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"Odd" Autistic Behaviours and Why We Do Them

To someone who doesn't have experience with autistic people, our unmasked natural behaviours can indeed come off as quite enigmatic or perhaps even frightening. In light of this, and to celebrate Autistic Pride Day, I have elected to write up a guide of explanations for the reasons behind our seemingly inscrutable behaviours.

Please note that while I try to cover as many bases as possible, I can only truly claim to speak for myself as autism is a very diverse spectrum and no two autistic people are exactly alike. Nonetheless, with how much ignorance and misinformation exists about the spectrum (enough that even my flagrantly autistic self was unaware of his autism until a few years ago), every little bit that is done to dispel it counts. If you are autistic and disagree with anything here or have something that you want me to add, please feel free to e-mail me and I will update and credit the insight to you.

Autistic Pride Symbol Avoiding eye contact - I've explained in the past how casual eye contact can be incredibly uncomfortable for autistic people. It's a behaviour that, to us is reserved for either someone we are quite intimate with, or for someone who we need to intimidate. For many autistic people, the expectation of making eye contact with a random person, a co-worker, or even a friend can feel as unnatural and unpleasant as an expectation of passionately kissing everyone you talk to on the lips would feel for a neurotypical.

In addition to the discomfort of making eye contact at all, the arbitrary rules involving how long it needs to be maintained and at what points of a conversation are utterly unintuitive for many autistic people. Focusing too much on attempting to maintain a socially acceptable ratio of eye contact can sometimes cause us to completely miss what our conversational partner is even saying if we're particularly stressed out. There have been times where I had suddenly given up on making eye contact mid-conversation for this very reason. It's odd but still less rude than just staring people in the eyes until they become creeped out, which I have done in the past.

Autistic Pride Symbol Ranting incessantly about the same subject - Autistic people's tendency to talk people's ears off about their special interests is a stereotype as well known as eye contact aversion. Get an autistic person talking about something they're passionate about and you'll quickly realise you might as well have just injected them with meth. Conversely, many of us may struggle to not look at you as if you're explaining in detail how the paint in your new shed is drying, when you attempt to make casual conversation.

The crux of these communication issues is that while many neurotypical people use socialisation as a means to get to know people, to connect with them, or to massage each other's emotions, autistics see it as a means of exchanging interesting information. Since our special interests can often be by far the most tantalising subject we are aware of at the moment, it can be difficult for us to remember that other people may not share our level of interest.

We can also often get lost in the moment when given a chance to speak about them and not realise how long we've been ranting at our poor conversational partner, an intended brief mention slowly devolving into a college lecture as we continue to indulge in the conversational equivalent of devouring an entire bag of chips while telling ourselves that this next chip is certainly the last one we'll eat.

Autistic Pride Symbol Stimming - If you're not already familiar with the term, stimming is short for "self-stimulatory behaviour" and is the practice of engaging in repetitive behaviour such as rocking back and forth, finger-flicking, echolalia, jumping, hand flapping, etc.

While seeing someone stim for the first time can be understandably off-putting, it's something you should already be able to intuitively understand if you've ever relieved stress by tapping your foot, fidgeting with your hands, or pacing back and forth. Autistic people relieve stress and regulate themselves using the same principle, just in a more diverse spectrum of behaviours. While the majority of autistic adults have learned to mask stimming, the behaviour can still manifest in public if the person is under extraordinary stress and is foregoing masking in an emergency attempt to calm down.

While stimming can be used as a way of coping with stress, and indeed is something that is rarely publicly seen in autistic people who are neither low-functioning nor children, it can also provide a lot of enjoyment. I and many other autistic will stim in private when listening to music, usually via rocking and head-banging.

Autistic Pride Symbol Jumbling speech or going nonverbal - While I'm not non-verbal, unlike a large subset of other autistic people, sometimes I inexplicably start bumbling my words so badly that I start to wish that I was. The truly infuriating part is that in almost every case, I know exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it, but my thoughts appear to have gone on a two week drinking bender somewhere between leaving my brain and reaching my mouth. In very rare but particularly bad cases, half of the words can appear to have been abducted by bandits on the way and forced to wait until they were rescued.

This is a phenomenon that does occasionally occur for neurotypical people but usually not anywhere near as severely as it occurs for autistic people. Please know that an autistic person suddenly becoming extremely stumbly or non-verbal almost certainly genuinely has something to say and knows what it is, and is merely having a particularly bad brain fart that is temporarily preventing them from getting that information out.

Autistic Pride Symbol "Overreacting" to loud noises - I put overreacting in quotation marks but most neurotypicals, except possibly ones with bad misophonia or some form of trauma, cannot understand how distressing loud noises can be to many autistic people. Something as "mild" as someone slamming a drawer loudly or a distant loud car accelerating can instantly bring me from a good mood to furiously and vividly fantasising about repeatedly slamming the offender's face into a concrete wall with as much force as I can muster.

In addition to provoking intense homicidal rage, loud noises can also provoke other very unpleasant emotions in many autistic folks. In my case, I am prone to having pretty bad periods of depression, and sufficient exposure to loud noises is sometimes enough to singlehandedly cause them. Having ruminated as to why this is the case, I suspect it's because loud noises are reminiscent of being screamed at as a child (which occurred a lot) and triggers associated negative memories in me, and can cause an entire parade of related sordid memories to be unleashed.

Interestingly enough, quite a few autistic people, including myself, actually adore listening to music extremely loudly. Although this can initially seem like a paradox, loud music can be a powerful tool for having complete control of the sound in an autistic person's surrounding area. I would wager that even neurotypicals who adore loud music would be offended by enough harsh loud noises, autistic people simply have lower thresholds for said noises. It's also important to remember that autistic people are also no less able to appreciate music and other forms of art than neurotypicals are, as this website is one sprawling testament to. (:

Autistic Pride Symbol Sitting strangely - Something I see brought up once in a while in the autistic community (and occasionally, apparently, the ADHD community) is that some autistic people tend to prefer sitting in very unorthodox ways. Some anecdotes I've read include people who like sitting with their legs criss-crossed, their feet up on the chair, or sitting on their knees.

Speaking only for myself, I have a preference for sitting with my arms and legs close together in one arrangement or another, somehow only realising in adulthood that this was considered very oddly feminine, although I only considered it akin to how cats will seek to curl themselves up to keep all of their body parts close by for safety. Also much like cats, many autistic people, myself included, have a tendency to seek out confined or cramped spaces and can receive almost opiate-esque euphoria from being under a heavy weighted blanket, so I'm sure our eccentric sitting preferences are somehow related to this.

Autistic Pride Symbol Non-conformity - Although I currently lack the privilege of any autistic friends or acquaintances in real life (only online,) I have watched enough videos made by autistic people to note that many autistic folks can known to dress in exceedingly odd ways. As a man who regularly wears pink, I am not an exception to this pattern. Autistic brains are essentially wired from the ground up to be nonconformist, and this shows through in some way in just about everything we do.

Speaking very broadly as there are obviously major exceptions to this generalisation, both in autistics and neurotypicals, neurotypical people tend towards adopting norms, clothing, and behaviour that grant them social acceptance and approval from other neurotypicals, while autistic people tend towards things which will make them happier. Social approval simply is not a major priority for many autistics, causing us to not absorb social norms the way neurotypicals do, which can cause some quite eccentric developments in adulthood. I wrote an entire article about autigender, which describes one of the major manifestations of this phenomenon.

Additionally, many autistic people, myself included, are simply incapable of pretending to be fully neurotypical, and become resigned to this fact sooner or later. Even for those who are able to mask sufficiently well, this can be an extremely stressful and perilous task that is laible to eventually cause autistic burnout and cause the entire life they built for themselves to crash and burn around them. In addition to being a curse, the prospect of always being "the weirdo" no matter what can also be a blessing that allows autistic people to openly be our true self since we have nothing left to lose by doing so.

Autistic Pride Symbol Not acknowledging people - This is something that I only just recently realised was atypical behaviour. A lot of times I will, apparently more obviously than I thought, make a point of not acknowledging and pretending to not notice people, purely to avoid having to greet and interact with them.

As I've mentioned previously, verbal social interaction feels to me like something that I need to manually launch a program in my head in order to be able to do, as opposed to the always-on daemon that it seems to be in neurotypicals. If someone starts talking to me without any warning, I will often need to take a few moments to process the first things they said, and may very likely be unable to remember their name in order to greet them, even if I would be perfectly able to instantly recall it upon, say, spotting them in a crowd.

For this reason, and because I don't want to interrupt my constant ruminations and daydreams to wag tongues for the sake of wagging tongues (and possibly do something odd to embarass myself in the process), I and other autistic people can often make a point of pretending to not notice people, possibly more obviously than we may hope or believe. It may come to a surprise to many neurotypicals that autistic people actually have unusually good peripheral vision, since some of us can appear to be blissfully unaware of people right next to us.

Autistic Pride Symbol Not showing empathy - As I've explained in the past, it is a proven fact that autistic people are no less capable of empathy than neurotypicals are. While it's true that many autistic people can have trouble interpreting facial expressions and social cues from neurotypicals, and some even suffer from utter face-blindness, neurotypicals are equally awful at empathising with and understanding autistic people. Just as an autistic person may be completely unaware when a neurotypical is distressed by something, that same neurotypical can have no idea that they're doing something to hurt an autistic person.

Another issue to consider is that many autistic people have had negative experiences relating to being shamed for odd displays of emotions, and may find themselves mentally paralysed, unable to figure out what they should do to comfort a person without risking making the situation worse. Autistic and neurotypical people have very different emotional needs overall, and it can be difficult for someone from either world to properly comfort a distressed person who is too mentally different from them. For example, many neurotypicals can receive a lot of comfort from someone they are close with hugging them, while many (but not all!) autistic people are touch-averse and would become even more distressed if a neurotypical person did so to them.

Issues with cognitive empathy aside, it can certainly be true that a subset of autistic people can be sorely lacking in empathy for other people (my younger self is certainly entirely guilty of this.) One thing to consider is that many autistic people, especially ones who were not diagnosed as children or had ignorant or misunderstood parents and teachers, have a storied history of having their needs ridiculed or ignored, and of being hurt by people who had no regard for things such as their need for sensory-friendly environments, strict routines, specific foods, etc. People with many such experiences are understandably far less likely to empathise with or care about the needs of neurotypicals.

Like many other autistic folks and introverts, I can admit to deriving sociopathic glee from the tables suddenly being turned during the coroanvirus lockdowns, and extroverts/highly social introverts suddenly being socially shamed for gathering and socialising. While the aforelinked article was a drunken and sloppily-written artefact of this website's early days when I put monumentally less effort and ambition into this place, the overall point still stands for me. Being a very introverted autistic who was repeatedly shamed for this throughout my life, seeing all of this occur was quite amusing and cathartic. All of a sudden, the shamers were the ones being shamed and slowly going insane from being unable to fulfill their emotional and mental needs.

Autistic Pride Symbol Being oddly territorial - Few things can be as effective at making an autistic person have a bad meltdown as messing with their space. As a child, I would consistently turn extremely violent upon having my room, my things, or my routines being disrupted, and even as an adult, minor things such as detecting that someone else's fingers had been on my mouse/keyboard at work the day prior can put me in a foul mood in spite of my best intentions to stay calm about the situation.

I truly do not mean to be insensitive or overdramatic when I say that to many autistic people, our personal spaces and routines can be so precious to us that they can almost feel like extensions of our physical bodies. On a number of occasions in my childhood when I would go berserk upon finding out that my father had invaded my room and rearranged ("cleaned") my things or even thrown some of them away, my behaviours were not tantrums so much as outbursts of frantic despair and fight-or-flight instinct. A feeling of all hope suddenly being lost, and that all I could do was blindly attack the person responsible out of some hope that it would make things right again.

For many autistic people, most especially children, the world as a whole can be a hostile, frightening, and unpredictable place rife with harmful things, and there is a desperate need to have a spot where everything is completely under the autistic person's control and free from the uncertain and chaotic nature of the outside world. Sometimes even having well-meaning relatives or friends visiting can be enough to trigger a meltdown in autistic people, causing us to feel stressed out even after the interlopers have vacated the premises. In my case, I feel a strong impulse to "reclaim my territory" by putting every minute object whose location was at all interfered with back the way it was, and ridding the space of their smells.

Autistic Pride Symbol Asking "why" - A common misunderstanding between autistic people and authority figures such as parents, bosses, and teachers occurs when the autistic person responds to an order by asking why it needs to be done. While this often be interpreted as rude or insubordinate by the neurotypical authority figure, it is not meant to be.

Autistic people generally like to have a logical, sound reason for doing something, and may take umbrage over being ordered to do something for no reason other than because an authority figure expects them to do so. Being told we need to do something that seemingly makes no sense purely based on the argument of "Todd the manager said so" can feel as insulting to us as the military punishment of forcing misbehaving soldiers to do ostensibly futile work such as digging holes and then filling them back up.

I've mentioned before that one of the reasons that autistic people are drawn to fields such as science, mathematics, and programming is likely because they work entirely on logic, and there is a solid reason for everything that they encounter. For much the same reason, we can find bureaucratic corporate work environments to be nightmare worlds prone to the whims of unpredictable and apparently insane gods who can be neither reasoned with nor ignored.

Autistic Pride Symbol Avoiding/bumbling smalltalk - Like many other people, when I was a child, I would routinely start conversations with children I didn't know by simply saying things such as "hey! Do you like Doom?" This was quick, straight to the point, and did not force me to waste any time or social energy trying to connect with someone I might turn out to have no interest in interacting with. As I would eventually be forced to learn, at some point, it becomes socially acceptable to instead burn mental energy on the enigmatic social dance known as "smalltalk" in order to get to know another person.

Up until I read up on the subject a year ago, I honestly did not even know there was a point to smalltalk beyond pointless emotional stroking involving insipid subjects such as the weather and the welfare of a conversational partner's neighbour's ex-wife's pianist's second pet gerbil. Nonethless, I find the practice and the rules surrounding it to be quite odd and unnecessarily complicated, and perhaps a skill best reserved for clandestinately attempting to determine if someone is a drug dealer or a fellow spy without getting caught.

The entire process of having to greet people and insincerely enquire about their well-being while expecting no truthful answer during the first mutual social interaction of the day is also something that has always bothered me. I understand that it is meant to be a display of politeness, yet it is ostensibly a verbal tic that is quite literally no different from simply starting every interaction with "hey! I care about you! Anyway..."

The nice thing about having autistic friends (especially with mutual special interests) is that there is no need to waste time on hollow pleasantries and we can immediately skip right to the delicious meat of discussing the zany possibilities of a Dragon Ball Super episode where Bulma somehow forces Freeza to babysit Bra.

Autistic Pride Symbol Neglecting hygiene - Difficulty maintaining hygienic habits is a multi-pronged issue for autism people. For my part, while I make a point of staying pretty clean, I would routinely go for at least a week in between showers during my childhood/teenhood and would very rarely brush my teeth. Executive dysfunction is a major problem for many autistic people, and can sometimes make attending to necessary tasks nearly impossible, even if the autistic person is fully aware of their necessity and actually wants to take care of them. Something as simple as brushing one's teeth can seem as arduous as the task of prying oneself out of bed after 2 hours of sleep.

Beyond the executive dysfunction issue, autistic children (and adults!) are highly susceptible to being ostracised and bullied simply for their natural behaviours and other things that are beyond their control. Social acceptance is one of the reasons that children learn to maintain their hygiene, yet many autistic people may opt to skip this lesson, concluding that their lot in life will be equally loathsome whether they take care of their hygiene or neglect it entirely. This is exacerbated by the natural decreased lack of desire for social acceptance in autistic people, which can cause some to not care about people's reactions to their lack of cleanliness to begin with.

While to most people, it can seem hard to understand how a person, autistic or otherwise, can be fine with constantly having foul body odour, it's important to remember that a person is usually immunised to smelling their usual musk. Just like alcoholics and smokers are unable to notice the alcohol/tobacco stench that pervades them, a person who rarely washes is likely completely oblivious to their funk.

Changing the subject to ourselves - One common autistic behaviour that I was not even aware was considered atypical until not that long ago, is our tendency to constantly turn conversations away from other people and towards ourselves. This can unintentionally come off as rude and narcissistic, especially because it tends to be especially prominent when the subject is a crisis that someone is going through. As an example, if someone complains to one of us about having crashed their car, we may respond by sharing a story about a car accident we were personally involved in, instead of, say, expressing our condolences or asking how they are or whatnot.

Although this can definitely make us seem self-absorbed, most of us do this with the intention of showing that we understand their pain, due to having gone through a similiar experience. In the aforementioned example, the autistic person's intent was most likely something along the lines of "that sucks! I went through a similiar situation 2 years ago, so I can understand how you must feel. also, since I already went through the aftermath, you now know that you can ask me for advice on your own situation if you need any."

I suspect a large part of this misunderstanding is that neurotypicals see a lot of value in empty platitudes from the people in their social circle, while autistics often don't. Although I can "talk the talk" if necessary for someone going through distress, I don't understand how being told "that sucks!" or "you're in my thoughts and prayers!" or whatever other manner of platitude could possibly be of even the slightest benefit for anyone. Being told a personal story of a similiar hardship by a friend or acquaintance at least shows solidarity and lets the person know that they're not alone.

Hopefully, this has helped shed some light on why autistic people sometimes behave in such seemingly enigmatic ways. Despite all of the heinous misinformation that still pervades autism-related discourse, the overwhelming majority of autistic people are perfectly intelligent people who simply have differently-wired minds.

As off-putting and inscrutable as some of us may come off to the average neurotypical, please remember that normal, natural neurotypical behaviours can seem just as confounding to us. It is very easy to make an argument that neurotypicals themselves would likely be considered disordered if autistic people instead made up over 98% of the world population.