Q& A w/ James Williams, public speaker and author with autism

Q: Autism has been in the media more frequently, in order for those without autism to have full understanding about ASD, what would you say we need to know about autism from your personal perspective?


Autism, and autism spectrum disorders, are an “umbrella” diagnosis. It encompasses symptoms from many other diagnoses that I refer to as specialized diagnoses. People with autism have attention issues we define as ADD/ADHD, sensory issues we define as SFD, executive functioning issues we define as EFD, along with social anxiety issues we define as SAD. But autism consists of these symptoms put together. And the autism spectrum is, in many ways, a spectrum that encompasses either severe or mild versions of those symptoms put together.

At the same time, the “distinctness” of autism has been defined by its social deficits. Professor Lynn Stansberry-Brusnahan stressed this in a graduate school class she and I co-taught at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota on autism spectrum disorders. I agree since social deficits often are the most disabling of deficits that people with autism have, as Stansberry-Brusnahan shares in her teachings. I would go further and argue that autism is distinct not just by its social deficits, but by its “uneven” social functioning–a person with autism can act very infantile in one situation but very mature in another.

This is what should people know the most about autism. It is a disorder of disorders; a disorder that puts the symptoms of many other conditions together. It is also a disorder of uneven functioning, and people need to be aware of this. They cannot think of people with autism as universal geniuses or universally socially inept. We need to realize that people with autism have uneven social functioning. They are geniuses AND socially inept. They can be mature AND childlike, and a person’s behavior when they have autism cannot be used to judge their behavior as a whole–whether it is mature or childlike behavior. People often make the mistake of expecting too much or too little among people with autism, and we are in desperate need of a middle ground.

~ James Williams

2 thoughts on “Q& A w/ James Williams, public speaker and author with autism

  1. One comment that I’ve heard time and time again is that if you have met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. No two people are alike… as with all people. Autism affects different people in different ways. I think it is important to emphasize this point more in portrayals of autism in the media as they become more prevalent.

    However, portrayals of autism in media are great tools of education and awareness for those not in the know. One such work that stuck with me is a movie called Adam with Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne. Though it was something of a box office flop, I quite liked the story, which revolves around Adam, who has Asperger’s, and his interaction with his upstairs neighbor Beth. It helped me understand a lot of the hardship faced by a guy who has trouble communicating. Movies like Adam and plays like Dancing Lessons help all of us to learn more… without giving us false generalizations about every single person with autism. That nuance is a key element to these important works.

  2. I like that you used the phrase “middle ground”, James. Personally, I know very little about autism and have never met anyone who is autistic. Unfortunately nowadays most of our understanding of autism comes from media outlets and this is not always a good thing. Often, autistic characters in television shows and movies (i.e. Rain Man) are only portrayed in a certain way. This does a disservice to those with autism because it is such an individual disorder. Discussions like these, and plays like Dancing Lessons are important because they help people understand that autism spectrum disorders affect everyone differently.

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