If you’ve been reading my writing for a little while, you might have caught on to the fact that I comprehend autism as something entirely different from the stereotype many people have in their minds when someone says “autism.” Between the medical myths of social deficits and the Hollywood portrayal of autistics as severely lacking empathy, it’s not surprising that we aren’t all on the same page about this.
When I discovered that I am autistic, it changed my life in a good way. I finally had answers for why my brain doesn’t work like my parents and teachers and therapists expected it to. As I found neurological explanations for my atypical traits, I began to let go of my fixed beliefs of low self-esteem and build a positive self-concept.
Ever since discovering my autistic identity, I have rejected the authority of the medical paradigm and the DSM understanding of autism. What I know about autism and other neurodivergence is primarily based on the evidence of the lived experience and reports of neurodivergent people and secondarily verified by evidence-based research.
Because I understand being autistic to be a cultural identity and not a medical disorder, I recognize #actuallyautistic people as experts on their own culture, and I view neurotypical researchers as outsiders attempting to understand a culture they are not part of. As a tutor and nanny, I used to be a caregiver for severely disabled nonverbal autistic children, and this explanation of autistic identity includes them as well.
I realize that the idea of a trauma-informed positive autistic identity may be totally new to you, so I want to share with you our explanation for what autism is.
First, what is NOT autism? Lack of empathy and anti-social behavior are not autism. Stereotypical stress responses such as meltdowns and elopement are not autism. Trauma responses in autistic people are not autism. Intellectual disability is not autism. Physical disorders and illnesses such as IBS, food sensitivities, and hypermobility which commonly occur in autistic people are not autism.
So, what IS autism? Autism is a hereditary neurological identity or neurotype. The autistic neurological identity is unique in three particular ways. First autistic people have neuronal hyper-sensitivity* throughout their entire body-mind. Second, autistic people use an attention filtering style called monotropism. Finally, autistic body-minds operate as sensory processing systems first and as verbal processing systems second (if at all).
The Intense World Theory is the first neurobiological explanation for autism that has been verified by the lived experience of autistic people. We have more neuronal branching than neurotypical people which means more opportunities for connection between parts of the mindbody that may not typically connect. This can result in biological dysfunctions as well as giftedness and synesthesia.
Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system. Our glimmer detectors and positive-sensation receptors are also turned way up.
*Autistic people develop a wide variety of sensory profiles depending on environment and trauma to adapt to having hyper-sensitive internal wiring. Not all autistics experience sensory hypersensitivity. Also, Sensory hyper-sensitivity is not necessarily evidence of neuronal hypersensitivity. Sensory hypersensitivity also frequently occurs in PTSD and complex PTSD.
Along with our hypersensitivity, autistic people have a cognition style called monotropism. “Monotropism is the tendency for our interests to pull us in more strongly than most people. It rests on a model of the mind as an ‘interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel.”
The difference between sensory and verbal processing systems can best be explained by the words of Kristy Forbes, autistic support specialist: “Energy is our first language. Words are our second.” Neurotypical people have verbal processing systems where words are their innate language. For autistic people, translating our sensory operating system into words is a skill that is learned, not innate.
That all sounds kinda nice, but the autistic neurotype is not just a difference in thinking, it affects our entire being. (Thus many of us prefer identity language to person-first language.) In modern society, having these kinds of neurological differences is disabling. The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.
There was a time long ago when autistic people were watchers for their villages, living on the edges of the town to detect any dangers to the entire community like an approaching storm or band of thieves. Because our societies no longer value interdependence, our differences are routinely pathologized.
Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety. We may need significant support throughout our lives, including communication assistance technology. The threshold at which a stimulus is distressing to us is lower than most people, so we tend to accumulate more trauma than allistic people. There is unfortunately little to no understanding of sensory trauma in the medical paradigm, or of autistic trauma in general. (But they’re working on it! Here’s a paper about sensory trauma.)
The DSM criteria for autism is such a messy mixture of innate neurodivergent traits and symptoms of autistic trauma that an autistic person without trauma may not even fit the criteria for diagnosis. I know of autistic parents who are raising autistic children in low stress, sensory friendly environments who cannot get a diagnosis for educational accommodations because their child is not stressed enough.
Any attempt to cure, treat, or eradicate autism is a form of oppression called ableism. No therapy can make an autistic person less autistic. However, there are many things we can do to lessen the distress of living with this disability. I wish for all autistic people to have full acceptance in our society, adequate support with disabilities, help with processing and healing from trauma, and a sensory-friendly home environment.
After you have this lens, you may have many light-bulb moments where you realize WHY you do something that has always puzzled you or why your student’s behavior makes sense FOR THEM. Working with this identity framework, we can start to understand the differences between autism and trauma responses. I hope it’s as helpful for you as it has been for me!
Hey, thanks for reading this article! I’m Trauma Geek. My name is Janae Elisabeth. I make infographics about neuroscience and polyvagal theory because I believe free neuroscience education will change the world. You can find them on Facebook here: linktr.ee/TraumaGeek.
This work is made possible by my rockstar patron supporters at www.patreon.com/TraumaGeek.
If you’d like to chat with me about trauma, neurodiversity, or polyvagal theory, you can click here to schedule. www.calendly.com/TraumaGeek (I am an educator, not a counselor or therapist.)