Note: In this interview, we’re using the terms “Asperger’s”, “high functioning”, “low functioning”, and “spectrum” for convenience, but we know that some people prefer not to use these terms – for example, they may prefer “high/low support needs.” We definitely don’t mean any disrespect.
1. Could you tell us about how you found out you’re autistic and received your diagnosis?
I think it would have been around when I was 9 or 10. One of my primary school teachers let my mum know she thinks I have autism. Then my mum went and tried to get me diagnosed, and I got diagnosed with Asperger’s. Something that people don’t really diagnose people with anymore, because it’s all considered a spectrum now – yeah, so, high functioning.
2. What do you think of the terms high and low functioning?
With high and low functioning, that’s sort of how I see it. There’s going to be people who are autistic that a lot of people aren’t really going to notice that they have autism. People who are really perceptive, they might be able to notice. But what you’ll find is a lot of high-functioning autistic people, unless you know the signs of autism, a lot of neurotypical people might notice you’re a little bit different, but they won’t actually know that it’s autism, specifically.
If you get some people who are on the lower-functioning scale of things [with higher support needs], it’s a lot more difficult. It’s gonna be a lot more difficult for people like parents and caregivers and et cetera to deal with, you know. So, it’s very much like a spectrum.
Then there’s gonna be everyone in between, right? What I noticed as someone with high-functioning autism is you’ll get people who are very much high functioning and a lot of people won’t notice or suspect anything. But you’ll get people in a working capacity, but you can sort of tell a little bit easier. Then there’s people who are right on that borderline. They can still function well in society, but they’re kind of more on that low-functioning end of things, where it’s a lot more obvious.
I met someone who was particularly low functioning when I was in primary school. But most people I’ve met were either high functioning or up to that borderline of– It’s sort of like, if you’re high functioning, you’re probably going to be able to tell the people who are a little bit lower functioning, but I’m not necessarily sure if you’ll be able to tell upwards, you know what I mean? Because then it requires that sort of processing skill of body language. If you’re high functioning, you’ll be able to tell people who are lower functioning, but I don’t really think the other way around.
I sort of have noticed people who might be around the same functioning as me, but then I’ve noticed people who I could sort of tell had intricacies, and how they speak. Even things like how they walk is a little bit different, and how they present themselves, you can sort of tell.
I’ve never looked at it in a bad way, of course. But there’ll be people I’ve either gone to school with or worked with, and I’ve been able to tell without them telling me; I could tell they are on the spectrum. I don’t think any of those people were ever, like, looked down upon for having it. I’ve even met a lot of people that had autism that I knew they had autism, but either later on, they got diagnosed, or they never got diagnosed at all.
Sometimes you can just tell. I think maybe if you’re a high-functioning autist you can sort of tell ‘cause, like– A lot of people who have autism will sort of be aware and then they’ll look into it, and they’ll be able to focus on the little things that are autistic.
I’ve had friends where it’s like, “This guy’s definitely got autism,” but sometimes they get diagnosed, sometimes they don’t. Now, there’s definitely more people out there getting diagnosed. Or the amount of people born with autism is rising. That’s something that’s happening now. So, I think as time goes on, it’s going to be more normalised.
3. Which autistic traits do you relate to the most?
Just like special interests, really. My life has just been going from one special interest to the next. Or special interests changing over time. Even when I was really young, I remember something that my parents told me: That when I was, like, three years old, I could already differentiate between the different brands of cars. So, when I had the Hot Wheels, I knew which one was a Ford, which one was a Jeep.
Cars have been a long-time interest of mine. If someone points out a car to me, I’ll probably know what it’s called. And I’ll know most of how the car works, the drivetrain, all of this kind of thing.
But that’s not the only special interest. It’ll be like very, very specific kinds of music. It’s been as far as, like, double edge shavers and stuff, and computer mice, computer hardware. It’ll be not just music but mixing, mastering, all the gear to do with mixing and mastering. It won’t just be synthesisers; it’ll be synthesisers specifically from the 90s or 2000s.
And there’s just countless things like this. And I’ll be going from one to the next. Or there’ll be some that I’ll keep going with for a long time, but then there’ll be ones where I jump to and from different things. You know, even weightlifting. I think that’s how autistic people think; they want to get into something and learn all the little details about it.
Sometimes you’ll be wanting to make a decision about something you want to buy, or some decision about, what do you want to learn next? Or what do you want to focus on in your hobby? Because there’ll be many decisions you’ll make. And then you’ll get frustrated trying to make the correct one. I don’t know if this is specifically an autistic thing, but you’ll want to make that perfect decision. And you will look over each option a dozen times, and you’ll be split. And it’ll become frustrating.
It could be something like, I want to learn programming, which language do I want to learn? Or I’m a soccer player and I want to get the best pair of cleats. Maybe if you’re an artist it’ll be, I want to get into watercolour, what brand of watercolour brush should I buy? You know, those kinds of little things. People will look up and find out the specific information about what makes a watercolour good. There’ll be specific grades I’m assuming. And you’ll get into the really– Or specific palette of colours that you want, you know?
I’ve read online that people with Asperger’s and autism will have it to the point where they feel like they need to sort of plan out every conversation they have with people as if it’s like a game of battleships or chess. But it’s never actually been like that for me. I don’t remember the last time I’ve gone into a conversation and been like, “Okay, I’m gonna put a pawn on E4.” [laughs] I just go with the flow.
But I also realise there’s been a lot of times where I’ve talked to people, and then I start to go on a tangent or I start to go on a rant about a specific thing. And they’ll just sort of be sitting there, nodding their head. It wasn’t until I was on the other end of that that I became empathetic to those people. Because I didn’t realise there was a chance they were just sitting there and felt captive by me talking about whatever random shit that I was talking about.
See, now I’m very careful about that because I’ll go on, and then I’ll be like, okay, I need to actually talk in such a way they’ll understand it. But I need to make sure I’m not keeping this person in this conversation that they find really boring.
But it’s hard to read sometimes. And then, as someone with autism, you’re really getting into it. It might be about, you know, Gundam or something. And then they’ll sort of just be sitting there like, “Oh yeah. Crazy.” So, sometimes I’ll just say, “Look, I hope that rant was at least a bit interesting for you.” I’m very conscious about that; I don’t want to put anyone in that situation. That’s probably the biggest challenge I have.
Also, I’m not bad at reading people. But I’m not perfect at getting the subtle cues sometimes. As a person with Asperger’s, you’re going to find it hard to take small talk. That’s such a typical thing. A lot of people with Asperger’s, they don’t want to talk about the weather and shit. They want to talk about something they can really dig into.
Apart from that, sometimes when I’m out and it’s loud, and there’s a lot of shit going on, I find it hard to keep track of what’s going on. I’ve never had a breakdown, because I guess that’s high functioning. But I do notice shit’s going down and I start to get a little bit overwhelmed to the point where, you know, I want to go back home to my room and just chill. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing or an Asperger’s thing.
But I know there’s people who are, I guess, lower functioning that will have a full breakdown. That’s a real part of their day. Places like supermarkets, gyms, shopping malls are becoming louder and louder and louder. Some people just won’t be able to deal with that.
Interviewer: I just love the term “special interest.” It’s so cute.
It really encapsulates it, doesn’t it? They’re usually some shit that people aren’t really too bothered with. That’s where the special part comes into it.
Interviewer: And it’s special to them.
Something that I read online was that a lot of niche communities could not exist without autism. A lot of things that exist could not be what they are now without people who are autistic. If you look at things like electronic music, underground electronic music, specifically, lots of people have autism. If you’re listening to some really obscure stuff, there’s a very high chance that the guy making it has autism. Or the guys who listen to it, the guys who are DJing it, probably have autism. And I don’t even need to get into things like operating systems like Linux, FreeBSD.
4. Which autistic traits and challenges don’t you relate to?
Having to plan my communication with people. That’s one thing I see a lot of autistic people talking about, but I’ve never personally experienced before. Tics, as well. I don’t really fidget too much with stuff. I know some people really need to, when they’re uncomfortable, need to have a fidget toy to calm down.
Routines I never really had. I don’t think that I’ve followed routines more or less than your average neurotypical person. I’d even argue that a lot of neurotypical people have better routines than I do; I think I’m more or less no different from a neurotypical when it comes to routines.
5. Following on from the last question, what are some common beliefs or stereotypes about autistic people that you don’t think are necessarily true for all autistics (because it is such a diverse group)?
When you’re autistic, you can have any special interest. It doesn’t necessarily need to be computers and model trains and Gundam and stuff. It can literally be cars, horses. Maybe the “horse girl” stereotype might be autistic. That might be autism. That’s the thing, nobody would attribute it to that. And you’ll find people that really like certain things and are really, really knowledgeable about them. It might be shearing sheep or, you know, something that you won’t attribute to autistic people, but they will be autistic. And that’s their special interest, right?
Everywhere. There wouldn’t be a single place that wouldn’t have at least one autistic person that is an incredible subject matter expert on that thing. Social sciences as well – anything. Anything you can think of, there’ll be someone out there. I wouldn’t even be surprised if there’s [an autistic person] out there that studies facial expressions. I would not be surprised! There’s specifically some things that pretty much would not exist without autism.
Interviewer: And another thing is, I’ve heard this myth that autistic people don’t have empathy, for example.
I think that’s wrong. I think the problem is that autistic people sometimes can’t see that what they’ve said has affected someone. Not necessarily that they don’t feel bad for doing something. For me, for example, I’m high functioning, but I do feel like I have a strong sense of morality, and I have a strong sense of integrity. I don’t want to step on people’s toes for no reason – basic empathy stuff. I very much feel people’s emotions and stuff.
I think the main difference between neurotypicals and people who are autistic isn’t their amount of empathy, or lack thereof, but more so the ability to process the information that makes you feel empathy. If you put it in such a way that an autistic person can understand the shit that you put them through or something, they’ll feel empathy just the same as anyone else, in my opinion. It’s just a processing thing.
On the other hand, I don’t think that autism is an excuse for someone to be a dick to other people. Because, you know, you’re going to meet autistic people that are dickheads or assholes. And it’s happened to me before, and I don’t think it should be an excuse. I don’t think that integrity, morality, all of that, is separate from autism. Even if you’re autistic, and you cannot read people’s facial expressions, you can still be taught right or wrong. It’s up to the person with autism to accept that. You can still very much be a dick or a sociopath even if you’ve got autism.
Then, you’ll find some people with autism that are very empathetic. I don’t think that it’s really a factor. I’ve met a bit of both. I’ve met [autistic] people at my work that saw I was down and went out of their way to help me out. On the other hand, I went to uni and was partnered with a guy who had autism. And I got something wrong, and he just sat there, dumpstering me about one little problem I got wrong for an hour straight. And I’m just thinking in my head, like, you know, I get it, you’ve got autism like me, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to punch you right now. [laughs]
6. What do you find most challenging about being autistic?
Not being able to do the small talk thing, the neurotypical thing. I can communicate fairly well but the thing with neurotypical people is that they’re able to sense very– I’ll put it in a very funny way. Autistic people may know the most obscure, tiny things about their special interests; I find that neurotypical people can read people like autistic people can do model train sets. I think that’s their superpower. They’re able to sense people’s vibes and what people are thinking, what they might be feeling. How they might be able to say something that gets what they want out of somebody. How to play, what I would consider, mind games. Back and forth, they have this, like, chess – They have this game, right.
Interviewer: Yeah, I hate it.
Autistic people, we don’t really play games like that. We’re very straight up. When we want to say or communicate something, we mean it. I’m not just ones and zeros, but there are times when I don’t want to say something ‘cause I know it will hurt them. But I’m not actively trying to play games. I just say things as they are. Some people say autistic people just say things even if it hurts people, but, obviously, I know if something’s gonna hurt somebody, so I don’t say it. My mind’s fairly clean – I’m not really thinking bad in the first place.
There’s no real: “I’m thinking about saying something, and they’ll know I’m thinking you’re going to say something in three, three, you know, back and forths.” I think that’s why a lot of autistic people say it’s like a chess game. I’m just who I am, unapologetically. Maybe that’s got to do with confidence. Or anxiety. They’re more anxious than I am.
I’d sort of like to be able to resonate with neurotypicals a bit better. And be able to talk to them on equal terms about normal shit, and sense their vibe a bit better. But it’s also good to be autistic, because you’re always, unapologetically, who you are. Usually, autistic people are not trying to fit in with a trend or society. They’re just doing their thing, and I think that’s really good. That’s also very admirable.
Interviewer: I think that some people think I might be on the spectrum because I fit a lot of those stereotypical female autistic traits, superficially. Kind of, their assumptions about what a female with autism looks like. One reason I think I’m not autistic is that I’m very good at – probably better than most neurotypicals – reading between the lines, and knowing what people mean. Their word choice, their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice. I pick up on things they don’t even realise – microexpressions. That kind of stuff seems to be a bit more challenging for people with autism.
Something interesting a friend of mine said to me was, “You’re very perceptive, you know.” I don’t think I’m more perceptive than other people. But autistic people have the ability to read things if they’ve been burned by them enough – like anyone, really. I can pick up on people who are narcissistic, for example. I find it easy to pick up, very, very quickly, because I know the signs. I’ve read about it, and I can read what people are saying, and I can tell based on how hard they come onto you and how confident they are.
She told me, “You’re really perceptive,” because I talked about a situation where my car’s battery wasn’t working. Then I saw the guy, who was in the RAA [roadside assistance], telling me, “You’re going to have to get a new battery,” but then I saw a look on his face, and he was sort of smirking. I could sense something was off, like he was trying to sell me this but really my battery was fine. That’s why I was like, nah.
That’s surprising. ‘Cause in your normal literature they might be like, it would be impossible for someone with autism to pick that up. Depending on your upbringing and the situations you’ve been through – ‘cause I have high-functioning autism, I can’t speak about lower functioning – autistic people, being very detail oriented, if they’ve been burned by certain people or things, they can learn about those things and be sort of vigilant about it. It can be learned.
I’m very strong at sensing when someone’s manipulative or someone’s gonna burn me, ‘cause I’ve been in situations like that, and I’ve learned to avoid it. People have the ability to learn that kind of stuff if they have autism. I don’t see it like, autistic people are like a brick wall and won’t be able to pick up any small signs.
Like me, there are going to be autistic people who can read people. One of the guys who could tell I was upset, I could tell he was one of the guys with autism – I could sense that he had it. Obviously, I’m not a psychologist, I can’t diagnose the guy. He was, in my opinion, of the empathetic type. Maybe he puts more weight on being able to feel what other people are feeling. A lot of people are going to struggle with [picking up on stuff], but it’s definitely not black and white. Neurotypical people might not see the signs of narcissism as well as I would.
There’s gonna be autistic people who cannot pick up on anything, who can pick up on certain things, who are empathetic, very empathetic, and not empathetic. All things equal, neurotypicals are going to be picking up on things easier. So, it really depends.
7. What do you love the most about being autistic?
I just love being able to find that new special interest and get super deep into it, learn different things, and be energised by that. I don’t get bored too much; I’ve always got something to do. If I’m ever bored, I can always look for something new to enthuse about. A lot of autistic people are just really happy to enthuse about their hobbies, and they’re not really feeling like they gotta go out and do a lot more to be happy.
I don’t really need anything special, as long as I can keep learning about my hobbies. I don’t feel sad that I don’t have the Lamborghini – or be rich or whatever. As long as I’m able to be comfortable and learn about what I like, you know.
What I like about being autistic is that I find autistic people are very individualistic, and very not affected by social norms, affected by keeping up with other people, trying to compete with other people. Jane has a new car, so I need to get a new car. Office politics and things like that. We’re just in our own little world; we’re not worried about that kind of thing most of the time – I can’t say everyone’s like that. If you’re in an IT office, you’re autistic, the neurotypicals will be like, “I can’t believe Scott said we need to organise the room in this way. It’s just complete bullshit. We need to have a meeting at 4:30 to do this.” Don’t give a shit. Literally, just looking up IBM Db2 on YouTube, learning about joining tables or something.
This is our thing, this is what we’re talking about. I kind of like that though. It’s a very simple way of living. The kinds of things neurotypicals get pressured to succeed at in life, and make heaps of money, and be able to have social status. I can’t speak for all neurotypical people, but that’s the general way. I guess neurotypical people are more collective. More collectivism going on there. Feeling like you gotta chase after what everyone else is chasing after. Autistic people don’t feel like they have to chase after anything but what they want, as long as they’re not stepping on anybody’s toes. That’s what I like and appreciate about autistic people.
I see my friends really getting influenced by grind culture: I’m turning 30 soon, I should really get all my pebbles in a pile. I should have a house, a car, I should do this and that. I should try to become a “high-value man” and all this. And for me, I couldn’t give one fuck. All I want is to learn about what I want to learn about. And that’s the difference. I can’t say that all autistic people are like this. I mean, maybe some autistic people are autistic about that. Maybe there are some autistic grinders out there. I see a lot of autistic people just having their comfortable sort of– “I’m a deep house DJ in Chicago and I’m just spinning records, and that’s my life, and I enjoy it.”
Interviewer: I appreciate that about autistic people too. And, as you were saying before, I truly believe that the world would be a worse place without autistic people. Because of the amount that they’ve contributed.
The world runs on computers that normal people do not use. What was it, 93% or 94% of servers now run on Linux. Neurotypicals don’t use Linux. So, there’s gotta be people who learn those systems. Not even that – mainframe. It’s sort of like autistic people feed each other. We are really into very, very deep detail. And we learn from those people.
Monique Moate is a writer, editor, wife, cat mum, and night owl who enjoys writing about a wide range of topics. She cares about mental health awareness and destigmatisation.