I was just having a conversation about a difference I’ve observed between various autistic people. I want to note, before I describe it, that it’s not some kind of cut and dried division, nor is it scientific. It’s just an observation I’ve made. It’s not even a matter of “types of autism” necessarily, because a person can function in both ways at different times in their life, or bits of both at once. But I notice that some of my friends and family are primarily one way, and some are primarily another.
And be aware that when I’m talking about abilities, below, I’m talking about surface-level stuff. I’m not talking about the deeper neurological/cognitive sorts of abilities, which might be both stable and very much similar in all groups of people described, for all I know.
Some people seem to have very stable abilities. If there’s things they can’t do, they just can’t do them. And if there’s things they can do, they always can do them.
Other people seem to experience a lot of change and fluctuation. They might be able to do something one moment and not the next, and they might always have various abilities moving out of the way to make room for whichever one is being used.
And I thought of an analogy to this, or rather elaborated on one of my old ones. Think of elevation as ability in any particular area.
Some people seem to have started off at a certain low elevation in this particular area. Then as they got older, they hiked up the slope. At the top of the slope was a nice, large flat area where they could find a place to live very easily on a long-term basis.
Other people seem to have started off at the same low elevation, but what’s in front of us look more like cliffs. We can get very adept at climbing those cliffs, but when we are, there is nothing else we could possibly be paying attention to, since too much is going to dealing with this cliff face. When we reach the same elevation as the other person, we are hanging onto a cliff face with our hands and feet. There is no possible way we could stay there. We might even be able to reach much higher elevations than the other person — the cliff seems to not have a top, from our perspective — but we will eventually have to either climb down voluntarily, or fall down involuntarily, back to our original level.
Some people might actually find a top to their cliff eventually, and thus be able to remain stably at that ability even if it took a lot more effort and falling down than someone else took to get to that point. Other people won’t find that, and will end up having to deal with cliff faces all the time.
And there is a definite difference, even in two people doing the exact same thing, between one person standing on flat ground at a certain elevation, and another person hanging off a cliff at the same elevation. They might be doing the same thing, and at the same elevation, but they’re getting at it in very different ways, and only one of them will be able to sustain what they are doing for very long. There are all kinds of things this analogy can’t get across — particularly the complexity of having skills shift around all over the place while you’re climbing those cliffs — but I hope that is one of them.
This difference between ways of doing things seems to exist within all so-called “levels of functioning” and other ways of trying to divide autism into little parts. Both sorts of people, and all combinations and variations of those ways that skills can work, seem to exist among people with all ability labels. I do suspect that some of what gets called ‘regression’ is actually just that someone was cliff-climbing and fell back down to the ground, rather than that the person was not autistic until they ‘regressed’.
I’d also like to note that at my own version of ‘ground level’ in many areas, there is a lot of stuff that’s invisible to people way high up in the air from my perspective (including me, on my climbs up here). Not all of it is bad stuff. There are abilities down here that don’t exist so much once you start climbing, and that I rely on as my more reliable abilities, that exist without too much effort or forcing. So climbing high in one area can mean leaving other things behind on the ground. And even people who climb cliffs to get to where most people start out, have actual abilities that do stay the same at some basic level on the ground. They’re just not usually considered to be that. (And people who mostly live up high but happen to walk by a cliff and fall onto lower ground, have a very different experience of this than those of us who live on lower ground but climb up onto the cliffs. Even if both sets of people look identical in some contexts.)
I hope I haven’t by now stretched this metaphor to its breaking point, but I figured it might be useful, and I’ve seen this difference create a lot of confusion between different autistic people before. (And I don’t think it’s limited to autistic people, I’m just talking about autistic people because that’s the conversation I was having that got me into this.)