good friends who can’t navigate the world without language or conceive of anything outside of it. It’s just “who I identify with the fastest, who I often communicate with the easiest, etc”. I’m sure other people have totally different, but overlapping in some areas, lists. Also, not everyone I identify with this way is formally recognized as autistic. Many have other labels, or none at all, but there are commonalities.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

8 responses »

  1. or instance perceiving my wrist brace not as a “wrist brace” but as a potentially bitable pattern of a certain texture and color and so forth. (No, not because of “weak central coherence,” because of a very different perceptual organization.)

    Well, I definitely relate to this. I became “aware” that I thought this way at about age 20 and went through a really weird period of time in which I could not see how any one object was truly separable from any other object except in terms of “density” and “frequency” of certain characteristics. Basically, I’ve never seen objects as having an inherent property of “thing-ness” — that is, I see purpose more as something people assign to bits of matter than some fundamental aspect of the matter itself. For example, I don’t think a toothbrush has an inherent toothbrush-ness: it’s sort of a pattern of texture and appearance and it takes up a certain shape in space, but it isn’t until someone uses it for its “intended” purpose that it actually IS a toothbrush, in my mind.

  2. WOW. That helps me understand people with autism and others who have been
    labeled “low functioning” a whole lot better. Question about the institutional
    language. Is that something that is only for those who “have been there done that”
    or can a atypical person learn it too ? I would want to mainly so that I can
    communicate with some individuals who otherwise have no other means to communicate.
    Is there something in the body language or is it more of an attitude?
    I do sooo appreciate your blog. You really do need to get this published for those
    of us who want to change our attitudes and ideas but have no clue what needs
    changing ! I know I have drastically changed a lot of my thinking and concepts since
    I started reading your blog and the links you have to it.

  3. Actually I know (and know of) a lot of people labeled “high functioning” who basically fit the description (the part that’s even autism-related, which not all of it directly is) above, too, as well as a lot of people labeled “low functioning” who don’t fit it at all.

    But regarding the “institutional language” thing. I used a very abbreviated term for it there. I don’t know what else to call it. It’s like a system of signals that a lot of people develop when communicating to avoid being noticed (and possibly punished or separated) by staff, or else when communicating among people who are assumed not to communicate in the first place. I assume there’s several sorts of it, but I’ve certainly met people, in public, who seem to speak it, and were at least somewhat mutually comprehensible to each other. And I didn’t know them.

    I’m purposely vague about precise details in most cases, because some people really need a means of communication staff can’t see. (Of course some other people really wish staff would notice they’re communicating, so it can go both ways.)

    But I was surprised, after thinking that only I and other people who’d been there knew about it, to learn that there’s at least some knowledge of it among staff. Not that they necessarily know what the signals are, but I’ve seen several staff-perspective accounts of people who they discovered were close friends but didn’t ever see what they were doing to communicate, and speculating about exactly what it was. (For instance people who were distraught when separated from each other, and did better when allowed to see each other again, but staff hadn’t ever seen them communicating.) I’ve also started to find some descriptions from disabled people’s perspectives, of similar things.

    It’s not universal to people who’ve been in institutions, either, I’ve just noticed some people develop it.  (It’s also often developed by people in less traditional institutions, special ed, day programs, anything where that kind of communication can be necessary.)

    The best analogy I can think of, is how in classrooms children find ways of passing notes and whispering without the teacher noticing. It’s a similar thing only with higher stakes.

  4. A sense of all languages and all symbols as being foreign languages, and as continuing to be foreign languages no matter how superficially proficient we become at them. A sense, not philosophical but gut-level and often uncomfortable, that language and other symbol is a strained abstraction that we throw together over reality without ever touching it.

    One of the most irksome things from my adolescence was spending time with someone I otherwise really liked, who asked me, “Do you think in words or in symbols?” and could not take “neither” for an answer.

    As I’m getting to know more people on the autism spectrum on-line, this is one of the more vindicating things for me, that others share this “not language/not symbol” sort of thinking. We share a lot of other things, in terms of experience, but this is a fundamental part of who I am, not something that has been done to me by others.

  5. Reading along that long list, I checked off somewhere between 12 and 14 of the descriptions which I think apply to me, to some degree. (more or less) I dunno if we could get along, were we to meet. I think I’m “mostly normal”, as I’ve written before. I am happy to read what you choose to write and post publicly, though I reckon we’ll probably never meet. What I’m trying to say here, I think, is that I think I have enough of the autistic sensibility to feel some of what you’re feeling and thinking, but not enough to understand everything you say and do, as you do.

    Did that make any sense

  6. When I was growing up, I loved spending time with my father, who
    is not much of a talker. We would sometimes spend hours together
    without saying a word. I just remember feeling so happy and
    connected with him, so tuned in to the experience we call “life.”
    It is difficult for me to have much of a relationship with
    someone if we aren’t comfortable being silent together.

  7. I have had the ‘interesting’ experience of going from being seen as a gifted child to a ‘slow’ adult (though admittedly this depends on who you’re talking to). Most of the skills that got me labeled gifted in the first place have either outlived their novelty value to others, are seen as fairly useless nowadays, or were simply instances of earlier-than-usual development, where the other kids caught up eventually. The one exception, perhaps, might be my writing abilities; I’m told I write clearly, which I assume is a good thing, but I’ve reached an age where my writing no longer appears precocious. (Additionally, I have the ‘bad habit’ of being able to imitate nearly anyone’s literary style, which rarely seems to be conscious on my part; I’ve been accused of plagiarism when I wasn’t even consciously aware that I was ‘plagiarizing.’) People do get terribly confused about what I can and can’t do, and have come up with very strange theories on why I can’t or won’t do certain things, most of which have little relation to what is actually going on inside my head.

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