Autism Etymology

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been diagnosed autistic for a few years now and never really thought about what “autistic/autism” means.  For some reason it never crossed my mind, despite the fact that I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about autism.  The etymology of autism isn’t hard to figure out – some sort of condition related to the self.  And sure enough, Paul Bleuler coined the term in 1912, the notion of which is morbid self-absorption (source).  For historical context, this is back when autism was considered to be a trait of schizophrenia.

“Morbid self-absorption.”  To be blunt, that’s not accurate.  And this is coming from a person who is self-absorbed enough to blog about herself.  And I  would brush such a definition off by telling myself that word usage and meaning changes, except such a definition has proved to be an enduring myth.  In common portrayals of autistic people, I often see us portrayed as distant, aloof, trapped in a prison, unable to connect with mainstream society.  Because we’re something other than normal, we’re separate.  Because we don’t always contribute to society in the same way, we’re self-absorbed.

Yes, I’m a quiet person who needs a lot of alone time, but I actually like being around people.  If I seem self-obsessed or withdrawn, it’s usually because I don’t feel comfortable enough to interact.  Often, I don’t speak up because I’m not quite sure how to put my thoughts into words, and it’s easier to keep quiet than to worry about exactly what to say and how to say it.  I’m highly aware of the world around me; in fact, it’s overwhelming.  And yes, I can empathize and relate to people.

Like many autistic traits, and human traits in general, self-obsession can have good or bad aspects.  To be self-obsessed sounds extremely narcissistic.  But what about to be self-aware, to be insightful?  I’m often complimented on those qualities, and they serve me well.  I think there’s a certain sensitivity that shows up in my writing because of this.  There’s a beautiful quality to self-awareness, and that’s that it helps me open up and be vulnerable with others, as well as be more mindful with myself.  If this is what it means to be autistic, it’s wonderful.


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