Red’s autistic behavior may confuse some non-autistic people. They flutter their fingers, obsess over their interests, hide their face behind their hands, and do all sorts of things that most people don’t do. Some onlookers might see this as strange behavior that needs to be squashed. But if you knew Red, you’d learn it wasn’t that simple. Their autistic behavior protects them.
Autistic behavior is not a problem. In fact, it’s often the solution to a problem. Today, Red and I will explain how some of it works.
The Protective Power of Autistic Stimming
“Stimming” is the word for the ways that neurodivergent people fidget. Red’s stimming is sometimes subtle and sometimes not. You might see them:
- Flutter their fingers
- Hum and vocalize
- Rock back and forth
- Put their hands in front of their face
While it might look odd, Red doesn’t care. Their stimming helps them cope with an intense sensory and emotional world.
Do you wave your hands when you eat something that’s too hot? That’s like Red’s stimming. You’re trying to cope with something, and the movement helps you express and distract yourself.
Would you tell someone they had to keep their hands still when their mouth was burning? Or would you offer them water and sympathy?
When you’re autistic, it’s like you burn your mouth every day. To Red, sounds are too loud and lights are too bright. The world is uncomfortable. Sometimes, it hurts. So you hide when you can and you fidget when you can’t hide.
Here’s what Red says about it:
Stimming helps me self-regulate. Sometimes public places are storms that tear at me and wash away my thoughts. Stimming anchors me then. When I’m bored, it gives me sensory input. And it helps me express my feelings.
When I am swaying or finger-tapping, I am better in tune. I can focus more. And it gives me a deep feeling of peace.
Red’s environment can feel like chaos. Would you take away their source of calm?
If more people understood that, then maybe they wouldn’t point and laugh at Red. Because they’d know Red is doing their best.
The Comfort and Ease of Routines
Red tends to eat the same thing every day. Some people might say “Red needs to learn to be flexible.” But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, Red is trying to make the best choices.
Here’s how Cynthia Kim, another autistic person, describes it:
In the absence of routines, I just plain forget to do things. I drift. I perseverate and spend way too much energy on the blizzard of little choices… Routines give my life structure. Within my routine, I always know what I need to do nextCynthia Kim
Red is detail-oriented too. Sometimes, this makes choices complicated. So if Red already knows what they like, they do it again and again until they lose interest.
Making choices for simple things each day isn’t efficient. So autistic people use routines instead.
Also, autistic inertia is a common problem. Many autistic people struggle to initiate tasks, even when they want to. This can be deeply disabling. The higher the mental threshold, the harder it is for them to get started. A routine can make it easier to move to the next task.
There’s a lot going on in the head of an autistic person. So sometimes things in the external world are harder. Thus, the simpler things can be, the better. Routines reduce the amount of brainpower needed to move along.
Avoiding Eye Contact
Autistic brains don’t react to eye contact the same way non-autistic brains do. Researchers found that eye contact causes excessive arousal in parts of the brain. One autistic person told me it’s like looking at the sun.
Imagine being told to look at the sun whenever you’re trying to talk to someone. Whenever you want to connect, someone demands you do something that hurts and makes it hard to focus. How would that feel?
Autistic people look away for a reason. They aren’t trying to avoid connecting. Instead, they’re trying to stay comfortable so they can have a good conversation.
Red has had plenty of conversations without making eye contact. It turns out that they don’t need it to form close relationships.
Special Interests and Joy
“Special interests” are the intense, long-lasting interests that autistic people have.
Autistic people find socializing less rewarding. But their lives aren’t empty. Instead, they show heightened interest in their special interests. Experts found many upsides to these interests. At school, kids learn better, handle transitions more easily, and show better social skills when you engage their interests.
Non-autistic people like to socialize. Would you lock a non-autistic person in a room with no people to make them less “obsessed?” No, that would be cruel.
Special interests help make autistic people happy.
Red doesn’t want me to share a list of interests because they don’t want to be identified. Instead, I’ll say they like cool rocks.
Autistic Behavior Protects Them
Life isn’t always easy for autistic people. And their “autistic behavior” protects them from the worst of it, helping them manage stress and feel better.
When I acted less autistic, I slowly became a shadow of myself. I felt flimsy. The world could wash me away. And often it did. I thought it was my fault.
Now I appear more autistic. I wear headphones and stim more. Chaos remains a constant of the world, but I feel more prepared. I am anchored in the things that make me unique and the people I love. Now I face harder trials and I am not swept away.
So maybe I have a poet in my family. But that’s beside the point.
I don’t think we should force autistic people to blend in. If we do, then we strip them of coping mechanisms. We rob them of their joy and their protection from pain.
If you spend time with me, then you don’t have to look me in the eye. You can fidget if you need to. And I won’t tell you that your interests are bad.
“Odd” behavior protects autistic people. We shouldn’t steal their stability and then blame them for struggling. They’re doing their best. More people need to put in the effort to understand them.
I think autism is not that mysterious. Red will explain all kinds of things if you ask them nicely. So will many other autistic people. We just need to listen. They aren’t puzzles, they’re people doing their best.