it’s time we started thinking, talking and understanding differently the concept we have called autism for far too long. it has been talked about as a disease, a neurological difference, a spectrum and a gift. but it is none of those things and the name itself is both misleading and curious. autism from auto (self) is perhaps the root of all these issues. at this point, knowing far more than ever about how this problem works and impacts sufferers, a more appropriate term for it is “sensory shift disorder”. beyond the name, though, it is important to remember that this is not a spectrum, a fuzzy band where people are more of less, scattered across a fluid gradient of suffering. it is two different manifestations of similar underlying symptoms with myriad potential results. there is no more or less. we are not all on some silly color pallet with aspects of the disorder and once we get far enough from “normal” we are “differently normal” or “neurologically diverse”. we have a serious problem or we do not. some handle it better. some have been luckier than others in their environment and those around them. but the underlying issues are the same.
these two forms have often been given names that can be either political (asperger’s, mute, dumb, retarded) or demeaning (high or long functioning) but the names are a problem for more than their linguistic problems in a way that is far more difficult to solve — they are inherently inaccurate. i have proposed before that these two categories be thought of as linguistic and nonlinguistic but that’s, while accurate, not completely obvious. mostly because the differentiation isn’t between those who can deal with language at all and those who can’t but those who process language symbolically and those who only process it reactively. that explanation gets lost in the terms so i propose separating the forms by their learning processes instead of their language results. the same differentiation applies but it is easier to understand. we should call these categories fast and slow ssd.
the dividing line is quite easy to place. those with slow ssd either never learn to interact with language in a meaningful way or their use of language is stilted and purely derived from patterned interaction with words and concepts. their learning process is stilted and even if they develop linguistic skills at some point their use of language and symbolic thought is never fluent. those with fast ssd are the other extreme. they usually (though not always) grasp at least one language fluently very early and think symbolically even as infants. their ability to conceptualize and focus on detail often marks them as young geniuses. this intelligence sometimes manifests in adulthood but often regresses as other children catch up.
what these two forms have in common, though, is more fundamental. ssd is not a mental disorder in the way ptsd or schizophrenia are. it is a sensory disorder with severe mental repercussions that often resemble obsessive-compulsive disorder, sociopathy and various personality disorders. the mechanism of action is quite simple. it is basically a disregulation of the sensory processing centers of the brain. this often results in hypersensitivity but may work in the other direction, leading to lack of sensitivity. it is unpredictable. the same person may have visual hyperacuity while lacking almost all sense of smell. or the variation may be moment to moment, hypersensitive in the morning and numb to all sensation that same afternoon. the combinations are what have led to the initial silliness about spectrums and universality within the population as sensory variation is common. the presence of sensory disregulation itself isn’t the issue but the severity and continuous nature of it that differentiates the disorder from normal human daily variability of feeling.
the link between the two forms, once thought of this way, is more obvious. when a child is attempting to learn language and symbolic thought, the two primary differentiating factors for human knowledge and understanding compared to animal consciousness, the overwhelming impact of sensory disregulation makes this process extremely difficult, often impossible. if, however, the impact goes in the other direction, enhancing the child’s natural sensitivity to thoughts and language, the result may be rapid development. the key here is that this sensitivity disregulation may result in the child being overwhelmed to the point of difficulty or stimulated to the point of success. low sensitivity works both ways, too, causing difficulty with learning by making word differences hard to understand or dulling inhibitions allowing children to learn quickly without worrying about mistakes and communication failures.
the difficulty often shows later in life, however. with the continuous pressure of public human interaction, hypersensitivity leads over time to physical and mental overwhelm while hyposensitivity leads to either lethargy and depression or dangerous public practices to achieve desired levels of stimulation. as the body and mind fight to regulate sensory perception, mental difficulties propagate and multiply, especially the depression and traumatic aftereffects of a lifetime of difference and segregation, whether desired or imposed. the brain develops more and more coping mechanisms and patterns to regulate a world spinning more and more wildly out of control leading to extreme ocd symptoms in most fast ssd adults.
over time slow ssd adults tend to appear mentally-disabled, working repetitive menial jobs but seemingly happy in their minimized interactions with the world around them. fast ssd adults, however, tend to disintegrate as they age, often appearing as excellent students and even child prodigies early in life, peaking in their teens and early twenties, experiencing mental collapse and overwhelm often to the point of suicide by their thirties and functionally overwhelmed beyond repair by middle-age.
of course, there is no solution to this issue and acceptance of ssd as a part of the human condition, especially as it is so severely underdiagnosed and poorly-understood, will help to give ssd adults the necessary care and treatment that had been sadly and often fatally lacking in the past. it is hoped by many that a genetic solution may someday be available to repair sensory disregulation and allow the mental and physical overwhelm of the continuous sensitivity problems to end.
understanding and acceptance are the beginning, though. perhaps once we stop looking at humanity as a spectrum of differentiation and start understanding sensory processing and whole-self overwhelm as ongoing trauma it will be easier for neurologically-default and ssd adults to better coexist peacefully. that is, at least, my personal hope.