In order to receive a clinical diagnosis of autism, a person must meet certain criteria. Aside from the damaging and negative language that describes our way of experiencing and responding to the world as deficits, these criteria don’t really tell us anything about “being” autistic. They are interpretations through the medical and neurotypical gaze of what autism looks like if you aren’t actually autistic yourself. (Not dissimilar to claiming the scientific “proof” that a coconut is in fact a mammal because it has brown hair and produces milk – it certainly meets some of the criteria for being a mammal!)
A clinician with absolutely no understanding of what it is like to be autistic could take these criteria and use them as a checklist against which to compare a person. We know Autistic people protect themselves by masking or camouflaging their autism (sometimes automatically and without choosing to), and we know that certain groups of people are less likely to receive a diagnosis of autism and are more likely to receive differential diagnoses that overshadow their autism. The road to correct diagnosis is a rocky one. But this blog is not about that. These are areas that desperately need further research and exploration, but I will stick to my theme of autistic traits indicating self-care rather than being the deficits so often described.
What do we mean by self-care?
A dictionary definition of self-care describes: “The practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”
In popular culture, self-care has become synonymous with bubble baths and herbal tea, but self-care can actually be an act of political warfare, or simply the stuff we need to do everyday to be at our best. Proactively regulating ourselves through increasing and decreasing sensory input can be part of our self-care.
For instance, we might wear noise-cancelling headphones in a shop, so we can reduce the sensory input from the speakers blaring out loud music and the background noise of extractor fans and chattering customers. This may make us better able to socially interact with the shop staff and complete our transaction less painfully.
What if we don’t have those noise-cancelling headphones to hand?
We might make a repetitive noise, repeat words out loud, or hum a note that blocks out all that background hubbub. This could have a number of effects, including:
a) our noise blocks out some of the background noise
b) it creates some predictability and therefore, feelings of safety in an otherwise stressful situation
c) it may provide regulating sensory input through the pleasant sensation of making the noise with our mouth
How might this look to an observer?
Observers might think various things about us making a repetitive noise – anything from a lack of understanding, “why if they don’t like noise are they making such a racket?!” to the more pathologising observation that the person is showing stereotyped and repetitive use of speech or hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory input. Both opinions offer up explanations from an “outsiders” point of view rather than understanding autism from the inside.
How many other traits of autism are in fact Autistic people practising self-care?
I have worked in the field of health and social care for 30 years and have met Autistic people who have severe learning disabilities and physical disabilities, Autistic people who are articulate in using speech, signing, actions and gestures, and other forms of communication. I have had Autistic colleagues and friends. All of whom meet those criteria for diagnosis set out in the DSM-5. Each Autistic person is unique, just as everyone else is unique – that is why we refer to the human race as neurodiverse – all minds are different.
My professional and personal experience tells me that Autistic people instinctively and intuitively do what we need “in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” And my goodness, it is stressful living as an Autistic person in the world. No wonder we have to find ways to protect our wellbeing.
What else could be going on?
I would love to hear your comments, reflections and thoughts. Here are a few of my own examples of how those “deficits” described in the diagnostic criteria may in fact be coping strategies and self-care activities used to help me exist in a world that is so frequently not set up for people like me:
- My social challenges often come from being overwhelmed due to having too much sensory information to process. When I am better regulated and therefore not in a survival state of fight, flight or freeze I am more able to access what is referred to in polyvagal theory as my social engagement system. The things I need to do to be regulated may look different to those things non-autistic people do. This isn’t due to a deficit, but simply down to my experience of the world being different to theirs – seeing as my experiences are different, no wonder my responses look different too!
- I use my body to self-regulate – how wonderful is that! When I have no equipment to hand I can still move my arms, bounce up and down, or make a favourite noise repeatedly. (referred to in DSM-5 as stereotyped use of movement)
- My so-called special interests are not special in terms of topic – it is not my fault that other people seem to select from a somewhat restricted choice of interests. The abnormal intensity and focus following these interests (as described in the DSM-5) brings me a sense of calm, a sense of achievement in a world that frequently puts me down, and an opportunity to recharge. All great examples of self-care. In fact, some research by Porges described in one of his books about polyvagal theory and feeling safe, quotes: “a reduction in heart rate variability was a robust indicator of sustained attention and mental effort”
- My sensory responses are only hypo- or hyper-responsive, or abnormal, if you are comparing them to your own experiences and assuming yours are “normal”. In our neurodiverse human race where each of us has a wonderfully unique mind, how can we define normality anyway? When you understand that my sensory experiences are different to the majority of peoples, you may begin to understand that my responses are different too. Different, yes; AND proportional to my experience. A proportional response cannot surely also be a deficit?
- My work as one of the directors of Autism Wellbeing CIC included co-authoring Sensory Trauma: Autism, sensory difference and the daily experience of fear where we generate a novel “Sensory Trauma” framework in which to (re)consider the lived experience of Autistic people. We explore the concept of affordances and how the same environment affords each of us a different sensory experience
It is difficult to define autism. In my opinion, the DSM-5 criteria offers a highly restricted view of autism that is fixated on how autism is perceived by non-autistic people. It does not focus on the many strengths that autistic people have, including how we frequently incorporate self-care into our daily lives. I would like to reframe some of those deficits as instinctive ways Autistic people practice self-care.
But I do not believe that simply swapping a list of deficits in the diagnostic manual for a list of strengths, will improve things – the list of strengths is simply the other side of the same coin. But by flipping that coin over, we begin to consider autism from other angles – and that is important. I believe that autism research needs to move from an almost total focus on research topics concerning the biology, causes and treatment of autism, to topics that seek to understand the experience of “being” autistic. The times in my life that have been most positive for me, have come about through people accepting me, valuing me and seeking to better understand how it is to “be” me. Being able to quote diagnostic criteria or hypothesise over genetic factors that could have contributed to my autism have done nothing to improve things for me. I speak in more depth about autism research in another blog.
So, how can we reframe autistic deficits as self-care? Education and awareness raising are a good starting place and there are many fantastic individuals and organisations doing just that.
I made a personal change in how I use language. I stopped using the words hyper- and hypo- in relation to my sensory experiences after we wrote our Sensory Trauma position paper. Instead, I focus on the experience of “being” autistic. I choose to use phrases like “my tactile sense is heightened” or “my interoception, or awareness of body sensations like hunger and pain tend to be muted”. These expressions are finding their way into more mainstream usage with our National Autism Team here in Wales now referring to heightened and muted sensory experiences in their latest information. This is positive because it better helps people understand the experience of being Autistic. Autism is not a set of symptoms to be ticked off against a list.
For me, being autistic is about how my whole being – my body, sensory systems, brain, everything about me – interacts with the world. It is about the relationship I have with the world. A relationship that is affected by how I perceive the world through my different sensory, cognitive and social experiences. A relationship that is also affected by how the world perceives me. I cannot do much about being me, about being Autistic – and nor do I want to. But I can do something about how autism and Autistic people are perceived… we all can….
So lets do it!
Comments most definitely welcomed.