7 Must-Know Autism Terms for Autists and Allies

A lil’ knowledge to help you be an effective self-advocate or ally

Meg HartleyJul 12 · 7 min read

Originally posted on An Injustice, I appreciate claps (you can do 50!) and follows over @ Medium! ❤

For people who are Autistic, knowledge about our neurotype — how our brains work — is incredibly empowering; and for those who care about us Autists, knowledge is empathy.

The present public perception of Autism is based mostly on neurotypical (NT) observations of our behavior. Focus is on the social implications, with people often referring to how we “seem,” but the internal Autistic experience is far more crucial for people to understand.

We need people to understand how it *physically* feels to be Autistic. It’s the only way our society will learn to stop unwittingly harming us, and better learn to include us.

Since we live in a society that was literally designed for a different neurotype, a different kind of brain, we are persistently expected to do things in a way that works well for most people’s brains — but that very often conflict with our own cognitive processes.

It causes very real problems, even for those who can mask their Autistic traits.

For me personally, it feels like pressure in my brain during tasks or environmental stressors (light, sound, conversation). I was able to pretend it wasn’t happening for years, but eventually, that masking took a toll on my brain, and I started having unexpected outbursts; which eventually turned (back) into full-blown meltdowns and body-wide physical pain.

In addition to the horror of the meltdown itself, which can last hours and involve self-harm, there are also other repercussions; the biggest being the loss of functionality and disabling neurological exhaustion, but there’s also potential consequences for actions during the meltdown, as well as shame.

And in addition to adapting to NT processes, we have to constantly observe and adjust our behavior to the NT norms. It’s just too much.

Additionally, since Autistic representation in the media is very narrow and often misleading; people at large have no idea what it feels like to be of Autistic wiring, making it even harder for us to explain, especially given that so many of us struggle with efficient verbal communication and executive functioning difficulties.

Too much of the onus is put on us, and far too little on those whose neurology isn’t struggling with the task at hand. We need to be met halfway. (Desperately.)

I hope defining these terms in language that aims to explain how these experiences physically feel will help both Autists in better articulating their own experiences—dealing with neurological malfunction is confusing, to say the least! — as well as helping NT allies better put themselves in our shoes.

Of course, I can only describe how my experiences feel, the adage of “if you’ve met one Autistic person, you’ve met ONE Autistic person” always applies.

Knowledge really is the beginning of all empathy, it can create a bridge between people who have a chasm of differing life experiences. One person speaking up in an otherwise indifferent room can make all the difference.

7 Must-Know Autism Terms for Autists and Allies

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash
  1. Executive Malfunction: This term refers to our struggles with planning, remembering information, problem-solving, organization, and time management. This is one way to get that painful brain pressure I was talking about. For me, it generally happens whilst trying to use technology, verbalizing, remembering, filling out forms, doing finances, or when in Autistic burnout (see #5), freakin’ anythiiiiiiing. Ugh. It can be very problematic and can lead to expensive errors, dangerous meltdowns, and further loss of functionality — and yet, an executive malfunction does not indicate intelligence deficits, we’re just struggling to do things in a way that wasn’t designed for our different neurology.
  2. Meltdowns: I’ve gathered that to the observer, Autistic meltdowns look like a “tantrum” or “freak out’’; but what’s happening is actually neurological overwhelm, often due to sensory overload. Despite how it looks, it is a very physical issue, not just emotional. *And they. Are. Terrifying.* For me, at first, it feels like a huge overflow of anxiety in my body, as if on a malfunctioning rollercoaster and desperately want off, but I’m trapped…then I just kinda, for lack of a better term, go berserker. I want to stop, to behave rationally, but I can’t. It’s awful, almost like watching myself from the outside.
    .
    And in addition to the horror of the meltdown itself, which can last hours and involve self-harm/suicidal ideation, there are also other repercussions; the biggest being the loss of functionality and disabling neurological exhaustion, but there’s also the potential consequences for actions during the meltdown, and crushing shame, which can lead to worse. So, when an Autistic person says they’re fending off a meltdown, it’s crucial to take our needs seriously, because this issue is a very big deal and, at large, very misunderstood by the Allistic, or not-Autistic, community — especially regarding Autistic adults.
  3. Shutdown: These happen for the exact same reasons and need to be taken just as seriously as a meltdown, even though it may not seem as serious. An Autistic shutdown is the brain’s way of directing all that overwhelm inward instead of outwards, causing the person to become non-responsive. For me, these usually happen after a meltdown, like my brain is just…done. (I’ve heard them described as something experienced in place of meltdowns as well.)
  4. Going Nonverbal: When this trait is severe, this is completely literal; some Autistic people are nonverbal their whole lives. For me, this feels like my brain’s built a steep mountain around itself for protection, and eeeking any communication out (even typed) feels, and often is, simply insurmountable. It’s usually just when I’m dealing with burnout, but can also happen for brief periods when I’m overwhelmed.
    .
    For me, at the worst (*knocks on wood*) I can still mumble to myself, or my dog, but the words are likely to come out wrong and/or slurred and take immense effort to get out — which can lead others to very unfortunate conclusions, in addition to overexerting my already-taxed brain, which leads to further malfunction. So, via the hard way
    , I’ve learned to just not verbally communicate on those days!
  5. Autistic Burnout: This mofo deals us extremely intensified problematic traits, usually after a time of intensified stress or exertion. Here’s a technical definitionAutistic burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic life stress and a mismatch of expectations and abilities without adequate supports. It is characterized by pervasive, long-term (typically 3+ months) exhaustion, loss of function, and reduced tolerance to stimulus.
    .
    Everything from navigating the internet, to making calls, and driving can become a HUGE deal when you’re in burnout; it’s a very disabling condition made worse by blank stares and suspicion when we try to explain why we aren’t able to meet usual expectations. I’ve been fighting this mofo for over a year, but have experienced it for a duration as short as a few weeks, and have talked with other Auties who report it as short as a few days. Rest is the only way to get out of it, but think about resting your brain…it’s not exactly something our world is arranged for, is it? Ooofta.
  6. Special Interests (SpIns): Clinically, this is where they accuse us of having “rigid/restricted interests,” but more knowing researchers are pointing out they’re our best shot to career success. In fact, that’s precisely how I’m writing this article despite burnout! These obsessions (Neurodivergence and writing here) seem to nourish our brain, like they somehow fuel it. They can be lifelong, or change with time, and most of us have more than one.
  7. Stimming: Another community favorite! It’s described by clinicians as “repetitive motor movements,” and it looks like us moving our bodies differently than NTs, or otherwise doing things to engage sensory feedback — like playing with goo, staring at sparkly things, or touching velvet. These actions soothe the brain in a similar way to SpIns, and are often reactions to environmental, mental, or emotional stimuli.
    .
    It’s common to have different stims according to what happens, for example, I tend to handflap when I’m overwhelmed, I wiggle my fingers in front of my forehead when I’m thinking, and when in shutdown I love me some visual stimming. Some of us can mask the movements, but it’s bad for our brain function, so please exercise consideration and empathy before insisting we refrain. (See #1–5.)
Stimmmmmmmmy awesomeness. FYI: Enjoying staring at it doesn’t mean you’re ND! NTs stim too, usually in different ways, stress balls and pen-clicking, etc — but whatever calms the brain works, I would not be at all sad if NTs also carried around sparkly goop and such! It could even help normalize us. (Image via Giphy)

With so much change needed it can be overwhelming, but it really does happen with one piece of knowledge at a time — individuals create change in this world. It’s the only way it can happen.

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