What is autism?
It’s probably not what you think. Autism is not intellectual disability. Autism is not speech disability. Autism is not a total inability to function or fit into society. Autism is also not savant skills or genius level IQ. Each of these may be conditions coexisting with autism, but they are essentially unrelated. Unless you are familiar with actual autistic narratives, you may picture autism in terms of characters like Raymond Babbitt from Rainman or Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory. This is fine in a broad sense, but just barely. Both are commonly associated with autism, but the historical person that Raymond was based on was later thought to have a distinct genetic syndrome rather than autism and Sheldon is autistic like Lucille Ball was an ordinary American housewife. Allow me to give a personal characterization of autism as one who is on the spectrum and also an avid reader of autistic narratives.
I think of autism as a social approach based upon relatively weak abilities for certain kinds of social interaction. Social situations vary dramatically and there are certain kinds in which autistics may actually be very adept and comfortable. The particular scenarios which seem generally challenging for “spectrum-ites” are those that are unstructured or on a sufficiently large scale so as to rely on an accurate sense of “which way the wind is blowing” or on a broad base of general interests. These are often areas of autistic weakness. On the other hand, small, intimate settings with a clear agenda or, better yet, a common enthusiasm may suit us very well. At least in my experience, friends or family members can be surprised to see how engaged and assertive we autistics can be in the right setting when the subject and dynamic of conversation suits us. At these times, we may even appear to be… *gulp*… “extroverted”. (At least to those who don’t know the difference between social excitement and extroversion.)
Now, this probably strikes you as strange because it is both an abstract and adult perspective. It’s not what you’ve had pointed out to you as “autistic”, like the child that is freaking out in public or an obviously dependent adult child following their parent in public. Those may also be autistic people, but what you’re actually seeing there is anxiety (which is often crippling in autism, but still inessential to it) and, likely, some form of intellectual impairment (which is also inessential to autism). This grown-up autism which I’m describing is harder to pin down because it doesn’t (generally) scream at you. It’s more likely to puzzle you, if you see us in a crowd away from our niche.
So, you’re still human?
Yes, we are and we need friends like everybody else. We want friends. (If some don’t, it’s for the same reasons non-autistics don’t want friends. Anger and misanthropy are inessential to autism.) Like everyone else, we each have different capacities for friendship. Maybe, on the whole, we usually have less capacity in terms of numbers of friends than most people, but that doesn’t mean we ourselves are fake or shallow friends. Personally, I have found nothing more rewarding or helpful in life than human relationships. They are the framework of life as far as I am concerned. On the other hand, let me make one qualification: I meant relationships with humans, not with crowds of humans. I don’t know how to do crowds because, like I said, I’m autistic.