To many, autism is just a vague idea—one of a thousand disorders which affect “someone else’s child.” To many others, autism is the niece or nephew who can put together puzzles blindfolded or who knows the name of every rocket ever built; the neighbor’s kid who won’t look you in the eye and who never speaks to anyone; the schoolmate with no sense of fashion who sits in the back of history class and who never uses their “inside voice.” To still others, autism is a hushed conversation late at night, when the house is quiet and the sun long gone: “Have we failed as parents?” “Is it because we vaccinated him?” “Is it because we didn’t hold her enough as a baby?” “What did we do wrong?”   

To a select few, autism is an epidemic; a plague that has swept through the children of the nation and whose cure must be sought out with all due speed before yet another family is tainted with that disease which turns happy, cooing babies into noiseless alien creatures. That disorder which robs children of the ability to make friends, to show affection, to form meaningful connections of any kind. That thing which burdens parents the world over.

These people do not know what autism is.

When I was four-years old, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum. Though the diagnosis is now defunct, it would define my life for years to come. Growing up, I found it difficult to make friends. Often I was told I was rude or annoying when my failure to recognize social cues. I was also often overwhelmed by the touch of others, and when my hands and arms proved a more effective deterrent from unwanted touch than did my words, I became the child no mother wanted her child to associate with, for fear that my bad influence would rub off on them. I wore my diagnosis on my shoulder, the only explanation I had as to why I was different from other people. To me, autism was the part of me that made my life difficult, that made others dislike and even hate me. The part of me that made me feel that they were right to.

I did not know what autism is.

But now I do.

 From a scientific perspective, autism is simply a description for a particular kind of brain. An autistic brain has high levels of what is called synaptic connectivity; an abundance of biological wires and circuits that make life for autistic people a more intense experience than for those without autism. Each stimulus abounds with information for the brain to process, each touch is like fire, each sound a cacophony, each taste an onslaught. With time, the brain begins to adapt to this overabundance of stimulus, but this adaptation produces an individual who views the world in a unique way.

 Many of what are known as the “symptoms” of autism are in actuality characteristics of the autistic brain that do not meet societal expectations. Even very young children are expected to exhibit some form of social ability, to attempt or reciprocate communication on some basic level. However, when the brain is expending all of its energy on processing a mountain of sensory information, it has little time for mole hills such as social interaction. Thus, autistic children grow and develop in a different way from neurotypical children. This is not a bad thing. Viewing and experiencing the world in a unique way is not a sign of disability. Yes, some aspects of society are difficult for the autistic individual. I prefer the quiet of a corner of the dining hall rather than a space in the open, surrounded by noise. I enjoy watching a movie with friends, rather than going out for the night—the first time someone sees me at a College House party will be the day Hell freezes over. 

However, my preferences and quirks are not the sign of disability or disorder. There is nothing wrong with the way my brain works, nothing wrong with the brain that so many millions were born with. Those brains are just different. Those people are different. And different is not bad.

So what is autism?

Autism is an experience.