When you conceptualize autism in your mind, you think about behavioral issues, cognitive disabilities, learning disabilities, physical limitations, emotional outbursts, and other stereotypical things, but mostly, you imagine problems. You may think ‘special needs’ and quite likely, you will perceive a child. Let’s change that thinking to be a bit more realistic.

The first thing we should address is that autism is not a childhood condition, nor is it a disease. It is a different brain modality, and for the lack of a better phrase, different thinking that occurs from earliest childhood through full maturity. There is no age limit and no adult onset.

A person with autism has the same quantity of brain matter as you or anyone else, and the same quality, however, the brain simply thinks differently. The individual’s senses may be wired differently than yours, causing either decreased or greatly increased sensitivity.

Different Thinking

Take the case of Michael, an autistic child with hyperacute hearing. Loud noises caused him to shut down, meltdown, or hide under the pillows in his bedroom. One day, while interviewing him in what I thought might be a quiet place, he started to have a meltdown. He thrashed, hit his head, covered his ears and finally took a coat and wrapped it around his head. I couldn’t see or hear anything causing him any anxiety. We were on a deck behind his house, on a large parcel of land far from neighbors. It was a quiet farm with little around us. A few minutes after he recovered from that meltdown, he experienced another. This time, in the distance, a dog barking was just slightly audible. The neighbor’s dog, about 600 feet away, was barking. While no one else could hear the dog, Michael could detect the sound of that distant barking as if it was directly in his close proximity.

Meltdowns are not the only signs of stressful circumstances. Repetitive speaking, called ‘echolalia‘ is another, and one of many different signs. Bending at the waist, self-abusing behaviors, vomiting, uncontrollable crying, hand-flapping, shaking of limbs, and others—all are indicative of some kind of problem.  Whatever the behavior, it is not a good idea to attempt to control it.  It is better to determine the cause of the condition and cure that cause.

Some have said that persons on the autism spectrum lack empathy. That’s because when an autistic individual’s response to a situation is not exactly what others expect it to be, they make such assumptions. It’s simply not true.

Usually, we’ve found, the individual’s emotional experience is so high, including empathy, that their system simply blocks or limits additional emotions, causing others to perceive a lack of feeling. By shutting down or preventing an emotional overload, the person is protecting themselves automatically, from harm. This is particularly concerning in situations where law enforcement is involved.

If an individual shuts down and perhaps goes silent when questioned by police, or engages in some comforting behavior that seems unusual to others unfamiliar with them, bad things can happen, including a presumption of guilt, even if the person is wholly and completely innocent.

In one instance, a young man was body-slammed because an officer did not understand that his actions were to calm himself in an obviously stressful situation. The man’s skull was fractured resulting in death.

We have to start thinking differently about the different thinking of those on the spectrum. Many of the unusual behaviors others observe in the autistic are simply nothing more than neurotypical normal behaviors amplified, extended, or taken out of context. Most of all, let’s just remember that having a different brain modality, a different way of thinking, is not necessarily bad, it’s just different.