On Identifying as Autistic

by KLS

Not long ago, I was talking about being autistic with a woman who became angry that I was identifying with a medical label. She (a non-autistic) found this dehumanizing. I explained to her that some self-identifications, such as this one, can provide a helpful way of organizing a particular understanding of oneself and others. I argued that we (all of us) should be allowed to choose our self-identifications based on which ones seem most useful (and to provide a contrast I explained that I do not much identify with being a woman or a mother because I don’t find those identifications helpful or interesting, which further unsettled her).

Today, when watching fellow autistic John Elder Robison’s Switched On book talk with his Beth Israel Deaconess neurologist (via C-SPAN), I learned that some high IQ, high functioning autistics’ brains have measurably more plasticity than average. Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone said that this enables them to master new domains of knowledge so quickly and well that it is akin to a “savant” ability. I had to pause the program. For many years, I have tried to explain this quality of my mind, but did not have a conceptual basis or a language for it. I immediately recognized myself in what Robison and his doctor described. I am able to immerse myself in new fields of knowledge so rapidly and thoroughly that switching industries and editing in disparate disciplines has been relatively easy for me (with the only restrictions being mathematical and spatial reasoning, where my abilities are just average). Robison said that throughout his life, this made him feel like a fraud–that he was faking his moves into new industries (classic imposter syndrome). Actually, Dr. Pascual-Leone said, Robison’s ability to understand and master new domains on his own is evidence of his gift.

And this is why being able to identify as autistic is so important for those of us who do. Because we don’t come with an owner’s manual and because most other people we encounter do not operate in the same way, we need to have a way to achieve better self-understanding. This will, in part, be through a medical construct–because there is a biological basis for our developmental differences–but it goes beyond a medical construct in describing cognitive, psychological, and social differences that follow from but are not entirely determined by it.