In the school system, we hear it all the time.

“He is such an odd kid. He has to be Autistic, right?”

My husband and I both work in behavior modification programs, and it’s really astounding to me how often quirkiness is used synonymously with Autism. However, even before moving into a school setting with work, we still heard this a lot.

When I would tell people my nephew had Autism, they would often say things like, “Yeah, I always thought he was a little different. He’s so hyper.”

Like… WHAT? His hyperactivity is what made you think he was Autistic?

Hahaha. He does have co-occurring ADHD, but his inability to sit on his pockets for more than thirteen and a half seconds is not what makes him Autistic. In fact, those characteristics are actually quite different.

There’s a kid who used to be in the school I work at who LOVED to pretend he was a cat — literally, meowing and rubbing his back against teachers’ legs — for days at a time… but he was not Autistic.

Yeah, that’s a super weird thing to do. I know. I get it.

It’s actually pretty normal to wonder what the heck is going on with a kid who believes he’s a feline. (Haha)

But weirdness does not equal Autism.

(In fact, after some digging and observing, we found out that the meowing child was actually quite intelligent in social areas. He knew it was unacceptable to rub up against people with his back, and he knew why they thought it was odd. He didn’t actually believe he was a cat. He just didn’t feel like following social norms because he liked the reaction/attention he got from being strange. When he was “normal,” he was left alone to disappear into the crowd. When he was weird, he got lots of time and conversation with the adults in his life.)

My own daughter, to further the point, is not Autistic. But you know what she loves? Wizards, Minecraft, dragons, and unicorns. She’s crazy intelligent and does work way above her grade level. But is she on the Autism spectrum?

Nope.

Autism has a lot more to do with social inabilities than it does social choice. It has more to do with sensory issues than it does pickiness or stubbornness.

It means having savant-like abilities, rather than being smarter than most of your peers.

It means not understanding when it’s an appropriate time to smile, rather than not wanting to smile. It’s parroting (or mimicking) the social behaviors of those around you because you can’t tell what you “should” be doing, as opposed to mimicking your peers for the sake of being cool.

It’s being “odd” because you don’t understand when you’re hurting other people’s feelings, rather than being “quirky” because you don’t enjoy the same activities that a lot of other kids your age enjoy.

There are so many subtle differences, but they are all really important.

If you are “weird,” you are not necessarily Autistic.

If you are “cool,” you might still be on the Autism spectrum.

If you have Autism, you can be cool, weird, ignored, loved, popular, hated, or completely invisible to your peers. They may not even notice you.

There is no set definition of what Autistic children should be interested in, what they should like to wear, or who they should want to hang out with. Every one of them is unique, and only the closest people to them (and trained professionals) can pinpoint what makes them Autistic and what makes them “quirky.”

The two labels are not synonymous.

The next time you meet a kid who lives in an imaginary world, plays with made up creatures, or refuses to bend to societal/gender norms… don’t ask your friends if they think he/she is Autistic.

It doesn’t really matter unless you work with them, and your friends are probably not any better at guessing than you are.

“Otherness” does not equal “living with a disorder,” and some people are not what you expect normalness to be.

That’s okay. Stop asking them if they’re Autistic and go join their LARP game.