Know Your Own Autisms

by William Stillman

Ever awaken in the middle of the night and realize your arm is “asleep” from the elbow down? It is a common situation experienced by nearly everyone at one time or another. As much as your brain is willing that arm to budge, it’s deadened to the signals or impulses your brain is sending it—a neurological impotence, if you will. How many of you have actually had to physically move the asleep arm with your other hand in order to free up circulation and regain its use?

If that same paralysis harbored in more than one limb, or your voice box, you might experience autistic-like symptoms, or something akin to autism’s possible “cousins” such as Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia, Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, ADD, ADHD, OCD, sensory integration disorder and a realm of other human experiences on the neurological continuum.

You have experienced additional autisms if you’ve:
»Driven from Point A to Point B, but upon arriving at Point B, you have no recollection of the drive.
»Begun driving from Point A with Point B as your final destination but intending to make a special stop to pick up something or someone—and you end up driving your regular route, having forgotten to make the detour.
»Been driving along, hear a song you like, and you intend to listen all the way through, but soon realize your mind has wandered and you haven’t heard a word of it.
»Been driving along and you hear a song you haven’t heard since high school—and what happens? Experiencing the song immediately conjures memories of that era in your life. We create strong associative connections in the same way with scents and smells (of food, cologne or perfume or tobacco) that we link in memory to certain people and places, as well as to life-defining events such as an accident, a birth or death or a disaster of some sort (you could probably relate details about where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001).
»Happened upon someone familiar while out shopping, but seeing her out of the context in which you know her somehow prevents you from recollecting her name on the spot (although it may come to you after you’ve had sufficient process time).
»Had to retrace your steps physically in order to remember something, or thought you’d misplaced something (a pair of scissors or your eyeglasses, perhaps) and then suddenly realized you’d been holding it the whole time you were searching for it.
»Lost track of time or self-awareness (no need to eat or use the bathroom) while immersed in an activity for which you hold great passion (painting, dancing, gardening, watching a film or the like).
»Had a case of the giggles so severe that you could not regain your composure until the experience ran its course.
»Been so angry, or afraid, that words escaped you in the moment.
»Absolutely had to scratch an itch, and could not focus on anything else until you were so relieved.
»Been so overcome with worry and anxiety that you couldn’t sleep, or were restless, tossing and turning all night.
»Calmed your anxiety by biting your nails, tapping a pen, shaking your leg, rocking yourself, twirling strands of your hair or toying with a piece of jewelry or talking or humming to yourself.
»Created a new pain, by biting your lip or chewing the inside of your cheek, for instance, in order to take your attention away from a stronger, involuntary pain.
»Experienced uncontrollable shivers so intensely that your teeth chattered involuntarily.
»Struggled to decipher the meaning of certain words in the appropriate context, such as in the sentence, “she shed a tear over the tear in her new dress.”
»Had to ask someone to slow down or repeat the name or phone number you’re trying to transcribe.
»Been unable to hear the TV reporter because you were focusing on reading the news ticker at the bottom of the screen.
»Organized your items in your kitchen cupboards, bathroom, work space, or clothes closet in alphabetical order (canned goods with labels facing out), by color coordination or at right angles.
»Come in from frigid weather and found your hands so numb with cold you could not use them to hold an eating utensil, write longhand or unbutton your coat.
»Had a song in your head that absolutely would not go away! It may have been The Star-Spangled Banner, a commercial jingle or a Barry Manilow tune. You may even have awakened in the middle of the night hearing the song you cannot seem to banish. Imagine how it would feel if that experience of being stuck with the song in your head (which precludes your thought processes) transferred throughout your body, or lodged in your throat and hindered your vocalizations?

These common experiences – brain fades or instances in which the body vetoes brain signals – affect us all, making us kindred in our humanity. But if you did them with any degree of regularity, you’d be eligible for an autism diagnosis! The next time someone suggests your child’s hand flapping or finger flicking is maladaptive, gently remind them that they do it too; it looks just like the times they sit and shake a leg or tap a pen!

Excerpted from Empowered Autism Parenting by William Stillman. Copyright © 2009 by William Stillman. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)

William Stillman is a self-advocate with Asperger’s Syndrome and an award-winning author of numerous autism and related books.
His Web site is