If You Had 3 Minutes to Explain Autism, What Would You Say?

06 Sep

Lately, I have been confronted with the challenge of perception. How I perceive situations, people, and challenges, and how others — if they were in my shoes — might perceive that same situation. Autism literature talks extensively about Theory of Mind, mindblindness, and perspective talking, which are essentially three names for the idea that individuals with ASD struggle with the very idea of recognizing, adopting, and/or understanding another person’s perceptions. While I could discuss the intracacies and challenges that this deficit presents, I find myself more interested in the ways in which NTs struggle with understanding the lives, perspectives, and perceptions of those with ASD. If an NT can’t don the shoe of someone with ASD, why should an Aspie or Autie want, try, aspire, or bother with doing the same?

Case in point, I had internet installed in my new home yesterday. The gentleman, in making friendly conversation, asked me what I do for a living. Always a fun subject, I shared with him the basic premise of my job — I work with individuals with ASD. The usual, cookie-cutter response did not occur (“Oh, that’s wonderful” or “You must be patient” or “That’s so rewarding”). Instead, he said with honesty: “I just don’t get autism. What is it?”

I have had this question posed to me millions of times (and likely millions more), but yesterday it took the breath from my lungs for some reason. The immensity and gravity of the question and the import of the answer weighed on my shoulders. What did I want this man to know about individuals with ASD when he walked out of my house? What did I want him to remember? I sat in silence for what felt like an eternity. What words could I use? What perception did I want him to leave with? He must have been confused by my silence because he asked, “Well, don’t they just fly off the handle?”

There was my starting point. I wanted to know WHERE that starting point originated. Who gave him that information? Had he read it? Had someone told him? Did he know someone with ASD who is prone to rages or meltdowns? These were all past the scope of my brief window of opportunity. The time that I was afforded was equivalent to cooking — perhaps overcooking — a bag of popcorn in the microwave.

Set the timer folks, I am placing the bag in the microwave.

I shared about the social impact of ASD and how ASD can appear to be “invisible” in some ways, which brings upon scrutiny and judgment when/if they behave “differently” from the “norm”. I pontificated about strengths and about how their differences are both challenges and true blessings for our society.

The popcorn is popping fast, and I have to grab the bag before it burns. Man that three minutes went fast.

As we walked out, he said, “You know, we all have social struggles in one way, shape, or form. My dad wanted me to play sports. I’m just not that guy. I have other talents. It sounds like your clients do, too.” Yes, internet guy, they most certainly do.

What would you share in three minutes?


Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Uncategorized


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6 responses to “If You Had 3 Minutes to Explain Autism, What Would You Say?

  1. AutisticSpeaks

    September 8, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    I would hand them one of my autism cards, as I don’t typically have the verbal abilities to say much at all! They say, “I have AUTISM. Autism is a disorder that affects my abilities to communicate and socialize, and causes me to have restricted interersts. It does not affect my intelligence! Speaking can be very stressful for me at times, and you may notice that I respond inappropriately when you speak to me. Please be patient with me. -Lydia”

    • jholverstott

      September 8, 2011 at 3:42 PM

      Lydia, I love the message on your card. I think it explains your deficits that might impact the current situation while allowing others to give you teh space and time you need. I applaud you for making, carrying, and distributing it, and I hope others receive it with a positive attitude!

  2. AutisticSpeaks

    September 8, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    J (because I don’t actually know your first name), I love what you’re doing here. I’m 23 and a sort of moderately autistic (have gotten all three of the ASD dx’s at various points and truly it depends on the day how I seem), not always verbal, but highly intelligent young woman. I blog at, and I recently published my second book. I’m just getting into speaking engagements. Anyway, I’d love to get to know you and dare I say offer yet another perspective on autism 🙂

  3. KirstenK

    September 24, 2011 at 10:04 AM

    My 4 yr old has autism and I would describe it as a multi-faceted neurological disorder typically exhibiting varying levels of difficulty with verbal and social exchanges with other people, generally accompanied with difficulty coping with unfamiliar objects, people and situations.

    Lydia, I think its GREAT what you are doing! People really want to know what you have to say. I am having such a hard time getting people to understand that my son really is a person! Its as if they treat him like a cat or something, or as if he doesnt exist because he doesnt talk that much yet. Hes doing a lot more though, but it hasnt changed. Others act as if he should be the same as other kids because he doesnt “look” autistic. Its a double edged sword, and its really hard sometimes. The school he is in for Headstart wont let him have his “accepted” drink cup and contents, because they feel he should “get over it”! Have you had lots of experiences like this? How do you feel about how people treat you…good and bad? I really want to understand how my child is feeling about all this.

  4. AutisticSpeaks

    September 30, 2011 at 8:36 AM

    Hi Kirsten… I actually just wrote a couple of blog posts about these ideas…

    Let me know if that helps 🙂

  5. Berisha

    November 1, 2012 at 6:24 PM

    Everyone always wants to explain it as deficits and sometimes occasionally as deficits and strengths. But its not something we can really judge or put a value label on it just is. Temple Grandin has pointed out accurately that much of Autism has to do with sensory input and interpretation, it is a different way of seeing, hearing feeling smelling and tasting the world. She has pointed out that we as a society don’t tend to think about or talk about sensory empathy, attempting to see the world through the shoes of someone who literally sees things different than you, perhaps because they don’t see at all. The deaf and blind communites naturally deal with these issues too. Though oftentimes with Autism the sensory difference is senses that are very strong, overwhelmingly so. I have excellent hearing but you might not think so if you went to a party with me, I would have a hard time hearing what you were saying with so many other conversations and or music going on. Autistic people are for the most part rather concrete thinkers, they are very detail orientated. Autistic people vary greatly. Temple Grandin talks about words being a second language to her, and about thinking in pictures. I pretty much have to do everything in words, I am almost incapable of creating pictures in my mind. Its just easy to call all this diversity one or two labels because in reality we are all unique.


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