If you or someone you love has Autism, you’ve probably read books or articles, or visited various websites and online communities, to seek information about the condition. These resources often contain words and phrases that are not commonly used in everyday life, or outside of the Autism community.
We’ve broken down some of the most common Autism-related terms for you here, so you can accurately interpret and use them in the future. We’ve also included some quotes and posts from people with real-world experience, to help you further engage with what these terms mean to people with Autism.
Actually Autistic (AA)
This term, commonly seen as #ActuallyAutistic online, was created by Autistic people for the Autistic community. It is used to clearly highlight when content has been created or posted by an Autistic person.
Used to describe someone that does not have Autism.
A relatively new term for someone who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and ADHD. These conditions can often co-occur, so many people who have one of these conditions also has the other.
Example use: “As an AuDHDer, I find myself constantly flipping between seeking out and withdrawing from sensory stimulation. Anyone else have the same experience?”
Existing in a world not built with the needs and abilities of Autistic people in mind can be challenging to navigate, and without the necessary support available, can become stressful. When this experience of stress is chronic, it can lead to feelings of ‘burnout’, characterized by long-lasting feelings of exhaustion, and reduced functioning capacity.
Illustrator and content creator Ella Willis shared this TikTok describing some signs they experience when they’re in burnout:
‘Masking’ refers to the behaviors Autistic people both repress and adopt in order to adapt to societal standards of ‘typical’ behavior. Someone who is masking may conceal behaviors they would naturally express, in favor of instead exhibiting behaviors that may make them appear to fit in with their peers. It’s like a type of camouflage – people who mask are in a way acting as chameleons, shifting and changing their natural state of behavior to blend in with their environment.
Masking may involve changing things including facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, and even the way a person speaks. Further, it might include taking part in activities or doing things that make the individual uncomfortable, such as wearing clothes that they have sensory sensitivities to, or forcing themselves to make small talk and interact with unfamiliar people.
Instagram user @neurodivergent_lou described one way they mask: “As an Autistic person, I pretend not to remember the small details about people, in case other people find it odd… It is [sometimes] interpreted as weird, creepy, or assumed that you have a romantic interest in someone if you remember the small details… an Autistic person may pretend not to remember the small details about someone so that it isn’t seen as weird.”
A meltdown may look like a temper tantrum, but should not be considered as such. A meltdown involves a temporary loss of control over a person’s functions and emotions related to a sense of complete overwhelm with the current situation. It is an intense physical and emotional response that Autistic people may have due to feeling overcome by the challenges they are currently facing.
Autistic creator Naomi Makesa shared this short film on TikTok about their experience with meltdowns:
The terms ‘neurodiverse’ and ‘neurodivergent’ are used interchangeably to describe people who have brains that work differently than what is typical. It is often used when talking about people with conditions including Autism, ADHD, Anxiety, and OCD just to name a few.
Used to describe people who are not neurodivergent.
To ‘perseverate’ means to repeatedly perform a behavior involuntarily, or without consciously trying to, and sometimes long after the initial trigger for the behavior has stopped. In regards to Autism, it is often used to describe when someone becomes stuck on an idea or topic. For example, continuing to ask the same question after having received an answer; lining up objects over and over, or having trouble getting past a memory or emotion.
Some Autistic people struggle with eating due to various sensory sensitivities to the temperature, texture, or flavor of certain foods. Safe foods, also known as same foods, are foods that an Autistic person easily tolerates and will usually eat. Each person will have their own unique mix of safe/same foods.
TikTok user @Kaelicompton shared this video about her experience as a parent trying to feed her Autistic son, Beckett:
For some Autistic people, social situations can be challenging, as it can be difficult to identify and understand social cues, certain types of language, and other people’s emotions and behaviors. To navigate the stress and uncertainty that social situations may cause, an Autistic person may prepare and practice behaviors and phrases that they can use in these circumstances.
Examples of scripting include pre-planning answers to questions that may arise during a phone-call or conversation, or practicing maintaining body language such as posture or eye contact.
TikTok user @emhahee shared this video about how they used scripts in their life, particularly during childhood and when starting to work as an adult:
Like a meltdown, a ‘shutdown’ is a physical and emotional response to an intense and overwhelming situation. Instead of an outward outburst, a shutdown usually involves the person drawing inward, refusing to interact with others and their environment as a result of their stress and overwhelm. Some signs of shutdown include becoming silent and stop communicating, or restricting movement and remaining still.
A topic that an Autistic person is highly passionate about and interested in. They may dedicate a lot of time to learning about and mastering this interest, sometimes to the point of neglecting other important tasks or self-care. They may also talk and share a lot about this interest with others, and may find it challenging to engage in conversations that aren't related to their special interest.
Reddit user @NaturesAperture explained how special interests make them feel: "For me, special interests aren't just hobbies. For me, it's something I need to do, not only for enjoyment but also for self-regulation. If I don't find some way to engage with special interests regularly, if not daily, it will lead to increases in meltdowns and shutdowns."
Another user, @ImpulseAvocado, described what it was like when one of their special interests was at its peak: "I thought about it when I woke up, as I was going about my daily errands, while I took my dog on walks, as I was falling asleep, etc. It took over my brain. I just wanted to think about it, write about it, watch it, and learn more about it. Pivoting to other thoughts and activities was genuinely hard."
A specific skill that an Autistic person is really good at, but that might not be particularly useful or relevant to real-world situations. For example, being able to memorise the names of many places, but not point them out on a map, or the ability to play a particular piece of music on the piano without fully understanding how to play other pieces, or how the instrument itself is learned. Some Autistic people might develop advanced skills or abilities that may not be expected for a person of their age.
Stimming is not limited to people with Autism, but it is a behavior people with Autism may perform. It means to ‘self-stimulate’ the senses, hence the name ‘stimming’, and it might look like what we normally call ‘fidgeting’. Stimming usually refers to repetitive tactile behaviors, such as hand flapping, biting or picking the lips, or rubbing the hands together.
It’s not clear why stimming happens exactly, but it is believed to be a strategy used to self-regulate emotions and physical sensations in certain situations, such as when they feel stressed, or they are overwhelmed by sensory information in the environment.
Stimming can be either conscious, in that the individual is actively choosing to ‘stim’ (verb for when stimming occurs), or sometimes it will happen subconsciously, without an active choice.
Example use: “I’ve recently been using a pencil to stim by twirling it in my hair.”