Autism is a ‘spectrum disorder.’ People often describe autistic people as being ‘on the spectrum.’ A lot of neurotypical people latch on to the concept of a spectrum as it feels familiar. These people think this gives them a better understanding about autism. This familiarity is based on a misconception about what we mean when use the word ‘spectrum’ in describing autism. The misunderstandings that come from an inaccurate concept of ‘spectrum’ result in potentially harmful ideas. Particularly harmful is the idea that some autistic people are more or less autistic than others.
What Do We Mean by Spectrum?
Part of the problem is the word itself. If one consults the Oxford English Dictionary one discovers that most definitions of spectrum refer to the electromagnetic spectrum; or to the idea of a continuum lying between two points. The idea that spectrum could refer to a wide range of possibilities without reference to two end points is almost an afterthought.
It is thus unsurprising that the word spectrum often conjures up a drawing such as this, representing the electromagnetic spectrum.
Here we have a line going from left (low frequency) to right (high frequency). This presentation is arbitrary. One could sort it from left (short wavelength) to right (long wavelength) as frequency and wavelength have an inverse relationship. As frequency increases wavelength get shorter. Physicists generally resolve this ambiguity by using a measure of energy decreasing as you go from left to right. Most people have an intuitive grasp of the idea that blue is ‘cool’ and red is ‘hot.’ It turns out that red wavelengths carry more energy than blue ones.
This two-dimensional understanding of spectrums leads one into thinking that the autism spectrum must surely lie on a similar line. Low functioning autistics on one end, and high-functioning autistics on the other. Many people envision the autism spectrum, similar to the spectrum of visible light, as lying within a broader scale which places neurotypical people at an even higher level than the most high-functioning autistics. This common formulation is deeply problematic and harmful. The idea that neurotypical and autistic might be different regions of the same spectrum seems sensible. The presumption that all members of either group maintain a position of inferiority or superiority relative to all members of the other group is deeply wrong and encourages anti-autistic biases.
Even if we were to add just one additional dimension, ideas such as ‘more’ and ‘less’ quickly become complicated. If you are standing on the surface of the earth, it feels natural to think of one dimension being height, one being distance, and one being whether something is more towards our left or right. The problem is that one person’s left/right could be another person’s in-front/behind. The meaning of the position changes as either the observer or the object moves. Out in space even ‘up’ and ‘down’ become a matter of how you look at them.
Here are two pictures of exactly the same scene from two different perspectives. Which balls are ‘above’ and which ‘below?’ Your best answer is probably ‘it depends.’ So even if Autism were just three-dimensional, it would be really hard to talk about one person having a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ version. Imagine that two axes are ‘intelligence’ and ‘verbal ability.’ Is it better to be very intelligent with very little verbal ability? Or not very intelligent with exceptional verbal ability? Now throw in a third dimension of sensory processing issues. What if you are verbal and intelligent but can easily be driven into sensory overload by loud noises?
To further complicate matters, autism is N-dimensional, which means that we know there are a lot of dimensions, but we don’t know how many. Human beings have no way of visualising the space in which each point lives. We definitely don’t have a way of assigning some neat separation into levels of functioning.
We could define strata of autism, separating people out based on how much support they need. I don’t think many autistic people equate ‘needing more support’ with ‘being more autistic.’ The level of support that one requires is a function of one’s level of difficulty with meeting the expectations of a predominantly neurotypical world. This says more about the constraints of the world than it does about autistic people.
Where The Neurotypicals Roam
I’m not sure that this is correct, but I like to think that the situation is something like this picture. All of the neurotypical people fall into a range within our N-Dimensional space. This is denoted with the larger sphere in the middle. Within this small range lie a large number of neurotypical people. While the brains of neurotypical people can vary, the magnitude of those variations is bounded and small. Autistic people, by definition, are outside of neurotypical space in a much larger space. There are fewer autistic people in a very large space. It is improbable that any two autistic people have brains at exactly the same point in this space.
This is why knowing one autistic person just means that you know one autistic person.