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  • Sarah Nannery

Sphere vs. Spectrum

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

One of the most common things people are asking me now that I am talking openly about having Asperger’s is: “Where are you on the spectrum?”

This is a perfectly logical question, fueled by popular media representations and common terminology of Autism. The term “spectrum“ in this context, however, as will happen with terms as they are scooped up and used in various ways by billions of people, has become an over-simplification of what is in fact a much more complicated concept. When most people think of a "spectrum," they think of a linear range with two distinct and separate ends. This interpretation is supported by the spectrum of light that is visible to the un-aided human eye, which takes the form of a line of colors. But the word "spectrum" does not actually connote a linear meaning at all - in fact, it is much closer to a sphere, or a cycle, or even an infinity loop (if you want to get creative with your shapes).

Here is the Miriam Webster's dictionary definition of the term "spectrum" -

noun [spek truh m]: "A broad range of varied but related ideas or objects, the individual features of which tend to overlap so as to form a continuous series or sequence."

So a spectrum is not so much a linear concept - like spreading your arms wide to either side and thinking of the range as existing from one end to the other, and a person being "on the spectrum" at only one singular point along that range - but it's much more a spherical concept, like circling your arms out in front of you, and different people experiencing different degrees of challenge or prowess at various points throughout that continuous, connected space.

I recently ran across a very helpful and entertaining comic, by Rebecca Burgess, which walks through this re-visualizing of an "Autism spectrum" very well:

There are many reasons that I believe this distinction is an important one, though on the surface it might just seem like an argument of semantics:

  1. People are not linear. A linear concept of the Autism spectrum can lead to a linear concept of people "on" it, as the comic above demonstrates. But people are not linear - people are far too complicated to be linear, and we should not allow ourselves to over-simplify people with Autism as being any more linear than any other person.

  2. People are not static. The linear concept of the spectrum also lends itself to an un-necessarily static conceptualization of any one person with Autism. A person is thought to exist on one single point of the linear range, even if that point might change in different situations, rather than to exist as a fluid, continuous, fully-rounded person who in many ways is the same, and in many ways is different (as we all are), than other people.

  3. People are not "high-functioning" vs. "low-functioning." This is a sticky one for me, and for the Autism community and surrounding spheres, as the terminology is still so commonly used. It is easy to see how this language can be helpful for a neurotypical world to make sense of what is viewed as a disability, and how that disability manifests in relation to a mainstream environment. However, this "high-low" dichotomy is indicative of precisely the type of linear thinking that we need to avoid when thinking and speaking about Autism. A person with Autism can have severe difficulty with one particular area of mainstream interaction, and excel greater than a neurotypical person in other areas. A person with Autism can be affected greatly by many areas of neurological difference, or be hardly affected at all, or only be affected at certain times in certain situations, or be mostly internally affected rather than externally affected, etc. People - all people - are simply too complicated to oversimplify with this kind of linear structure.

What I know people are really asking, when they ask me "where on the spectrum" I am, is: "How does Autism affect you?" Because their concern is not necessarily whether I am "high" or "low" functioning, or how I line up compared to other people with Autism (God forbid, please people, this is not a beauty contest) - but in fact it stems from a desire to know in what ways they can help, in what ways they can change their interaction with me in order to be more accommodating or empowering, in what ways they can understand me better.

These are all wholly valid and positive reasons for asking what could otherwise be a potentially damaging question, due to the common misperceptions and oversimplifications mainstream society has created around Autism. It can of course be very helpful for anyone I am interacting with to know how Autism affects me. I will share on this blog many experiences with friends and loved ones proving this.

I hope as our collective awareness grows, more and more people will understand how truly diverse and complex not just the world of Autism is, but how complex is the entire "spectrum" (aka sphere or infinity loop) of neurodiversity.

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