Autism presents very differently from person to person. Its tough to look at someone and say “oh, that’s autism.” It is significantly more challenging to define and, consequently, much more difficult to pigeonhole. Because of that, many people assume that autistics have classic “insanity.” For the record, they are not the same thing.

Normally I would use reductio ad absurdum to show that the concept of insanity is outdated and based on a mental health model better left in the 1800s. I do not, however, have time to cover 100+ years of mental health so I’m going to say simply that the new crazy is much more well defined than the old crazy. The DSM-IV breaks out a number of conditions that were once lumped together. Autistic disorder is just one of those with an expanded definition.

Although autism can be viewed as a mental health issue, it is not strictly a mental or emotional disorder. The complexity is often hidden by its seeming invisibility. Nobody can look at someone with autism and say “oh, that person is autistic.” This helps feed the misunderstanding of the disorder.

Our people have different ways of expressing anxiety. Some hand flap, some walk in circles, and some spin. My son recites, verbatim, the character dialogue from any number of movies and videos. He finds it calming, and it helps him settle down. He looks a little different from your typical 8 year old, and this is where the problems begin.

I had a school administrator say to me “he was talking out of his head, like he was crazy!” Well, if you take what my son says out of context it might sound crazy. Rest assured though, he does not fit the classical definition of crazy or insane. He is reciting a video that he is literally watching in his mind’s eye. He replays these videos in his head and uses them to calm himself down.

The next time you see someone acting “crazy” I urge you to suspend judgement. I’m not saying don’t be aware, or make sure things are safe. What I am saying is that instead of assuming something different is dangerous and scary, examine the possibility that it may be wonderful and new. I am constantly surprised by the insight and perspective my son shows me. I’d like you to share in it if you can.