Autism Spectrum: A basic colour theory

The visible spectrum of light ranges from around 380 to 740 nanometres, from violet to red.

Welcome to my blog! I’ve created this blog – 1) to untangle my own thoughts 2) to help some non-autistic friends understand me better, 3) to help spread awareness and acceptance, 4) to write more in English, and 5) hoping that some people might recognise themselves in it and feel heard, entertained, or at least find a reason to put off that thing they were supposed to do for another 5 minutes.

Before I start, I would like to help clarify some basics, especially for people who want to learn more about autism. If that’s not the case for you, just skip straight to the fun part. I revised this post 16 times before I published it, which goes to show that it isn’t easy for me to put into words how I understand autism – if you have any suggestions for edit number 17, please let me know in the comment section.

The autism spectrum gets its name from the light spectrum because autism comes in many colours – and because everybody knows autistics love a good metaphor. As our understanding of autism and neurodiversity evolve, our metaphors change, so we might need to come up with a new image at some point in the future (I’m thinking of something more web-like maybe?). But looking at it as a spectrum can be useful, so let’s stick with it for now.  A lot of people confuse the spectrum itself with a gradient from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’ autism, from ‘high-’ to ‘low-functioning’. But green isn’t more severely red than orange, orange isn’t a mild blue –  they’re just different colours, yet on a continuum and connected with each other. Check out this comprehensive post to learn more about the difference or check out this comic strip if you like visuals.

Some common autistic colours (traits) involve social interactions, literal thinking and directness, black-and-white thinking, special interests, sensory processing and motor skills, rigid routines, and repetitive behaviour. Autistic people possess a spectrum of traits which can each be more or less distinct, more or less visible, and more or less beneficial or hindering in a world that wasn’t designed with autistic people in mind – and which can make us different, not less.

From spectrum to gradient: Masking

Pulling the saturation slider to the left to hide your autistic colours

But why is the blog called ‘Invisible Spectrum’? The thing is, people can’t usually see my autistic colours. Partly, because some of my traits aren’t as distinct, and partly, because all traits come in hundreds of shades and don’t always look alike. But mostly, because I mask. Masking means hiding. Like using photo editing software and dragging the saturation slider all the way left, toning down your bright reds and blues until you blend in with the generally accepted grey. It’s not only about how ‘severely affected’ or ‘high-functioning’ a person is – it’s often about how they present themselves, which can lead people to say hurtful things like ‘You don’t look autistic’. If you don’t understand why this is hurtful, watch this video.

Some people are so good at hiding their identities that they even manage to fool themselves. Especially women. We are taught from a young age to get rid of our idiosyncrasies, ‘unseemly’ passions and ‘quirks’, or at least not to show them in public. I was in my teens when I first heard of Asperger Syndrome, and I couldn’t really see myself in most of the diagnostic criteria. By then, I’d already smoothened out a great deal of my repetitive behaviour, literal thinking, and social awkwardness and I’d replaced dinosaurs and astronomy with poetry and art as special interests. I became obsessed with learning everything there is to know about human nature. Humans became my obsession. Surely, an autistic person wouldn’t behave like that. Turns out, an autistic girl would behave exactly like that. I only discovered this years later at the age of 30, when I came across this video by the renowned psychologist Tony Attwood. And it just clicked with me. Naturally, I gobbled up everything I could find about autism. I’d spent years trying to perfect my social skills, my facial expressions, my ‘ah’s and ‘oh’s to show interest, sympathy and surprise, my eye contact, paying (back) compliments, building common ground, not criticising anyone too directly. Partly, because I simply assumed that this was just the way people learnt how to ‘human’, partly, because I didn’t want to be bullied and ostracised any longer. But ever since I learnt that I wasn’t defective, just different, I’ve been questioning whether I’ve been unconsciously overdoing it with the masking. Living in a complex and densely-populated society means that everybody has to put on a mask sometimes, but I do think that it’s important to find the right balance. If you lay it on thick, the mask will become brittle, all the little cracks will become visible, one way or another. This blog is part of my personal journey to coming to terms with and embracing my sometimes awesome, sometimes agonising traits, making them more visible, and showing my true face underneath the mask.

In my next post, I’m going to explore what some of my autistic colours look like in everyday life.

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