The Vibrant Spectrum: Living with Autism
Words by Marcel Mellor Hutchings
The year is 2013, it is September, I’m 14 and in Year 9, studying Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in English. The book focuses on a character with autism, specifically Asperger’s. Prior to this I had never heard of autism, let alone known I’d be diagnosed with it.
The teacher gives us a test to do, for fun. It’s called the “AQ Spectrum Test”, created by a man named Simon Baron-Cohen. The test has 50 questions and gives you a score out of 50, indicating if you might be on the autism spectrum or not. It has been used on people with autism and the beginning score that shows you have autism is 32. My score when I first do this test in 2013 is…
Well, that was interesting.
That was how I first discovered it, but it wasn’t until September 2015 when I would be officially diagnosed with Asperger’s. Now I score 45 on that test.
I decided to do a piece on this due to the lack of inclusion of autism among other mental illnesses in the recent ‘diversity’ issue of a particular University publication.
Autism is a general term referring to different conditions on the Autism spectrum. For my own understanding, I separate them into three parts. There is low-functioning autism where the individual is physically disabled due to neural signals not going to all the places they should, but their brain still works. Imagine a functional computer but with very slow internet. That’s my best imagining of what it’s like. The next section is mid-range or mid-functioning autism and it includes those with average intelligence and all the general social issues that come with it. This section does not have a particular name and it is the hardest to diagnose. The next section is the high-functioning autism also known as Asperger’s. Individuals on this end of the spectrum have high intelligence.
Autism manifests differently in different people, but there are some generalities that affect most of them. The spectrum is characterised by social disabilities mainly around social cues and facial expressions. Autistic people don’t make good eye contact, have trouble understanding facial expressions and emotions, and are unable to read social cues or don’t have an understanding of them. For example: anger would be registered as loud yelling without the individual understanding what motivates the yelling. It’s distressing, but it’s only registered as loud noise. Either that or it is discounted entirely.
Autistic people are often very literal too. As a consequence, metaphors can be complicated to comprehend. There is an emotional detachment associated with autism that can be seen as rude, but the individual is often unaware of this. Autism can also come with better senses, so I for example can hear everyone in the room but because it’s simultaneous I can hear everyone at once. It can be distracting so my hearing is simultaneously better and worse. This is why sometimes small autistic children break down in shopping malls with sensory overload. Smaller children also have difficulty expressing themselves, so it’s harder for them to explain why they’re uncomfortable.
People with Asperger’s can be very organised or routinized and logical in how they process and function. Breaking such habits can be an issue. There are some other traits people with autism may have but they’re not so general. These can include: not wanting to be touched, not wanting food of certain colours, forming greater attachments to items or animals than people, not liking things of a particular colour such as blue or red, lack of empathy (due to lack of emotional comprehension), inability to talk despite perfect capacity (selective mutism) and lack of facial recognition. Tolerance with some of these characteristics can increase with age.
How is it represented?
It’s rare to see characters with autism in the media or popular culture. It’s rare in literature too, but there are some good examples. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of them. Other good representations would be Sherlock Holmes in both the novels and the multiple screen adaptions like Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes, and Elementary; Abed Nadir in Community; Saga Noren in The Bridge; Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; and Shawn Murphy in The Good Doctor. Personally, I would say Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory is a bad example. His character is too much based in stereotypes, which are the centre of the humour.
So how does it affect those who have it?
I’ll put this in a university situation for general familiarity. It can be difficult in social situations with what to say, what to do, what people mean; to converge, talking to people is annoyingly difficult. It can also affect your language comprehension and speech since autism is a language disorder. Sometimes you are unable to think of a word you know in the right context or express and explain your thoughts clearly and this can be annoying as to the individual, these thoughts are perfectly clear.
If you are at Sydney University and have autism or any mental illness, I would highly recommend Disability Services. They’re very friendly and helpful and it’s easy to get the help you need with exam adjustments and anything else to help your studies. Unlike the HSC, Disability Services is not strict on who can get adjustments and help. One other perk for those less confident in sharing their disability is that Disability Services are highly confidential and your disability is shared on a need to know basis.
I hope this article has given those without autism better insight into it.
And if some of the issues described sound familiar to you, do the test here.