A Google search for "Autism warning signs" brings up a list of thirty traits as result number one; twenty-five of those thirty have a distinct social focus: Not pointing. Not playing with others. Seeming to be in your own world. Language delay. Being unusually independent for your age. What I think the list implies is that NTs see autism in terms of a pre-existing social focus. Something I've been observing lately about the way that NTs, and the world in general, looks at autism, is a distinct, strong, social bias. Now, don't get me wrong; when I "bias", I don't mean "bigotry"; I simply mean the tendency one has, when one is focused in some direction, to see the rest of the world in light of that subject. NTs are very good at socializing, at connecting with each other, at communicating with each other; and they are focused on that skill. NTs see things in terms of socializing, just the way a biologist sees things in terms of biology, a doctor sees things in terms of medicine, or an architect sees things in terms of building design and construction.
But autism is a social disorder... isn't it? Autism means not being able to communicate, being unconnected to others, doesn't it? All those other things are really just quirks that are unimportant compared to communication... aren't they?
No. Actually, autism is not a social disorder or a communication disorder; it's a neurodevelopmental disorder that means a different cognitive style. If you are autistic, everything about you is different, not just how you interact with others. You see things differently; you process sensory information differently; you solve problems differently. You learn in a non-typical way; even your sense of time is affected.
Socializing is just the part of autism that NTs find easiest to detect; and when you're very good at using a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. (This is a figure of speech that has been modified to mean that if you are an expert in a subject, you try to treat every problem--including understanding autism--as though it were a problem related to that subject.) Neurotypical parents of autistics sometimes call their children "cured" when they learn to speak, or learn to force eye contact, or make their first friend. What they don't realize is that this autistic child will always be autistic (the "lost diagnosis", if it happens, still leaves you neurologically autistic); and that the social and communication traits they find easiest to detect and concentrate the hardest on extinguishing are simply the most obvious parts of a global condition.
For me, socialization and communication are where autism affects me the least. At least according to the MMPI, I'm an obvious introvert--that, and my lack of stereotypical female traits, are the two traits that this particular outdated instrument judges to be the most extreme about me. That means that I don't have a strong need to interact with people. A close friendship means meeting once a month. I speak to my family about as often, and most of the time they're the ones to initiate contact. I'm not a misanthrope: I like people; but in small doses.
What autism creates for me most of all is a different way of seeing the world. I'm deluged by sensory information. I wear soft clothing, sunglasses, earphones. Everything in my apartment is unscented, and I hold my breath in the detergent aisle. I have problems filtering speech out of background noise. My clothing is designed to keep me at the right temperature. I even have a hairstyle specifically meant to reduce sensory annoyance. When I try to process all of it, the information can get jammed up on the way. When I was a little girl, I used to have tantrums because the world overwhelmed me. Now, I shut down or withdraw, and only have tantrums if I can't escape. If you didn't know any better, you would see that as a social thing; but it isn't.
Planning, time-management, and transitions are another obvious expression of my autistic traits. I have problems planning my day; so I use schedules, lists, and routines instead. I do things the same way every time; if the routine breaks, I feel lost. I have problems switching from one thing to another. Tasks without natural conclusions can trap me for hours. I have problems getting out of bed, getting into bed, getting into the shower and out of it. I hyperfocus, and often don't seem to notice the world around me or the people around me. That has very little to do with socializing, and yet it would be seen that way by many NT observers.
And then there are the special interests. What it is about me that predisposes me to latch onto something like this, I don't know; but there it is. Unlike many autistics, I have special interests that change as time passes. The stronger the interest, the shorter the duration. An interest that takes up twenty hours out of twenty-four may last only a week; an interest that takes up only two hours out of the day may last a decade. I've been known to keep detailed spreadsheets full of facts, to check out fifty books at a time from the library, to learn college-level material while still in grade school, or to become fascinated with something usually found interesting by people twenty years my junior. These unusual interests meant that I did not play the same way children my age did. This was also not a social thing; but as far as NTs are concerned, the social aspect is apparently the most important part of it.
When I explained my diagnosis to my mother, she immediately protested, "But you had such good eye contact as a baby!" She described the way, when she was feeding me, I would look up into her face. I don't doubt it; as an infant, with the usual short range of infant eyesight, Mom's face would have been an interesting thing to look at; and it's not surprising that I did. What I do know is that I lost eye contact sometime between my infancy and second grade (when my first memories of conversations confirm it)--it probably happened around the time I began to use sophisticated speech. Multi-tasking face-reading and speech is simply not something my brain is built for.
Eye contact, speech, face-reading, cooperative play... all of them are useful signs of autism. It's important for NT parents to recognize autism in their children; we do need a different education and a different environment if we're to grow up well, and it's good to know early that we are different. And communication will always be priority number one in the education of an autistic child; anyone can do things for you, but nobody can speak for you. While the NT focus on socializing does help us detect many cases of autism early, it may be part of why female autistics, with our generally better ability to imitate social behavior, are not detected as early or as reliably as males.
Still, it seems that only autistic people themselves, and the researchers who are looking at non-social aspects of autism, really understand the global nature of autism--that it's not just a communication disorder, but a different way of thinking, learning, and perceiving. Your whole brain is different. Autism doesn't vanish when you are in a room by yourself. It doesn't just affect how you interact with other people, but how you interact with the whole world.