Here’s What Autism Looks Like


It’s about the inner.

Interest in (and acknowledgment of) the autistic adult community has gone up lately, which is wonderful. People at large are starting to understand that even though we’re different, we still have a lot to contribute; and autistic-led shows like Everything’s Gonna Be Okay are helping people to understand just how wide the spectrum can be.

But there’s still a lot of confusion in the allistic (not autistic) community about what autism “looks like,” usually in reference to how a person appears, but you really can’t tell if someone’s an Autist based on observation.

In addition to the truly infinite variety of ways autism presents, many of us have been taught to mask our traits; so knowing what’s happening inside the person, the reasons behind our behaviors, is essential to recognizing autism in someone.

Being autistic is about having different wiring, literally experiencing the world differently due to neurological differences; resulting in varied sensory perception, ways of relating to the world, and reacting to it differently.

A comic strip by Rebecca Burgess popularized a way to visualize this internal experience that’s been embraced by the autistic community. It explains that most people think that the autism spectrum is a linear thing — a spectrum from “not autistic” to “very autistic” — but it’s actually more like a color wheel of various autistic traits, with Autists affected more and less in different areas (as well as times in our life).

Here’s that one:

Image by Rebecca Burgess

vs.

Image by Rebecca Burgess

I later came across another very helpful expression of the concept, created by autism assessor, Matt Lowry, LPP. I particularly like the use of medical terminology and the way it succinctly elaborates on each section:

Image by Matt Lowry, LPP

Lowry’s information describes atypicality in the following areas (some info added for further understanding, but the list isn’t exhaustive):

Interoception: Internal senses (hunger, thirst, going to the bathroom), awareness of emotions, alexithymia.

Proprioception: Sensing body position, dancing, walking on toes, spinning, dyspraxia (clumsiness), motor control.

Exteroception: Sensing the outside world, hypersensitive, hyposensitive.

Stimming: Repetitive movements and sensory seeking for energy regulation.

SpIns: Special Interests, intense research, information hunger, collections.

Executive Functioning: Hyperfocus, demand avoidance, hygiene, autistic inertia (difficulty changing tasks), working memory, verbal problem-solving.

Relationships: Rejection sensitivity, masking, bonding through SpIns, misunderstandings.

Communication: Echolalia (repeating others’ words), palilalia (repeating own words), echopraxia (repeating others’ behavior/movements), scripting, eye contact, infodumps, body language, tangential conversation.

Emotional Intensity: Meltdowns (neurologically different than “tantrums”), shutdowns, situational mutism, hyporeactivity.

Note: These things also add up to big-time fatigue (mental and physical), and often mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and C-PTSD.


I wanted a version that allowed me to mark my trait measures so I can better communicate my internal experience, so I sketched one out that clearly segments the areas — allowing me (or any autistic person) to mark how much atypicality is presently experienced in each trait segment:

Image by author

I originally made it for use with my therapist, but have also started tracking my trait levels for the purposes of both curiosity and managing problematic aspects. (I just got started, but already find it interesting that engaging in more stimming behavior — energy regulation — seems to be linked with experiencing less emotional intensity, which makes sense.)

For an autistic person to mark atypicality levels, right-click to save so it can be marked in a drawing program, or print it out and grab a marker. Consider the different aspects of each trait section and how atypical experience is at this time, then mark levels appropriately, like so:

Image by author

I also imagine it’ll be useful in other realms of life when needing to explain to others how and why something is causing atypical issues. (If you’d like to have it on an object to help explain differences and accommodation needs, like a work mug, click here.) I hope it’ll help my fellow Autists feel more understood and allistic folks better understand.

(Note: Images and article reviewed and approved by Rebecca Burgess and Matt Lowry.)

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