Have you watched Atypical? If so, you’re probably familiar with the terms autism, ASD, neurotypical. If not, get a Netflix subscription and indulge yourselves in four seasons (up to now) of a quirky family show starring Sam, a teenage boy with ASD and his personal drama with parents, girlfriends, boy friends, school, penguins and a trip to Antarctica.
ASD (autism spectrum disorder) includes any of a group of developmental disorders (such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome) marked by impairments in the ability to communicate and interact socially and by the presence of repetitive behaviors or restricted interests – called also pervasive developmental disorderMerriam-Webster
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While it has been criticised, the show portrays to a satisfactory degree the struggles of not only a person with ASD, but also their friends and family. When we think of a person on the spectrum, our minds often go to them and their immediate surroundings. But there aren’t many depictions of how such a person navigates everyday life and the people in it – classmates, store employees or math tutors. Representation matters, because people with ASD need it, and because everyone else needs it too. Getting familiar and normalising the existence of atypical individuals helps us realize that they belong in this world and should be treated with equity. The fact that some of the most well-known and successful people we have known are on the spectrum, including scientists, actors, comedians, teenage climate activists, singers and the richest man on earth, should tip us off that ASD may in fact be an asset in some cases.
Neurotypical is a word used to describe a person who has a typical brain. This not only includes non-autistic people, but also people without mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities or any other neurological illness or disorder such as epilepsy or brain tumours. It is the opposite of neurodivergent.
Stacey has a typically functioning brain. She is neurotypical.
Phoebe has anxiety. She is not neurotypicalUrban Dictionary
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Popularizing this topic also makes us self-reflect, it elicits questions about ourselves that possibly haven’t been asked before, as some of the behaviours encountered in ASD populations can be reminiscent to our own. Have you ever related to one of Sheldon’s (The Big Bang theory) habitual dinners, like Tuesday nights at the Cheesecake Factory? How about Monk’s (Monk) touching every parking meter he walks by or Monica’s (Friends) obsessive cleaning rituals?
Below is a short list of traits characterising people on the spectrum; go ahead and chew on them and contemplate if, the only reason why you’re considered neurotypical, is because you’re not too divergent, but only a little bit.
Generic traits of people with ASD
- Avoid or do not keep eye contact
- Show little interest in peers
- Line up toys or other objects and get upset when order is changed
- Insistence on sameness, routines, or ritualized patterns of behavior
- Hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive behavior
- Anxiety, stress, or excessive worry
- Difficulty on staying on topic, turn-taking, and asking related or appropriate questions during conversations
- Difficulty interpreting social language, such as sarcasm and jokes
- Sensitivity to sensory input (visual, auditory, tactile, taste, smell, proprioceptive, vestibular)
- Honesty, rarely lie and have fewer hidden agendas
- Not tied to social expectations
- Passionate about their interests
- Rarely judge others
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Now, just because some generalised traits are used to describe people on the spectrum, we shouldn’t assume that everyone behaves similarly. Dr. Stephen Shore sums it up nicely: “if you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism“. And that is because ASD is not someone’s identity – it’s only a feature of themselves which has been clinically diagnosed. Another autism advocate says that “autism is one word attempting to describe millions of different stories“.
Many of those stories begin at childhood, because a large portion of ASD individuals experience different developmental stages than neurotypical children. However, as time passes by and as the once referred to disorder of autism is now considered a spectrum, more and more people are diagnosed later in their adult lives. It may be the case that instead of an official diagnosis, for many people it remains just a set of (annoying) predilections.
Do keep in mind that having a few traits doesn’t mean you are on the spectrum. If you have a lot of them, and feel challenged by them, pay a visit to a specialist and talk about it. Otherwise, keep your minds open and acknowledge that while some cases may need an official diagnosis and course of action, others may pass as neurotypicals and avoid the ASD radars. Also note that the “others” category may include me and you.
This is a piece on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and how it may be present in our lives without us ever realizing it. While this is written in popular science style, the literature on autism and related disorders is vast and if it concerns you, you should do a deep dive. This is light reading.