Chapter 2

All about autism

This chapter will talk more about what autism means.
How you feel about autism is up to you.
We hope this book helps you feel good about autism.

Here are some important things to know about autism.
We will talk more about these things later in the chapter.

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental disability.
Autism changes a lot of parts of our lives.
It changes how we think.
It changes how we understand the world.
It changes how we move.
It changes how we communicate.
It changes how we socialize.
Autism makes us different from non-autistic people.
That’s ok!
Autism is a normal part of life, and makes us who we are.

What’s a developmental disability? Am I okay?

Autism is a developmental disability.
A developmental disability is a type of disability. It starts when someone is very young.
Down Syndrome is another developmental disability. So is cerebral palsy.

Most developmental disabilities are there when someone is born.
Autistic people are born autistic.
We will be autistic for our entire lives.
An autistic person never stops being autistic.

It can be hard to tell if people are autistic when they are very young.
Most babies look and act the same.
Autistic babies may not seem like they are autistic.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t autistic.
You just can’t tell yet!

Most of what we know about autism was learned by studying kids.
Autistic adults don’t look or act the same as autistic kids.
We might learn how to look ‘less autistic’. We might hide parts of ourselves.
We learn to act like the non-autistic people around us.
This confuses people. They might think autism can ‘go away’ when an autistic kid gets older.
But we are autistic our whole lives.

Developmental disabilities are normal.
They are an important part of the world.
Autism is a normal part of life.
Autism isn’t a sickness or a disease.
There’s nothing wrong with being autistic.
It is just one way to be a person!

Autism changes how we live our lives.
Sometimes, autism might make things harder.
There are also lots of good things about being autistic.

We wouldn’t be the same people if we weren’t autistic.
We can be proud of who we are.

How autism works

You might hear people call autism a “spectrum”.
That means that every autistic person is different.
We all like and dislike different things.
We all need help with different things.

Some autistic people may need a lot of help with one thing.
Other autistic people may not need help with the same thing.
One person may look “less autistic” than another person.
But there is no such thing as being “more” or “less” autistic.
We are all just autistic.

For example:

Renee is autistic.
She is non-speaking. She uses her iPad to communicate.
Renee lives alone.
She can cook and clean her house by herself.
But she needs some help going out to get groceries.

Percy is autistic.
Percy can talk.
Percy lives with a support person.
He can’t cook or clean his house by himself.
But Percy can go out to get groceries by himself.

Percy isn’t “more autistic” than Renee.
Renee isn’t “more autistic” than Percy.
Both of them are just autistic.

Thinking differences

Autistic people think differently than non-autistic people.

Think about when you brush your teeth.
Your brain thinks about a lot when you brush your teeth.
You think about how to hold the toothbrush.
You think about how to put it in your mouth.
You think about how long you should brush your teeth.
Autism can change how you think about all of those things.

Special interests

Many autistic people have very strong interests.
These are called special interests.
For example, some autistic people have a special interest in trains. They think about trains a lot. They know a lot more about trains than other people. They want to spend most of their time thinking about trains.

There are all kinds of special interests.
It might be something big, like science.
Or it might be something smaller, like a favorite band.

Sometimes, special interests only last a little while.
You might only have a special interest for a week.
Other times, you could have one for a few months or years.
Some special interests stay with us our whole lives.

There might be times when you have no special interests.
There might be times when you have a lot of special interests.
All of this is normal.

Special interests are good.
They make us happy!
We can use our special interests to help people.
They can be useful in our jobs.
Special interests are really important to most autistic people.

Executive functioning

Executive functioning is a group of skills that help people stay on track.

Staying on track means things like:

  • Following a plan
  • Starting something new
  • Stopping what you are doing
  • Remembering what to do next
  • Moving on to the next thing

For example:

Emily works as a waiter at a restaurant.
She is in charge of a few things.
First, she has to help set up the restaurant.
Then, people come to the restaurant.
Now, she has to help customers order food.
When people are done eating, she has to clean up.

Emily uses a lot of executive functioning.
She has to start a lot of things.
She has to stop them when she’s done.
She has to plan and remember what to do next.

Autistic people can have a hard time with executive functioning.
It may be hard to make a plan for what to do.
It may be hard to start something new or stop what you’re doing.
It may be hard to remember what you want to do.

Executive functioning problems can feel like being lazy.
But having problems with executive functioning is not being lazy. You are not lazy.
People with executive functioning problems want to do something.
But we might not be able to without help.

Executive functioning problems can feel like riding a stubborn horse.
No matter what you want, the horse ignores you!
If you want the horse to run forward, it stays still.
If you want the horse to stop, it keeps running.
If you want the horse to change directions, it keeps going forward.
In this example, the horse is your brain and body.
You might want to do something, but you just can’t do it.

Executive functioning is hard for us.
We might need extra support.
That’s okay!
It’s okay to need help.

Meltdowns and shutdowns

Meltdowns are when an autistic person can’t control our feelings.
Meltdowns happen when someone gets too stressed.
People having meltdowns might scream or cry.
Sometimes, we run away.
We might lose control of our body.

Shutdowns can also happen when someone gets too stressed.
A shutdown is when someone stops being able to do anything.
We might not be able to talk or move.

Meltdowns and shutdowns feel scary to autistic people.
They can look scary to other people.
But they don’t happen on purpose.
They are not the same thing as tantrums.
Autistic people can’t control when we have a meltdown or shutdown.

Other thinking differences

There are lots of ways autistic people think differently. Here are a few:

Autistic people can notice small things that other people don’t notice.
We can notice small mistakes that other people don’t see, like typos.
We can pay a lot of attention to things other people don’t think are important.
We can have very good memories for facts.
You might remember a lot of facts about your special interests.

Many autistic people like routine.
We might like things to be the same every day.
We might like to eat the same foods every day.
It helps us to know what will happen each day.

Change can be scary for us.
Things being the same helps us stay calm.
Knowing what’s coming helps us make sense of our lives.

Autistic people sometimes think in black and white.
Things are either good or bad.
We either like or dislike people.
Either we can or can’t do something.
We can sometimes think in-between, but it can be hard.
Black and white thinking can be a good thing.
For example, we know when something is right or wrong.
We can help people do the right thing.

Autistic people learn things differently.
We might learn things in a different order.
We might learn “hard” things before “easy” things.
We might be great at one thing and bad at another thing.
We might not get something, and then suddenly get it weeks later.
We might need to learn some things very slowly, and other things very fast.
We might need to learn something more than once.
Because we learn things differently, we can solve problems that other people can’t!

Sensory processing differences

Processing is how your brain thinks about and reacts to things.
Sensory processing is a type of processing.
It’s how you think about and understand your senses.

For example, try looking at a sock.
You might notice certain things about it.
You’ll see what color and size it is.
If you touch it, you’ll feel the fabric.
If you smell it, you’ll notice other things.
It might smell like sweat or laundry sheets.
That’s all sensory processing!
Autism changes sensory processing in a lot of ways.

We have five major senses:

  • Vision: Vision uses our eyes. It’s how we look at things. We can see color, lightness and darkness, shape, and texture. We can see how close or far something is. We can see what type of thing it is.
  • Touch: Touch uses our hands or skin. It’s how we feel things. We can feel the texture of something. We can tell how big or small it is. We can feel what shape it is. We can also feel how heavy or light something is. We can tell if food is soft or hard.
  • Hearing: Hearing uses our ears. It’s how we listen to things. We can hear sounds and tell how loud or quiet they are. We can tell if a sound is close or far away. We can tell what kind of thing might be making a noise. We can tell noises apart.
  • Smell: Smell uses our nose. It’s how we figure out what something smells like. We can tell if something is stinky or smells good. We can tell different foods apart from each other.
  • Taste: Taste uses our tongue. It’s how we tell the flavor of something. We can taste food and decide if we like it or not. We can taste if something is sour, sweet, spicy, or salty. We can taste if food is hot or cold.

There are other senses, too. These are some of them:

  • Pressure: Pressure is how we tell when things are touching us. It also helps you know how heavy things are.
  • Hunger and thirst: Hunger is how we tell if we have had enough food to eat. Thirst lets us know if we have had enough to drink.
  • Pain: Pain is how we tell if we are hurt or sick. More pain usually means you are more hurt or sick.
  • Temperature: Temperature is how hot or cold something is.
  • Balance: Balance is how we stay standing up and walk straight.

We use sensory processing to understand what we see, touch, hear, smell and taste.

Each person processes their senses a little differently.
But autistic people process our senses a LOT differently.
For example, loud noises might bother us.
We might like dim lights more than bright lights.
We might like the texture of one food and hate the texture of a different food.

You might sense something a lot or only a little.
If one of your senses is too strong, you might not be able to pay attention to anything else.
If one of your senses is too weak, might not notice the sense at all.

Many autistic people have senses that are too strong or weak.
Tags on clothing might really bother us.
We might get too hot even if the temperature isn’t very high.
Or, we might not feel pain if we get hurt.
We might not notice a really bad smell.

Sometimes, our senses might feel like too much. This is called sensory overload.
Sensory overload can make us angry or upset.
Sensory overload can even cause a meltdown or a shutdown.

Autistic people can notice things that other people miss.
We might love the fabric of a soft shirt.
We might love strong-tasting foods.

Our senses might change day to day.
The tag on our shirt might bother us on one day.
Tomorrow, it might be okay.
It’s okay to feel things differently.
There is no right or wrong way to process things.