Inclusive autistic traits

Problems

Autism is big and messy and confusing, and no-one really understands it. It’s difficult to make a good summary and description of autistic traits, because generally no-one can agree on what autism actually is. But even taking that into account, I’ve never read a satisfactory article or leaflet summarising and describing autistic traits.  Every description I’ve ever read suffered from at least one of these problems:

  • Wrongly weighted. So many descriptions of autism written by neurotypical people focus completely on social traits. Often autism is described as an entirely social thing, and any other differences are considered incidental if they’re mentioned at all.
  • Vague. The “triad of impairments” is the worst offender here. It divides social traits arbitrarily into “interaction”, “communication”, and “imagination”, but there is absolutely no clear distinction between those categories. They’re meaningless and useless divisions that don’t remotely simplify the description, and so they serve no useful purpose – they just add confusion.
  • Pathologising. This is so extensive it’s barely worth mentioning. Descriptions of autism almost universally describe it as a disorder, illness, or disease, and the traits as symptoms and deficits. This bias is both inaccurate and harmful.
  • Restrictive. Autistic people are so incredibly varied. And yet often, the only acknowledgement of that diversity is a mention of “both ends of the spectrum”, functioning labels, or a comparison of Asperger’s and classic autism. Not only are these trivial attempts at expressing the variation between autistic people, they are actively harmful in their own right.

Solutions

So, I’ve written my own. This isn’t a set of diagnostic criteria, because I don’t know how to diagnose autism. It’s my best attempt at an inclusiveaccurateuseful, and value-neutral, description of autistic traits and autistic people.

A lot of the things I’ve written feature directly opposite examples, like “may hate X” and “may love X”. This isn’t a mistake, it’s a reflection of how varied autistic people can be. Often, autistic people occupy extreme ends of the bell curve in any trait – but not necessarily the same end. Because I wrote this list to be inclusive, no autistic person will have every trait on it. That would be impossible, since many of them are mutually exclusive!

The point is to include the widest possible range of  autistic traits, not the minimum range of criteria needed to define autism. Instead of showing what things every autistic person will have in common (which would result in the kind of pitifully small and generally useless descriptions found elsewhere), this list intends to show you the greatest diversity you can expect to encounter among autistic people.

The list

With all that covered, let me get to the actual list. It’s divided into three broad categories of traits: social, sensory, and cognitive. These divisions are not perfect, but they’re the best way I’ve found of categorising, and they make it easier to understand the list. Each category is divided into sections (numbers) and subsections (letters), which each contain a list of specific example traits.

Social

  1. Differences in body language and nonverbal communication.
    • A. Different use of eye contact.
      • May use eye contact more or less frequently than others.
      • May use eye contact only in specific situations (e.g. only with familiar people, or only with strangers).
      • May use eye contact in different ways or at different times than others.
    • B. Different use of vocal tone.
      • May use less variation in tone than others, or not use tone deliberately to add meaning.
      • May use more variation in tone than others, or have a ‘sing-song’ quality to speech.
      • May speak more loudly or quietly than others.
    • C. Different use of gestures and body language.
      • May use fewer gestures than others.
      • May not use body language deliberately to communicate.
      • May use different types of body language than others to communicate.
      • May use gestures more often than others.
    • D. Different use of facial expressions.
      • May use less variation in facial expression than others.
      • May not deliberately use facial expressions to communicate.
      • May use different types of facial expressions from others.
      • May use more expressive or extreme facial expressions than others.
  2. Differences in verbal communication.
    • A. Different use of literal and metaphorical communication.
      • May use entirely literal language.
      • May use unusual types of metaphor and analogy.
      • May focus on precision and accuracy in words used.
      • May use words to have different meanings than others.
    • B. Different use of speech.
      • May have difficulty speaking in certain situations, such as under stress.
      • May not use words at all.
      • May use echolalia (repeating specific words or phrases) to communicate.
      • May have a strong preference for text-based communication or difficulty using speech.
      • May have a strong preference for speech or difficulty using text-based communication.
  3. Differences in interaction and relationships.
    • A. Different desire for relationships.
      • May not want or need social relationships much or at all.
      • May want specific types of relationships but not others.
      • May form unusual types of relationship dynamic or be less bound by social norms.
      • May be very reliant on social norms and rules to guide relationships.
    • B. Different preferences for groups.
      • May need one-to-one interactions and struggle in larger groups.
      • May need larger group interactions and struggle one-to-one.
      • May need more structure and rules in group interactions.
      • May find presenting to crowds easier than reciprocal interactions.
    • C. Different preferences for interactions.
      • May prefer practical and pragmatic interactions or have difficulty with unfocused interactions.
      • May not be able to focus on interacting at the same time as other activities or inputs.
      • May prefer parallel interactions or have difficulty with direct interactions.
    • D. Different social instincts to other people.
      • May have trouble communicating with others, especially non-autistic people.
      • May be drawn towards other autistic people for relationships.
      • May be socially outcast by others.
      • May feel like part of a different culture.

Sensory

  1. Differences in sensory sensitivity.
    • A. Over-sensitivity to certain senses or specific sensations (e.g. bright lights, specific textures, strong smells, loud noises).
      • May experience pain at sensations which others do not strongly react to.
      • May become ill or uncomfortable at sensations which others do not strongly react to.
      • May be distressed and want to avoid or escape sensations which others do not strongly react to.
    • B. Under-sensitivity to certain senses or specific sensations (e.g. pain, temperature, taste).
      • May not notice sensations which others usually react to.
      • May not be able to distinguish between sensations which others usually can.
      • May need more intense input in a certain sensation than others usually do.
    • C. Narrower comfortable range of certain senses or specific sensations.
      • May struggle to find a comfortable intensity of input.
      • May easily become over- and under-sensitive to certain sensations.
      • May need very particular type or intensity of input.
  2. Strong enjoyment, desire, or need for certain types of sensory input. Demonstrated by stimming (self-stimulation) behaviour.
    • A. Visual stimming.
      • May stare at certain lights, patterns, shapes or colours.
      • May stare at certain moving objects, changing or flashing lights.
    • B. Pressure stimming.
      • May apply pressure from weighted objects.
      • May sit or lay in postures which apply pressure from body weight.
    • C. Vestibular stimming.
      • May move in certain ways like rocking or spinning.
      • May seek activities which involve swinging, fast acceleration, or other types of movement.
    • D. Proprioceptive stimming.
      • May move body in specific ways such as hand flapping, waving, twirling hair.
      • May touch and hold onto objects and surroundings.
    • E. Tactile stimming.
      • May be drawn to the feeling of particular objects or textures.
      • May stroke or rub objects against certain body parts like hands and face.
    • F. Auditory stimming.
      • May use mouth, voice, and body to make particular sounds.
      • May use objects to make particular sounds.
    • G. Other types of stimming.
      • May be very drawn to specific smells, tastes, or other sensations.
      • May be very drawn to particular intense sensory experiences (e.g. spicy food).
      • May stim in ways which combine multiple different types of sensation.
  3. Other differences in sensory processing.
    • A. Different ways of processing multiple or combined sensations.
      • May have difficulty separating sensory experiences into individual parts.
      • May have difficulty combining individual parts into one sensory experience.
    • B. Difficulty with sensory modulation.
      • May have difficulty attending to relevant stimuli.
      • May have difficulty tuning out irrelevant stimuli.
      • May need a controlled environment with few sensory inputs at the same time.
    • C. Other specific differences or difficulties in processing.
      • May have trouble understanding or decoding speech (auditory processing disorder).
      • May have blending or merging of different senses (synaesthesia).

Cognitive

  1. Strength of focus and rigidity.
    • A. Intense focus and interests.
      • May spend the majority of time focused on few specific interests.
      • May concentrate on certain topics or activities for long periods of time.
      • May have strong emotional attachment to interest topics.
      • May have in-depth and expert knowledge about interest topics.
    • B. Preference for routine and sameness.
      • May have specific routines for days, weeks, or certain activities.
      • May be distressed and disoriented when routines or plans are disrupted.
      • May need to plan things carefully in advance.
      • May be more anxious than others when in new or unfamiliar situations.
  2. Difference in cognitive abilities.
    • A. Differences in executive function.
      • May have strengths or weaknesses in one or more types of memory (e.g. short-term, long-term).
      • May have difficult planning and executing a series of steps or actions.
      • May have difficulty identifying and solving problems.
      • May have difficulty concentrating on relevant information or input.
      • May have difficult starting, stopping, or changing activities.
      • May have poor impulse control.
      • May have poor sense of time.
    • B. Differences in experiencing and processing emotions.
      • May mistake physical sensations for emotions, and vice-versa.
      • May have difficulty identifying or naming emotions (alexithymia).
      • May have difficulty recognising or understanding others’ emotions.
      • May involuntarily experience others’ emotions.
    • C. Different spread of cognitive skills.
      • May have slower processing speed than others.
      • May have extreme strength in specific areas (e.g. nonverbal reasoning, language, music, mathematics).
      • May have face-blindness (prosopagnosia).
      • May have skills which vary more than others over time.
  3. Difference in thinking styles.
    • A. Different approach to details.
      • May have a strong tendency to notice details before, or instead of, overall ‘big picture’.
      • May have a strong tendency to notice overall ‘big picture’ before, or instead of, details.
      • May have difficulty creating examples from a general idea.
      • May have difficulty generalising from specific examples.
    • B. Different approach to patterns and systems.
      • May be skilled in recognising patterns.
      • May be skilled in identifying minor details and errors.
      • May be skilled in systemising subjects such as mathematics, science, puzzles, languages.
      • May enjoy organising and arranging information or objects.
    • C. Different ways of processing and making decisions.
      • May have a tendency for ‘black-and-white’ thinking and logical extremes.
      • May have a strong preference for particular ways of reasoning (e.g. logic, emotion).
      • May seem to think ‘outside the box’ or reach conclusions in different ways to others.

Variation

  1. Variation of traits.
    • A. Long-term variation.
      • May change throughout development from childhood to adulthood.
      • May change over years during adulthood.
    • B. Environment.
      • May be more sensitive to overload when already stressed, ill, or tired.
      • May use different social behaviour depending on social situation.
  2. Variation of presentation.
    • A. Conscious variation.
      • May deliberately mask traits in certain situations.
      • May use learned rules to replace instincts.
    • B. Unconscious variation.
      • May have learned masking behaviour from early childhood.
      • May have trauma or mental illness which affects presentation of traits.

Please use this list

I’d love for people to use this list, or descriptions based on it, in place of the triad of impairments and other flawed summaries. If you use it, please do credit this post – but really I care more about everyone having access to good descriptions of autism.

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47 thoughts on “Inclusive autistic traits

  1. This is a wonderful list!
    I do wonder if you’d consider adding in:
    -hyperempathy for animals and/or objects
    -fluctuating empathy
    -extreme grey-scale thinking

    (eg, b/w thinking is “x thing is all good, y thing is all bad”, whereas greyscale thinking is “overall x thing is pretty good but there are these bad things about it, and this one detail depends on perspective, and y thing is pretty bad but I mean, there are a couple of positive and neutral things about y.”)

    If you do add them, feel free to rephrase however you feel is best.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes! Hyperempathy for objects and fluctuating empathy are definitely traits that are clearly present in my son, and I have seen them in many individuals with autism.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. EXTREME GRAYSCALE THINKING IS MEEEEEE AHHH I can never look at something and be like “it’s all good or all bad” bc I’m always looking at all the little details.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m actually weirdly happy to hear that bc now that I think about it, in basically all of my time in the autistic community, I’ve only heard ppl mention it a couple of times? Whereas people are frequently* talking about black & white thinking as if it applies to all of us.

        *heh, I typed “always” here but immediately deleted it because no, it’s not “always” because there are some exceptions!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a truly fantastic list!!! I am mother to a 12 year old boy with autism, and I have struggled with defining autism for people because of the incredibly wide variation in traits. I think this list is the best I have ever seen. Thank you for creating and sharing it!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh my fucking god. (there is no higher being)
    I’m not lone.
    I’m crazy, but not just weird in funny ways.

    There is a space for me, where I can live, perhaps less harassed.

    I acknowledge White Privilege all the while, I am a recipient.
    I’m landed on un-ceded Salish territory. I’m not Canadian since 1992, but I’m a card carrying
    NDP member long since before Layton.
    “tax\\\\
    (I can only vote for the leadership of my party, otherwise “taxation without representation

    I am “mild”
    Asperger’s…….

    and feel for First Nation’s cultural destruction, very much so.

    So, no – any of my views is negotiable

    Like

  4. I think being more specific about the symptoms is helpful. It’s more clear understanding the person’s needs such as ear muffs. In noisy places, I zone out which may look like daydreaming. I agree that not every autistic people have the same symptoms. With sensory overload, it’s a partial shutdown rather than an adrenaline rush for me. If a person looks like he’s daydreaming and has difficulties speaking up, we probably won’t think he needs to be moved to a quiet area or wear hearing protection.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a really excellent list – I will be making use of it, with full credit given to you as the author of this list and a mention made of the Neurodivergent Rebel who pointed me in the direction of this list.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is excellent, thank you. I’m training this morning and your list backs up much of what I cover – I’ll be adding you to my resource list and sharing far and wide!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on beautiful noise and commented:
    I love this very inclusive list of the many varied traits to be found in people who are somewhere on the autistic spectrum. That’s just it, isn’t it- it’s a spectrum! It’s definitely NOT a straight line of traits, it can be all over the place in each person and that’s what I love about it so much.

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on Gabriella L. Garlock, HistoReWriter and commented:
    First and foremost….A great post to help better understand something we can’t fully understand–autism and its traits–but well worth our while to try. The main character of my WIP has many of these traits, because I do as well. I wish they had been better appreciated when I was young. I’m sure you’ll recognize friends or self as well, and a sensitivity to such a variety of folks can only help the writer. Thanks to Neuro-Divergent Rebel for leading me to this blog.

    Like

  9. This seems a much more pragmatic list than many I have seen and captures the things that can make being autistic person enjoyable as well as challenging. I celebrate my autism, it made me who I am and gave me the toolkit to be a really effective scientist and educator. I shall use the ‘reblog’ button for the first time in history as I had been wondering how to write a post about what it is like to be autistic to help the understanding of those who are not. I think that this is useful for that purpose. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hello,
    Thank you for taking the time, effort & focus to collect, shape, own & share your thoughts. I very much admire your candour, your clarity, your honesty & your great courage in putting things that are so deeply personal ‘out there’, & I am very grateful to have stumbled across your articles. A few more light-bulbs are on, thanks to some of your shared insights. Thank you.
    I’m curious to know your thoughts on autistic savants? (Sometimes also referred to as idiot savants).
    I think there can be a public misperception that to be “in the spectrum”, you MUST be a savant, or be academically exceptional in some way, in order to be deemed autistic. I think that some undiagnosed adults remain so, either because this Savant trait is not perceived or apparent, or because they preclude themselves from an autistic diagnosis because of this expectation/ misconception.
    In your article you’ve mentioned that some autistics may have extreme strength in some (cognitive) areas.
    Do you think that the vast majority of people realise that you DON’T need to be ‘Rain Man’-like to be in the spectrum? Do we need to emphasise this to others?
    I think sometimes we DO need to spell this out & emphasise it to people, because many seem to look only for the extreme ability, intellect or pre-eminence in a particular area, and seem to miss, discount or misdiagnose those who may lack academic genius but who may simply cognitively process things differently.

    Like

    1. Hi, thank you very much for the kind words.

      My opinion about autistic savants is that, they aren’t really a thing. It’s just a term that NT people created to describe a person who is autistic ‘but’ still good at something. In reality, that describes pretty much every autistic person in some way, because we have such a different pattern of skills and difficulties to NT people.

      I certainly agree that there are a lot of misconceptions about autism, and the idea that we are all savants is one of them. There are so many things that need better understanding and acceptance related to autism, it’s impossible to prioritise them!

      Like

  11. This is absolutely brilliant! I will save it and give the link to NTs I know with Aspies in their lives. I would also like, if possible, to put it (or a summary with link to original) in an appendix of a book I’m writing under a pen name (which won’t be ready for quite some time) and will of course contact you at the appropriate time to confirm permission and the proper acknowledgement.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Nice list.
    I wonder how much of the variation is due to compensating or learned behaviour (e.g. eye contact – I’m bad at eye contact, but because I know that I over-compensate)

    It would be interesting to migrate this list into a checklist/scoring system, and then give it to a sample of autistic and NTs, to see how different the scoring is.

    Maybe I can put together a HTML/Javascript page based on this list?

    Like

    1. I reckon there could be a lot about learned behaviour, although I think a lot of it is also innate – like senses being over- or under-sensitive.

      It would be interesting to turn it into some way of assessing traits and see how much diagnostic validity it has, although difficult to achieve! It would take a lot of research to get the balance right for how many traits are needed to class someone as autistic, as well as just figuring out how to assess any individual trait since they’re so vague and varied.

      Feel free to put something together if you like – let me know if you do!

      Like

  13. Hi – I will share this far and wide and use it, if ok, when I’m delivering Autism training. I would like to share my thoughts on the list. It is a great list that I think hits the nail on the head (why would you hit a nail on the head). I would say that the Triad, although flawed, attempts to simplify a very complex situation, NT’s struggle with some of the concepts on this list and for someone who is maybe new to spending time with people with autism this could be a lot of information to absorb at once. A good trainer/teacher will take the triad and expand on it, attempt to put it into real life situations so the NT’s (I’m an NT) can begin to grasp it. Your list will/should now allow for the triad to be expanded by trainers/teachers/educators to help NT’s get a better understanding of the complexity of ASD. Thanks for sharing :)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi! Thanks SO much for this list. It showed me that I am autistic, probably aspergers. I saw it 31/5/17. Waiting for diagnosis. Not mad/weird/crap, but slightly different and a very intelligent, problem-solver <3

    Liked by 1 person

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