Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka.
I’m used to writing about sad things – sharing trauma in (hopefully) digestible articles. The truth is that I’m comfortable writing about sadness in a way that I’m not with happiness. When it comes to writing positively about autism, it feels arrogant, self-aggrandising even. But I wanted to write this column to give an insight into autism, so I’d be failing if I neglect to mention all the beauty that autism brings to my life and the lives of others
When I look at my autistic friends, I see so much goodness. They feel and experience things intensely because the world is more vivid for them; their sensations are richer, and they see beauty in unexpected, small places. There is such a synergy between attention to detail and being more sensitive to sensations. From my own experience, the world can feel so large, so bright, so loud. Whilst that can certainly be overwhelming, it makes life intensely vivid. I’m mesmerised by light shining through trees every time that I see it. I love that I can pick up on patterns that I wouldn’t be able to if I weren’t autistic. Everything feels bigger is probably the best way I can explain it. It means that there can be so many small joys every day, and I wouldn’t want that to be any other way.
There is a misconception that autistic people lack empathy, and it can certainly be harder to understand emotions when you may not be able to read them at all. Yet, some of the autistic people I know are incredibly emotionally intelligent and empathetic. They care so much, and because they have often been excluded or felt different because of their autism, they know what it feels like to be made to feel ‘other’. This means that they can have a better understanding of the experiences of the marginalised groups. Moreover, because they have been misunderstood previously and understanding others has been practised, they take a lot more care actually to listen and understand. It’s so comforting to feel that listened to and understood – to be seen.
It is also the case that it is harder to empathise with different neurotypes which is why I treasure my autistic friends so much. They can understand my thought processes and emotions in a way that non-autistic simply can’t. I know that I can tell my best friend, who is also autistic, something that has happened to me and I will not have to explain how I feel – he just gets it. There are many autistic experiences that I struggle to describe to non-autistic people and I know that can be incredibly frustrating for them and me. For instance, I get very strong aversions to certain foods, at times it can even be to foods that I normally love, which is confusing to me let alone others. However, I know that I could tell an autistic friend that I simply can’t eat a certain thing today and they wouldn’t question me. Honestly, the people I feel most myself around are other autistic people.
Another autistic experience which can be hard to explain is hyperfixiation and it can be a powerful thing. The world outside stops existing; there is only what you’re focusing on. It’s like waking up from a spell emerging from being so focused on something; it can be surprising that the world carried on whilst you were so wrapped up in something. Do you know the feeling of coming out of a cinema and being surprised that there is still light outside? It’s like a heightened version of that.
Similarly, special interests can bring so much joy. It’s stupid, I’ve done hundreds of sudokus, yet doing one still brings me a sense of quietude. It feels good to be so interested and passionate about something. Of course, non-autistic people can have important interests, but special interests are a ubiquitous autistic trait and can consume people for their entire lives.
Autism can be reduced to trauma so much, and it’s dangerous. It’s what makes parents talk of ‘losing’ their child when they’re diagnosed with autism. It’s what makes people want to search for a ‘cure’ for autism or find parenting strategies that reduce the chance of being diagnosed. But autistic joy is very real. There are plenty of autistic traits that I’m sure it is hard, if not impossible, for non-autistic people to understand, let alone fathom that they could bring happiness. Yet they do. Just as I don’t understand a lot of non-autistic traits and sources of joy, you just have to take people at their word. I love having a routine. I love feeling soft blankets which can feel childish at times, but if I have this extra sensitivity to sensations, I should enjoy it without shame. Stimming is both comforting and fun; it’s been hard to relearn to stim in more obvious ways, like verbal stims, because it feels childish and regressive, but it’s worthwhile, which I know may be perplexing to allistic (non-autistic) people.
There are plenty more things that I could list here, but the main message is that being autistic can be a cause of happiness, and this deserves so much attention, both in the autistic community and outside it. We can be great friends, parents, and partners. We can have projects and goals that bring us and the people around us joy and fulfilment. We can find excitement and happiness in small and unexpected places. These places may be surprising or confusing to allistic people, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Autism is not something that needs or should be pathologised (as it almost exclusively is in scientific literature); it is simply a different way of being.