Can the autism in an autistic person switch on an off, come and go or otherwise be periodic or transient?
Do you know any autistic adults who seem to “be normal” whenever you interact with them?
Or perhaps you knew them as children — behaving in a peculiar way — but now as adults they seem “normal”?
Is their autism gone? Or can ASD be intermittent in some individuals, coming and going at random or maybe even becoming dormant during certain times?
These are fair questions that neurotypicals may have about people on the Autism Spectrum.
Saying that autism in a given individual can come and go is like saying a woman’s pregnancy can come and go.
It’s like saying that a neurotypical can sometimes have episodes of autism.
“Autism spectrum disorder is classified as a developmental disability, which means it’s a lifelong condition,” says Dr. Jessica Myszak, licensed psychologist, and director of The Help and Healing Center, whose practice is mostly autism assessment for adults.
ASD is typically recognized and diagnosed during early childhood (the developmental period), says Dr. Myszak, and will impact that person throughout adulthood.
“Though autism might not be recognized and diagnosed until later in a person’s life, it does not just ‘show up’ one day — and early signs were usually present, but may have been ignored or gone unnoticed.”
For instance, my autism got completely missed in childhood because, among other reasons, my peculiarities were thought to be what naturally comes with a child who has musical and artistic talent, and a bright, curious mind.
“Autism affects the way a person’s brain processes information, which is a stable thing,” says Dr. Myszak.
“You cannot be ‘a little autistic,’ — there is no ‘cure’ for autism, and the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria states that autistic characteristics can be met currently or by history.
“For this reason, if autism was accurately diagnosed in a person, that person will always be autistic, even if appropriate accommodations and adaptations or masking [concealing autistic traits and/or mimicking neurotypical behavior] make that person’s difficulties less apparent to others.”
To an observer, my autism may seem to come and go. If I’m lying in the dentist’s chair with nary a stim, carrying on small talk with the hygienist who’s preparing things, I can pass as neurotypical (NT).
If she’s commenting about the weather, and I comment back something relevant, or she notices I have an issue of People Magazine in my hands and comments about how beautiful Jennifer Lopez’s face is, and I comment back, “Yes, she has Golden Ratio proportions,” this is pretty easy stuff for me — as an Autist — to sustain during that prep time. I seem “normal.”
There’s not enough going on in this setting to reveal signs that would indicate that I’m wired differently. I’m neutral: “neuroneutrality.”
My autism would seem gone or in some kind of remission to an observer who knew of my diagnosis.
But this is only an illusion. It’s still there. It’s always there. I may appear typical on the outside, but internally, some very interesting things might be going on.
For example, while the hygienist is prepping things, I’m focusing on the grimy looking sticker-label on a nearby piece of equipment, thinking of how unsightly it is, and making a point not to look in that direction, and wondering why nobody has scraped the damn thing off.
But my internal thought processes may also be pleasant. I could be watching a squirrel outside that window, as would many NTs.
However…one of my special interests is flicker fusion rates.
As I’m watching that squirrel, I’m thinking all sorts of things about flicker fusion rates, even imagining I’m that squirrel — trying to keep hidden while on a tree trunk as a dog tries to race around the trunk to catch me.
I’m seeing the dog move in slow motion, because my FFR is much higher than that of a human’s. This is why a human can never get around a tree fast enough to see my entire body…
I might be extensively rehearsing future conversations in my mind (a common practice among Autists) — to make sure I get them perfectly right when they finally happen.
I might be going through all the possible names for males that begin with K-O such as Kody, Kole, Kolton, Konnor and Kolby. They’d have sisters named Kortni, Klovis and Korrie.
Autistic people love to create all sorts of scenarios in their minds that they observe or actively participate in — kind of like a second world they exist in.
I might be discreetly studying the hygienist’s facial features and hair texture as I try to figure out her racial breakdown — another intense interest of mine.
She has light caramel skin, green almond shaped eyes, a thick nose and golden-blonde fluffy hair. What IS she? I’m fascinated!
Is she one-quarter Polynesian, three-fourths white? Maybe one-fourth Hispanic, one-fourth East Indian and one-half white? Maybe one of her parents is half-black?
Meanwhile she’s still talking about her weekend plans and has now asked me what mine are. Why are so many people interested in others’ weekend plans?
So I tell her, “No, no plans this weekend.” I’m very interested in her name tag: Serenity.
Oh SPELL it like everyone else! Why can’t parents think outside the box and spell it Serennitie, Serenittey, Cerennity, Cerrenity, Cerenitti, Sirenitee, CereniTee, Serenyti…
The hygienist has NO idea that any of this stuff is going on inside my head while I lie there calmly with the People Magazine issue in my hands.
So just because I’m not rocking, flapping my hands, chewing on a pendant or talking nonstop about airplane runways doesn’t mean that my autism is dormant or temporarily shut off. My autism never “goes” anywhere. It lives inside my brain. It is ME.
I may subdue certain behaviors such as stimming. I may try not to speak out of turn or info-dump on flicker fusion rates. I may smile and nod as someone is speaking to me, even though these gestures often feel unnatural.
But the ASD is still there. What comes and goes is the masking.
“Autism is a neurotype,” says Katie Santoro, 26, who was diagnosed with ASD at 24 and works with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.
“It is a unique way that my brain or anyone else’s brain on the spectrum differs from the average on a bell curve of things that would make someone neurotypical.
“Autism is developmental, so I may have shown more symptoms or struggled to fit in or mask my autism when I was younger.
“However, just because I have increased ability to mask my autism as an adult, does not mean my autism was in existence when I was five, disappeared when I was 10, and now suddenly came back at age 24 when I got my diagnosis.
“I have been autistic since I was born, and my brain has grown with me as my cognitive abilities have increased.
“But at the end of the day, I never received a different brain entirely, so my autism is unwavering and always will be how I identify.
“My cognitive abilities have grown within my brain, but my neurotype remains the same.”
• Autistic people think and see the world differently. Always.
• We process information differently. All the time.
• We have a different operating system, not a processing error.
• Autism spectrum doesn’t come and go any more than the baby inside a woman’s belly can come and go.
Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist who specializes in autism assessment for both children and adults, is the founder of Autistic Support Network. She sees clients in-person in the Chicago area and over telehealth in 31 states. Learn more about her practice at helpandhealingcenter.com.
Katie Santoro is a junior board member for Unicorn Children’s Foundation, dedicated to creating cradle to career pathways for children and young adults with developmental differences. Katie is also involved with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders. @autistic.thegreeklife
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical and fitness topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Top image: Freepik.com/kjpargeter