This blog argues that autism should be visualised holistically instead of on a linear scale. People should take into account the many autistic traits people have and listen to their support needs. This moves away from the constraints created by incomplete diagnostic criteria and societal stereotypes. Ultimately, visualising autism with these things in mind prioritises the autistic person and what they want over how they present externally.
This blog argues that visualisations of autism need to be holistic. This is instead of the conventional linear scale. Society’s understanding of autism needs to come from the voices of autistic people. There are many traits inherent to autism from social and communication behaviours, to difficulties with eye contact, stimming and more. An examination of autism has to take these traits into account. You should never assume that difficulties automatically translate to incapability.
Many visualise Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on a linear scale from low to high. However, autistic self-advocates propose that this is irreflective of their lived experience. Instead, they argue for a holistic approach that recognises the significance of masking and barriers constructed by neurotypical society. By accounting for stereotypes and autistic voices, a visualisation of autism will centre autistic people and their wants. This is better than a conventional linear scale that focuses more on categorisation of visible traits than personal experiences.
Is is linear?
Above you will see a high to low scale. This is how many people visualise autism. An easy assumption to make is that it is a mild to severe spectrum. Also, some people believe that the linear scale means anyone can be ‘a little bit autistic’. This is because some traits are more visible than others. This is false, you can either be completely autistic or not at all. The visibility of autistic traits in a person does not mean someone is more autistic than another. In fact, the scale is unhelpful because it disregards the struggles that someone can internalise or mask.
A way of using the linear scale is to measure someone’s support needs. This is a slightly better way of visualising autism as understanding that different people have different needs is important. However, some people also make the mistake of assuming high support needs equals incapability. Additionally, they can presume low support needs means an autistic individual never needs any accommodation. This is untrue.
As discussed above, visualising the autism spectrum as mild to severe disregards many aspects of the autistic experience. For people generally considered to have high support needs, it assumes incapability in engaging with school work, creativity and social situations. Similarly, for people who mask, their experiences are ignored or treated as exaggerations. You cannot box autistic people into categories because every autistic person is different. This is why a linear high to low system does not work, because the autistic lived experience is variable and can fluctuate day by day. Furthermore, creators of diagnostic criteria rarely consult autistic people. As the creators frequently have no lived experience of autism to intimately understand it, a linear scale is not reflective of real life.
High and low support needs
Despite not being official terminology for several years, a common way to describe an autistic individual is to call them ‘high’ or ‘low functioning’. There are negative connotations for both categories. These phrases imply that people who are ‘low functioning’ are incapable in society. Equally, it suggests that ‘high functioning’ people are not disabled by virtue of having fewer support needs. Stereotypes dictate you are either helpless or a rude genius. In short, ‘high’ and ‘low functioning’ terms do not reflect the autistic lived experience.
Instead, in recent years the diagnostic criteria has change to a ‘level’ system. ‘Level 1, 2 or 3’ dictates how much support a person needs. These ‘levels’ replaced previous outdated diagnoses that failed to address the range of traits found in autistic people. The terminology itself is less overtly stereotypical than the ‘high’ or ‘low functioning’ system. Similarly, it provides a baseline for people to understand how much support a person might need in day to day life. In this sense, the ‘levels’ are much better at recognising the role of neurotypical society in creating barriers.
However, the ‘level’ system puts people in boxes. While the levels recognise that it is a neurotypical society that disables autistic people, they are steeped in years of research that excluded autistic voices. As with the ‘high and low functioning’ scale, the ‘levels’ are based on the visibility of autistic traits against a neurotypical society. Consequently, for all the focus on an individual’s support needs, the visualisation is of how you deviate from neurotypical norms. Additionally, measuring through linear scales often misses that autism is also internal. Ultimately, focusing on external visibility is unhelpful for visualising autism. To fully visualise the autistic lived experience you need to look beyond just a person’s visible support needs.
The significance of masking
Masking is when autistic people learn behaviours and scripts to more seamlessly fit into neurotypical society. As masking requires suppressing autistic traits and instinctual behaviours, an autistic person who masks can give the impression that they are not autistic. However, in several cases this can lead to burn out and melt downs when the individual struggles to maintain a public persona that everything is fine. Masking makes many neurotypical people assume that that autistic person has low support needs when they isn’t necessarily the case.
This is significant as many people picture autism through stereotypes of constant meltdowns and difficulty socialising. Therefore, this leads to society assuming that autistic people either present with severe traits or none at all. These assumptions leads to people visualising autism on a linear scale. However, as stated, masking involves hiding aspects of yourself to fit in. Therefore, people who come across as ‘barely autistic’ in a public setting can act very differently when they are comfortable to be themself. Consequently, you cannot easily pin someone down on a linear scale. Instead, you must take into account societal factors such as feeling forced to mask when understanding autism as a whole.
Therefore, linear scales do not work. Where someone sits on a linear scale can differ depending on whether they are in public (and masking) or in private and comfortable to be themselves. Additionally, if someone is under a lot of stress this can make their autistic traits such as stimming more visible than usual – changing where they would sit on the scale. Ultimately, you should not visualise autism on a strict linear scale that puts people in boxes. A holistic and variable scale should be adopted that visualises autism from the perspective of the individual, not through how society perceives them.
A holistic visualisation
Above you will see a holistic visualisation of autism. This view shows the many characteristics of autism and how much they affect a person. It is constructed from the autistic person’s perspective. The intensity of autistic traits can fluctuate so picture this scale as something that can be adjusted. For example, how much eye contact someone makes depends on who they are with. Also, these traits are all interlinked so if someone is stressed, this can effect their executive function levels and make them anxious. Then, to emotionally regulate those feelings, they might stim more. Examining the connections between traits offers a visualisation that fully encapsulates the autistic lived experience.
By visualising autism as lots of different aspects at different amounts, you recognise that support needs differ in amounts depending on the person. However, it does not limit you to one category. Instead, this visualisation shows how support needs can change. Also, how an individual should choose what support they would like rather than having a category forced upon them. By categorising autistic people you are suffocating some while neglecting others. Therefore, this visualisation centres autistic voices and encourages the people around them to take their desires into account when supporting them. Similarly, this disregards the ‘everyone is a little autistic’ idea. Autism presents differently but that this does not equate to being only slightly autistic – just that it manifests uniquely depending on the person.
Furthermore, visualising autism this way recognises many more aspects of autism than the linear scale. The ones shown in the diagram are just an example. In reality, it can have many more elements. As it takes into account aspects that are not visible externally, it offers a rounded visualisation that a linear scale often misses by focussing solely on communication and social ability. Consequently, it avoids stereotypes and centres the autistic person which is the most important thing to do when trying to understand autism.
Overall, autism is not a linear spectrum. No person is more autistic than another. You are either autistic or you are not. By visualising autism as a wide range of traits that each person experiences differently, variable support needs are easier to understand. Also, this view of autism emphasises that support needs can change. Therefore, you should not apply a ‘one size fits all’ method of accommodating autistic people. Instead, let them have a say in what they need and prepare for those needs to evolve.
Scales and terminology cannot effectively understand autistic people if they have no say in its creation. Understanding that everyone has different support needs that do not always correspond to clinical classifications is important. What you see on the surface does not always reflect what an autistic person experiences inside. Masking and stereotypes are significant influences on perceptions of autistic people. Therefore, approaching autism holistically is a good first step to fully visualising the autistic experience beyond what the diagnostic criteria offers. Ultimately, this visualisation should lead you to focus on the autistic person and their experiences and wants over just their support needs and ‘level’.
If you want to read more about autism, we have a blog on understanding the difference between neurotypical, neurodivergent and neurodiverse. Additionally, you can explore the language that autistic self-advocates prefer in a blog, here.