Recently while we were out on a run, Harrison asked me, “Hey, what kind of autism do I have?”
I tend to zero in on questions like this as I find his developing self-awareness and the perception of his own neurodiversity fascinating. It was like a few months ago when he asked, “At what age is autism put into the brain?” (Think about that one.)
I was pretty sure what he meant by asking what kind of autism he has, but just to be sure I quizzed him about what he meant by that. He clarified by asking if his autism is mild, moderate or severe.
I then explained as best as I could that it’s really not that simple. While we tend to think of the autism spectrum as a linear shaded bar chart with mild on one end, moderate in the middle, and severe on the other end, that’s a really overly simplistic view.
Truly the autism spectrum is not linear but more accurately depicted as circular. On the outside of this circle are certain characteristics like language and motor skills, sensory perception, and executive function. Social skills and awareness are other variables with autistic people. All people are more or less functional in each of these traits. The best diagram I’ve seen is cartoonist Rebecca Burgess’ illustration.
And here’s the really complicated part — all of these traits affect each other and are dynamic, changing from moment to moment.
So I explained to Harrison that in some ways and at some times he can be mildly autistic and at some times and in some situations he can seem severely autistic. For example, his executive cognitive function, which governs impulse control, sometimes is severely lacking.
More complex, and difficult to understand, is how deficits in one area can produce deficits in others short-term. For example, impulse control issues that lead to a tantrum can directly affect motor skills. A good example of this occurred this past weekend when we participated in a two-part photo shoot for a magazine cover to accompany an article I’ve written about his participation in cross-country and track.
The first sequence of photos was an evening shoot. Harrison was thrilled to participate, was joyful and ran beautifully for the photographer, back and forth with great form for about an hour.
He set his alarm for the next morning’s session but when it went off it was louder than he expected (perception) and this startled him (sensory) which sparked an epic tantrum (executive function and impulse control) which ultimately resulted in poor running form for the photo shoot (motor skills).
That’s the type of autism Harrison had that morning. A totally different “spectrum” from what he and I experienced the previous evening.