Spectrum Thinking

Neurotypicality is a spectrum.


Neurotypicality: a brain that works like most of the population’s, i.e. not autistic or epileptic or any other kind of neurodivergent brain type


It’s not something that you usually have to state, because nobody expects people with brains that work in expected ways, to all behave identically. That would be ridiculous.


A spectrum condition is a condition with many possible presentations, that all have the same reason behind them. An autistic person may be incredibly tactile and love to be hugged, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions. An autistic person may hate to be hugged, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions. An autistic person may only like to be hugged by those they know well, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions. An autistic person may only like to hug when they are happy, but loath physical contact when under stress, because they have sensory issues around touch and social processing issues around human interactions.


The important bit there is the reason behind the behaviour. If a non-autistic person doesn’t like to be hugged – perhaps because they have a fear of intimacy – then the behaviour isn’t an “Autistic Spectrum” behaviour, it’s a “Neurotypical Spectrum” one.


It is a myth that we are all on the Neurotypical Spectrum. Sometimes I make eye-contact, but I’m doing it fleetingly, to scan for reactions to my actions and make sure that my analysis of words and body language are correct. I’m not doing it because my social processor has suddenly kicked in, and I now love eye-contact and can’t get enough of your baby-blues.


Spectrum conditions can be very confusing. Particularly if you boil them down to a list of behaviours and tick them off. I wrote recently about how I had never thought of myself as literal, but I am a very literal person, I just have little routines I have written to deal with the figurative. I struggle when someone uses imagery that doesn’t work with where my mind wants to take me, and when I’m tired I cannot work beyond literal statements.


I am also sarcastic. Sarcasm is supposed to be difficult for some autistic people, because it’s not being literal, but actually it’s only a single simple step away. Sarcasm is literal turned upside down to show its ridiculous, pink, underbelly. It is not lying, it is stating the truth by holding up a mirror to it.


I love using sarcasm, because I have full control of my expressions, and my deadpan humour is utterly convincing. My sarcasm can vary from subtle (where the absurdity of the statement carries the humour) to the intoned (where tone of voice needs to be added to be sure sarcasm is recognised).


I love to create a juxtaposition between the ridiculous and the genuine. It’s a pattern that I have carved into my communication. I love to laugh and make jokes. I have even made an egg-pun that I am proud of, and that’s no small achievement, eggs are a hard cell at the best of times (I’m so sorry).


My sarcasm’s roots are in my autism. I grew up watching The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Blackadder and Red Dwarf. British comedies steeped in sarcasm. My language littered with echolalia, I stole phrases and intonation that I still use today. Too slow, chicken Marengo, too slow for this cat.


I learned to answer the obvious non-question with sarcasm,


“Is that a cigarette you’re smoking, Listy?”


“No. It’s a chicken.”


I learned to deflect my mistakes, to become eclectic, to use language as a shield. It became my pattern and my problem solving and my game. It’s source? A social communication condition. I mirrored phrases and intonation, because I was learning ways to connect and to keep my distance, and that’s how I built my social-self.


I am fragments of everything I’ve ever watched and thought, “I like that!” I am sarastic because its simple form appeals to me, not because I’m neurotypical. Before I got a hold of the reins of sarcasm, I broke all the rules. I took it too far, I was more Sarcastic Ray than Rhi. What a personal disaster.


As a teen I often immersed myself completely in a new communication style, obsessively repeating the same patterns, until something settled inside and I was able to bring my own personality to bear on my new skill. I have no doubts about how infuriating I must have been during these stages. I repeated the same things ,with the same intonation, over and over and over until my family despaired. Why wouldn’t I? It brought me the same joy each time and repetition is routine, routine is safety.


I can find “symptoms of neurotypicality” in me, but the reasons behind them are always rooted in my autism. It’s an important distinction to make. We are not all “a bit neurotypical” we just all share some visible behaviours. We are not all “a bit on the spectrum”, because that ignores what the spectrum is actually trying to explain.


Whenever anyone says something like, “We are all a little bit autistic”, I wince inside. You either process social communication automatically, or you don’t. My conscious processing of social communication is not the same thing as your automated perception. My brain can still see you, and I can use all the things I have learnt in every communication I have ever had, to match your body language and subtleties to your meaning. I can do that, but for autistic reasons and with an autistic brain.


I can never be a little neurotypical. I can keep perfecting my conscious processing until it is fast, efficient and mostly correct, but that doesn’t mean I will reach a point of altering my brain to take over the function for me. I can never hand it the keys to the car and say “You drive, you’ve got this”. It will always be something I have to do alongside all the other conscious communication everyone has to do. It will always take up space.


We need to get away from this idea that there is a line from ‘Really flipping Autistic’ to ‘Couldn’t be more Neurotypical’. That line doesn’t exist, and it never has. Your brain works one way or the other. Aspects of autism will affect you more or less. Your sensory issues may be so profound that they interfere with everything you do, or you may have little to no sensory issues at all. You may find eye-contact painful, or it may be a pattern that you like.


When people’s autistic presentation appears in a pattern that matches more closely the world that is before us, we say that their autism is mild. When people’s autistic presentation clashes with the world, when it stands out and is un-ignorable, their autism becomes more visible. Most autistic people will have some aspects that clash, and others that work.


Our lives are made easier when we are able to find techniques to minimise the clashes (ideally through accommodations rather than bending ourselves), and accentuate our strengths.


There is no point in me working against myself, I have many strengths, and working with my autism makes them stronger. My problem-solving, my ability to see the detail within the whole structure, my pattern-thinking, my non-judgemental logic, my yearning to understand, my hyper-focus, my honest communication, my belief that the world can change for the better, my pragmatism, my creativity that I bring to everything I do, my strong empathy for others. Rooted in my autism is everything I need, to be who I want to be.


My sensory issues need to be minimised (noise cancelling headphones, dark glasses etc), I would ideally be able to keep communication purposeful and away from smalltalk, any changes to routine or plans would be presented as early as possible to maximise my efficiency. I will never remove all my clashes from the world, but the aim would be to reduce the energy drain to a bare minimum.


‘I’ve got a plan so cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel.’ This is not about denying difficulties and focusing on strengths, it is about dealing with each autistic person as a whole. How can we make your environment work for you? How can we improve things? How can you work to your strengths, and how can we support the things you find more difficult? These are the questions we need to be asking. Though perhaps we need to narrow them somewhat; no one likes an open question with a billion variables rushing at you, clamouring for attention.


Only when we understand what the spectrum means, can we begin to understand how to support people on that spectrum. Only when we start seeing the individual within the pattern, can we support that person to be who they want to be.


I’m not a dreamer, I’m an optimistic pragmatist. Whenever the future starts to look bleak, I look back on how far we have come. Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, even in the last five years we have come so far. Neurodiversity is making a space for itself in this world. It is firmly taking its place at the table, and it is here to stay. Now let’s work together and see what happens next.


45 thoughts on “Spectrum Thinking

  1. Brilliant article Rhi. So so true. My wee lassy is supposed to have ‘mild’ autism. I hate that definition. Its so misleading. She severely struggles with anxiety and separation anxiety. Her sensory issues to do with smell, taste and texture are also very severe. She has rocked back n forth since 8 mnths old n still does this regularly. Including when she’s standing up. I know it helps her focus, soothes her, helps her know where her body in space is and so forth. In fact I did it myself from babyhood all the way through primary.
    She has many other difficulties as well as strengths as she is a whole person like all of us.
    When people say we are all ‘a bit autistic’ I would love to punch them in the face. They have no clue what theyre talking about.
    Thank you again for a great article.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. You’re very welcome. Thank you! It is extremely frustrating when people say things like that. I like to translate it in my head to “I’ve heard of autism, but my knowledge is limited”. Quantifying it just seems so ridiculous to me. Curries are mild, weather is mild, brain processes aren’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well written Rhi. Though I must confess that I myself have said “I am a little autistic too.” Turns out that I am a lot more than just a ” little autistic”. I just had no idea that my way of thinking and my type of weirdness was described in the DSM
    When NT’s say “we are all a little autistic”, they mean that they all display some form of behavior ( eg. passive, non-communicative, withdrawn, ) which is common in ND individuals. This Quasi-autistic behavior can be seen in individuals who are severely ill ( a child with undiagnosed coeliac disease is a good example) When the disease is treated the behavior will cease. If a child has been misdiagnosed as being autistic, his parents and some other misguided “professionals” will claim that the autism has been “cured”. ( Hence the many diets which can cure autism) Most people do not understand that autistic people have a different way of thinking and processing data. They do not understand that ND individuals struggle constantly with things which NTs may find “no big deal” . They do not know that ND people have a completely different experience of the world ( of course , not having severe stomach cramps and not being chronically deficient in important nutrients makes it just a little easier to behave like an NT, but it will not make you think like an NT).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Exactly. A happy autistic is less likely to present with extreme behavioural reactions in reaction to discomfort (just like anyone else, but possibly with less-clear pain-markers).

      It always has to come back to the reason behind the behaviour. It’s such a common misconception. I can forgive you for saying it! In fact it makes perfect sense once you had all the information. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing! Thanks for your comment 💐

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, my saying “that phrase” came from a weird place. I really, really did recognise myself when I said it. I then decided to educate myself about autism and discovered that I am autistic.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I was diagnosed with Social Communication Disorder last summer in my late twenties (and am seriously considering just describing myself as autistic in most cases because… well, it boils down to “close enough” and “easier” and “I’m still not sure why this was a diagnostically meaningful difference”). But ANYWAY, what I wanted to say was I happen to hate driving—there’s so much to keep track of and it all happens so fast with such high stakes—and so the idea that my brain, socially, will never be a self-driving car really stuck out to me. Not even in a bad way, just, oh, my brain is like this, I’ll always have to be paying attention and finding ways to cope with and/or just avoiding situations where the input that has to process is just gonna be way too much. Like, I love that analogy. It makes sense? I don’t know if this COMMENT makes sense, but anyhow thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your comment makes perfect sense. I love it when someone uses a description that makes everything click together. It’s lovely to hear that I’ve succeeded in that! And you’re right, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. Knowing how you work is the beginning. Until you know that, you can’t work out how you work best.

      Thank you!


    1. That’s more than understandable. Even though the diagnosis needed me to look at all the things I find difficult, I didn’t really see anything as a major issue. They were just “how I’ve always been”. For me it was more a case of learning that other people find some of these things easy, whereas for me they’re a battle. That was the revelation. And of course all the masking, as you say. Just how much effort goes into performing all those skills you’ve learned. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article. I was thinking about this as well and I just finished writing a post, inspired by my wonderful autistic son, saying that, basically, neurotypical people and autistic people have a different type of intelligence, and instead of spending all of our time trying to teach social skills (what does that even mean) to autistic people, we should focus on doing whatever we can to foster the development of each person’s intelligence. Neurotypicals and autistics don’t have to bond through intricate social interactions, we can (and do!) meet intellectually speaking, through logic, notably. And it’s awesome! I love breaking down concepts with my son and discussing them. And of course we can bond emotionally in many ways.

    Collectively, we put way to much stress on ourselves and on each other, so much so that it seems everyone’s at the breaking point. We’re stronger together. Let’s find ways we can meet less stressfully.

    Please keep on writing Rhi, I really appreciate your insightful posts.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! That’s great. We are definitely better together. There are so many ways to make connections, and there’s no need to separate them out into “meaningful” and “ridiculous”, they’re either connections that work for you, or connections that don’t, and both are just fine.

      What a lovely, uplifting comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m very sarcastic. I do have a problem with being hugged as I am overly-sensitive but my autistic son loves being hugged and is a hugger. I never refuse hugs from loved ones but they do hurt me. I avoid hugs from everybody else. We are all different, aren’t we? 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We really are, and it’s so important that we embrace all those differences (though for some of us we may want to keep those embraces metaphorical, and not literal 😊)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmmm… Let’s see, well, I’ll choose to be a little autistic in my reply even as my absolutely straight face oozes emotional content like a fire hose. Then I’ll discretely rub my fingers together, through my beard, over the table and chair arms before continuing the normality pretense; those were just gestures of deep thinking, of course. Meanwhile I’ll just keep shrugging around inside this particular shirt demonstrating that everything is perfectly fine except for the God D@____ label that isn’t supposed to be there (I categorically cut every label out of all my clothing: how could I have missed one?). And take deep satisfaction at using facetious humor to my autistic, bipolar student to go speak to the nice auditor lady while we all laugh at the joke within a joke within a joke, though, the auditor as an NT of course has no clue about the second and third levels of that. Okay, all those happened in different moments of locale. Thanks as always wild woman!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s it, a quick “oh yes, this just means X, don’t try to understand why” can make the whole process so much easier. I like the term “loopholes”.


  7. When I originally went to see my GP her response was “Well, we’re all a little autistic, aren’t we?” I was like .. “Are we?? How does YOUR Autism effect you then?” I read somewhere recently it’s like saying “I’m a little pregnant”. No one says that. You either are or you aren’t..! Great article. Thank you. 💐

    Liked by 3 people

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