The Basics: What Is Autism?

Purple and blue box which reads "The Basics: What Is Autism?"

Welcome to The Basics, where I give an overview of a topic that I talk about a lot. This time, already more than a week late for the start of Autism Acceptance Month, I’m here to give an overview about autism. 

I talk about a lot of complex connections between autism and kink, autism and sex, autism and mental health, etc etc. I never want to condescend readers who are already immersed in the discourse, so I usually skip the bit where I explain what autism is and how it affects a person’s life. But there’s no shame in being unaware of exactly what autism is or what it’s like to live with – nobody is born knowing anything and a lot of conversations about it, like with most things, assume a level of knowledge that not everybody is going to have. If you don’t mind that this is a sex blog, this post will hopefully constitute a useful primer that you can send to your loved ones instead of trying to explain it all yourself.

Autism, originally named “autistic psychopathy” because psychiatric medicine was Like That, is a neurodevelopmental condition (that is, it affects the development of the brain), and some autistic people (including myself) regard it as a disability. (We sometimes refer to autism as a “neurotype” to indicate that it is not a disease or ailment but rather a valid way for a brain to be arranged. However, many autistic people express pride in their different neurotype, or neurodivergence, whilst still feeling like being autistic in a world built for allistic (non-autistic) people is disabling for them.) This of course means that autistic people are at risk of ableism perpetuated by individuals, as well as by organisations like Autism Speaks, which most autistic people hate for their emphasis on a cure, their advocacy for unethical practices including ABA, their puzzle piece imagery that suggests we’re incomplete people, and/or for the fact that only a fraction of the money they pull in is spent on helping autistic people in any tangible way (here’s a PDF from ASAN with more info). Because autism affects the brain, it expresses itself in a huge variety of ways, but some common ones can include hyper- or hyposensitivity of one or more of the senses, periods of intense hyperfocus on a singular topic or task, difficulty learning and applying social rules, and difficulty with interoception (the perception of one’s own body including hunger, thirst, etc). My favourite quote on this topic comes from Tony Attwood: “If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum,” i.e. autistic people are just as different from one another as allistic people are from one another. 

One thing that often comes up when autistic people talk about their experiences is the fact that they only represent, well, autistic people who can talk. Some autistic people never talk in English words at all, and some (like me) can talk your ear off until they’re overwhelmed, distressed, tired, etc, at which point they lose the use of most or all of their vocabulary. Some autistic people will find use in augmented communication devices that can say particular words or phrases for them, while others use sign language, write things down, or use a combination of different methods of communication. It’s true that I don’t know what it’s like to be an entirely nonspeaking autistic person, but I do know that nonspeaking =/= non-communicative. Some autistic people struggle to read tone, facial expressions, body language etc, but that doesn’t mean that these aren’t ways for an autistic person to communicate. I typically work on the assumption that all people have something of value to say, no matter how they say it, and that it’s worth trying to perceive the atypical, nonverbal ways a person might communicate.

As a linguistics graduate I also tend to assume that language is extremely important in most areas of human existence, but I’m confident in saying that it’s especially important when discussing disability, just as it is with other marginalised identities and groups. You might see a lot of autistic people talk about a preference for identity-first language, as opposed to person-first language. Person-first language refers to “people with autism”, while identity-first language refers to “autistic people”. Many autistic people, including myself, prefer the latter, as they feel that the former (often championed more passionately by allistic people than autistic people) linguistically removes their autism from them, positioning it the way we would a diagnosis of illness rather than neurodivergence, and implying that personhood and autism are at odds with one another. That said, we have the right to decide which language we identify with, and if someone tells you that they prefer to be called a “person with autism”, you should definitely listen to them. Also, given Hans Asperger’s relationship to eugenics as well as some people’s opinion that Aspergers Syndrome is essentially autism, but in a way that’s useful to capitalism, you shouldn’t apply the labels of Aspie or Aspergers to someone else unless that’s the language they use to describe themselves.

Since autism is technically a developmental disability, I once found myself punching one of my Year 7 classmates for using the word “retard”, which I think most people know is an ableist slur. Except I wasn’t defending my own autism; it would take 6 years after my younger sibling’s diagnosis for me to get mine, at the age of 14. There were a lot of reasons for this, but one of them was my assigned-female status that encouraged me to mask a lot of my difficulties and discouraged the adults around me from labelling them as autism. It is well-known that diagnostic criteria are usually sculpted according to the presentation of a condition in your average white male, meaning that many assigned-female autistic people are diagnosed late or never, as are autistic people of colour and autistic people with one or more additional condition. Autism is not a condition which significantly warps your relationship to reality, so you will find that a lot of autistic people (especially online) are self-diagnosed using the plethora of resources that are out there, and formally-diagnosed autistic people welcome them with open arms (and if they don’t, they suck and you should unfollow them), especially given the inaccessibility of a formal diagnosis if you aren’t a cookie-cutter white guy (and sometimes even if you are). 

Autism is often diagnosed in children, in part because they have not yet learned the bundle of masking techniques that make it harder to spot autism in adults, and in part because the diagnostic criteria were originally written based on only child subjects. However, because it’s how your brain is built, it’s a lifelong condition that affects adults as much as it does children, and autistic adults are out there in your communities, hopefully living fulfilling and safe lives. I say this because people often forget autistic adults in their zeal for helping autistic kids, when in reality autism can feel more disabling in adulthood because of the added pressures of employment, housing, etc. Upsettingly, this focus on kids still doesn’t result in them receiving appropriate resources. If you can deal with ableism and child abuse then I strongly encourage you to investigate the #StopTheShock movement, as well as to research the harms of ABA, or Applied Behaviour Analysis; both these things indicate a desire to remove a child’s autism, or at least make it less visible to surrounding adults, rather than increasing their quality of life and equipping them with skills that will make life as an autistic adult easier. Resources for autistic people in general are either non-existent or wildly condescending, which is one of the reasons so many of us are being shouty on the internet, and resources are even more sparse for adults than they are for kids. There are disproportionately more “autism-friendly” screenings of children’s movies than there are of teen or grown-up movies, and autism-friendliness seems to mean little more than “you can get out of your seat and the volume isn’t as aggressive” in most of these settings. Again, autistic people are as different from one another as allistic people are, so trying to make any venue or event “autism-friendly” sounds like something of a fool’s errand to me. (I need audio to either be nonexistent or painfully loud, for example, and dimmed lights make my head hurt because visual processing is not my forte even in regular lighting. This makes so-called “autism-friendly” screenings distinctly Morgan-unfriendly, but I’m glad that some people get benefit from them and I hope we can build on the model to allow even more autistic people, kids and adults, to enjoy cinema.)

There is a lot more to be said about autism and the amazing autistic people educating others than I can fit into a single blog post, but the key points are:

  • Autism is a brain difference that manifests differently in everyone
  • It affects sensory perception, social interaction and attention/inattention, among other things
  • It is a lifelong condition which many consider a disability, especially in a world not built for us
  • Most, but not all, autistic people seem to prefer identity-first language (“autistic person”)
  • If you say “retard” in front of me, in Year 7 or now, I will hit you
  • Autistic girls, people or colour and adults are underdiagnosed, but this doesn’t actually make them any less likely to be autistic
  • I personally stand strongly in favour of self-diagnosis for autism
  • Autism-friendly cinema screenings and shopping hours annoy me an unreasonable amount due to the aforementioned differences between autistic people’s needs
  • There are many, many autistic creators and educators whose voices are valid, valuable and worth your time to check out! I can’t link all of them, but here are a few:

 

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see y’all soon!

Splitting in BPD (Or: A Guide To Loving Me When I Hate Your Guts)

Allow me to define “splitting”. It’s a behaviour often found in individuals with BPD, characterised by suddenly and intensely wanting or needing to detach from someone to whom you were previously attached. I can only compare it to those mad thoughts you have about going to live in some nearby woods when you’re 14 and arguing with your mum about your school uniform, but amplified to be inescapable, all of that adolescent rage attached to it alongside fear, hurt, revulsion, heartbreak and every other feeling you could attribute to a trauma response. It’s the brain’s way of protecting you from more unhealthy attachments, so it happens in response to a stimulus of some sort – but one of the cornerstones of BPD is hypersensitivity, so the stimulus that prompts us to split might not actually be as dangerous as it feels. Whether it’s a punch to the face or an ignored text message, it feels intensely dangerous, so much so that my brain then takes action, working to replace any fondness with anger or fear by creatively reinterpreting real-world evidence until it fits with the all-or-nothing, “this person is dead to me” narrative.

The first thing that you need to know about splitting is that it hurts me more than it hurts you. You will probably feel wounded, rejected, anxious, frustrated, and it will suck, but I am also having all of those emotions in BPD form, i.e. with the intensity of a thousand suns. I don’t just put you out of my mind entirely when I split on you; I agonise over it. My thumb hovers over block buttons until the muscles in my hand cramp whilst I try to weigh up how reasonable I’m being. I type and delete messages I will never send about what’s hurting me and what I need. Sometimes, I act like a dick, and I know as I’m doing it that I’m being dickish, but it feels like the only safe thing to do. My deep, reptile-brain impulse is to destroy the relationship beyond repair so that there’s never any danger of more hurt, and I spend hours with my stomach in knots, arguing with myself about how I can’t have normal human relationships and how selfish moving to the woods might actually be. I can identify when I’m splitting (though I couldn’t as a furious 14-year-old) but I don’t split for no reason. I can’t automatically reconnect with reality when my brain is twisting things, blowing them out of proportion and shoving them through traumatised lenses, but I can try and conduct myself in a way that Connected-to-Reality Morgan won’t deeply regret. This mostly involves distancing myself, not in any embarrassing noticeable ways like hitting that block button but just reaching out less, trying not to give my BPD any new ammo with which it can maintain the split. At this point, frustrating though it is, all you can do is leave me to my space and my thoughts. 

This brings me onto the second thing you need to know about splitting: unsplitting is hard work. Fighting my impulse to run is hard enough, but unsplitting requires you to walk directly towards the scary thing. There’s a principle in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) called “Opposite Action”, where you identify an irrational feeling or impulse and you act in the exact opposite way that your impulse wants you to. In splitting, for me, this looks like sending a message after a long period of quiet, trying to make plans or being openly affectionate towards you again. They are small acts that are too terrifying to commit whilst sober a lot of the time, so Stoned or Drunk Morgan picks up the slack while their fear and hurt are somewhat numbed. This opposite action can only happen, though, once I’ve identified why I’m splitting and whether this person is actually dangerous. The obvious piece of advice here, then, is to continually prove through your actions that you are not a danger to me. The other piece of advice I would like to give is that if you think I’m doing Opposite Action, or if I’ve been quiet for a while, or in general if you don’t know where you stand with me, just respond with enthusiasm. Make it clear that you’re glad to hear from me. Essentially, reward me for doing the hard scary thing, and leave the ball in my court when it comes to beginning a discussion about the splitting itself, because I’m probably too scared for that in this early stage of unsplitting.

Here is the third thing about splitting: it’s not about you. It’s really, really not. My brain, with its rigid little boxes, has tried to file you in the same cabinet as some other people who did some other things. If you get busy and don’t respond to my inane messages about memes and movies, my brain tries to put you into a cabinet with other people who stopped messaging me abruptly, which includes people who did that exact thing in order to manipulate me. If you said something on a rainy Monday morning which came off as irritable, my brain tries to put you into the same filing cabinet as the man who shoved me towards the top of the staircase when I was 15, because in that situation, irritability preceded abuse. Those filing cabinets are alarmed, and they were like that before your files showed up. I’m really stretching the filing metaphor here, but I want you to know that the majority of the time, a split is a function of my brain, not of our relationship – it’s usually only minimally connected to your behaviour, and has much more to do with the behaviour of cunts you’ve never even met. All I can say is try – and I know it’s fucking hard – not to take it personally when my brain links you to evil bastards and floods me with fear. If you do take it personally, mid-split or mid-unsplit is maybe not the most constructive time to ask me for reassurance, but if you understand splitting (due to blog posts like these), you have the opportunity and the vocabulary to talk to other loved ones about what’s going on with us, so you can at least process it a little before you and I start to discuss it.

The fourth thing, for everyone to know about splitting, is: it passes. It’s hard work, and sometimes it’s not worth it. I split on celebrities after one transphobic joke and I don’t care enough about them to work through all my DBT techniques in order to forgive them and move on. I split on people who, with distance, I end up seeing are legitimately dangerous. But I also split on people who are patient and loving towards me, who accept that sometimes I need space and sometimes I need attention and sometimes I need help figuring out which one I need. I split on people who are beloved by my support network and said support network helps me to unsplit, safe in the knowledge that this time, it’s definitely just my BPD and not a real threat to my wellbeing. I split on people regularly, in smaller ways and bigger ones, but I conquer it when I realise it’s worth conquering. My brain has this extremely strong mechanism by which to keep me safe, but I’m stronger even than that, because I have learned and am learning how to shut the filing cabinets and say hi. The fact that people with BPD have relationships like the ones I now have, characterised by love and mutual support and trust, is a testament to the ferocity with which we fight, every day, to be good people despite our pain. And again, let me reiterate, splitting is painful, but us people with BPD know that, and knowingly take on that risk when they form and keep relationships, every single day. Therefore, my final piece of advice is to remember that people with BPD are working hard to stay in your life, on purpose, every day, because we have decided that you’re worth it. Remember that we’re people, and we’re often great people, and for that reason alone we’re worth the hard work, too.

A Sex-Repulsed Sex Blogger

Morgan’s vulva with an “out of order” sticker super-imposed upon it

Content note: this post refers to both self-harm and sexual abuse, but doesn’t go into excruciating detail about either, and of course deals with being sex-repulsed as a result of sexual trauma. If that’s gonna be hard for you, give today’s post a miss – as always, your wellbeing comes first! 💙


I don’t exactly keep it a secret that I’ve experienced sexual abuse. There’s no shame in having been subjected to that, and I try to be vocal about the importance of consent and the devastating effects its absence can have. I talk about struggling to masturbate and about PTSD symptoms like anxiety, hypervigilance and self-hatred, both on and offline. But one thing I feel vulnerable and frightened to post about is the sex repulsion that so often accompanies sexual abuse.

Among my friends, I am the sex nerd. I am known for loving sex – having it, learning about it, celebrating its importance and beauty. I started a sex blog because I love to think about and write about sex. The fact that I sometimes experience severe sex repulsion is not exactly in line with this branding; even though “sex-positive” and “sex-repulsed” don’t have to be mutually exclusive, it feels incongruent and, frankly, embarrassing. My personal branding aside, I’m a human adult in 2021 and to admit that there are times I find even hints of sexual activity decidedly icky kind of makes me cringe. I’m also worried about lending credence to the perception of all promiscuous people as traumatised individuals who secretly hate sex, and themselves for having it, because there are people who have a lot of sex simply because they really like it. Typically, I am one of those people.

Except when I’m not.

There is nothing about experiencing trauma-related sex repulsion that makes you less sex positive. Our brains are great at finding and remembering patterns; the traumatised brain will link various sensory experiences to memories of abuse, so that the same suffering can be avoided in the future. Fear of, or being grossed out by, sex in response to trauma is common and it’s your brain trying to keep you safe, regardless of your values regarding sexual freedom that exist separately from all that. Going through this doesn’t mean you’re weak and it doesn’t mean you’re permanently doomed to be afraid of sex, either; time as well as counselling and other mental health support can help you to tackle that, if it’s something you’d like to work on. With work, you can decouple the sensory experiences of sex from the abject terror and ickiness associated with your trauma, so you can return to enjoying sex (when and if you want to). I know all of this, and I say it to you compassionately, but I struggle to believe it when I say it to myself.

It sneaks up on me. I find my interest in sex education-y content waning, but chalk it up to unusually-limited processing power, and wanting to “save that for when I’ll actually absorb the information”. When my fiancée, who I live with, suggests sex or kink things, I end up giving her a thousand reasons why “not tonight” – I’m tired, my joints hurt, I just ate and my stomach is still full, anything that makes it clear it’s nothing to do with her or my attraction to her. I kind of convince myself that the reason I give her is the only reason, because I don’t want to dig into why sex and kink seem unappealing. I ignore porn on my Twitter timeline and assume it’s because, you know, there’s a lot of porn around and I’m looking for news. Eventually, though, I run out of excuses, or get tired of making them, and I acknowledge that I am experiencing a problem. It becomes apparent that the thought of sex makes me increasingly anxious, and that my own arousal in particular triggers a desire to just turn inside out, escape my own body somehow. Trying to engage with sex and kink when I’m in this state is likely to give rise to thoughts of self-harm, and/or dissociation. And then I have to ask myself: do I care?

Once I’m sufficiently sex-repulsed, usually through a refusal to address whatever is triggering me, sex is scary and gross on an animal level, and it takes effort to walk my brain back to a state of neutrality around it. I realised recently that one of the reasons I typically immerse myself in sex ed materials and kinky communities is so that I can’t reach the level of disconnect I’m currently at, and can instead maintain near-constant contact with the bit of my brain that actually likes and is not scared of sex. Once I’m this far out to sea, though, I’m well aware of how much effort it will take me to swim back, and I’m too disconnected from the liking-sex part of me to actually want to put that effort in, because I can only understand on the most abstract of levels that I will enjoy sex again, but that the longer I wait the harder it is. The more often I’m triggered by sex or kink things, the more closely my brain links sex and suffering, as is always the case with encountering triggers outside of a very purposeful interaction with them. It’s therefore necessary for me to find ways to encounter sex/kink things without spending the whole interaction in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode, if I can actually find the motivation to arrange those encounters.

So what now? Well, tonight I’m going to a very familiar kink event populated by very familiar people, with the option of hiding or leaving if needs be. Things which are specifically sex-related are really challenging for me to engage with, but the biggest challenge is engaging with my own arousal, so I think a good first step for me is to engage with educational media rather than strictly erotic media. Hopefully, the familiar educators whose content I follow will reassure my brain that sex is not a faraway scary thing, but a familiar and safe part of my life. From there, I also have to, at some point, try to actually do sex things with my actual body. I can’t even contemplate having solo sex yet, so I imagine I’ll end up doing some kink things with my fiancée that maybe do or maybe don’t escalate into sex-and-kink things, since she is also very familiar and safe-feeling. Eventually I’ll be back up to my neck in sex ed stuff, kink plans and orgasms, but I am going to try and take it slowly to avoid reinforcing the stress response.

Wish me luck!