When you are asked the question “what is Autism?” or “what is the Autistic Spectrum?” depending on who you ask you will get a completely different response from person to person. The underlying principles are the same, but people will explain things in ways that they are comfortable with or using metaphors and symbolism which they can relate to.

Not wanting to simply produce another article explaining Autism in my own words, I struck upon the idea of asking a number of experts how they would describe Autism and the Autistic Spectrum. I have compiled three of the most effective responses in one user friendly place so that you can choose your favourite and hopefully help to spread awareness.

Wild Plant Autism/Autistic Spectrum Analogy

This analogy likens Autistic people to wild plants. Wild plants very rarely grow the same way twice, much in the same way that there is no one size fits all, single set of must-have traits required to be classed as Autistic. Essentially: you don’t have to have all of the recognised traits of Autism to be on the Autistic Spectrum (The symbolic term used to define how Autistic somebody is).

Some wild plants overgrow, in much the same way that some Autistic people are very open and verbal, in contrast other wild plants hardly see the light of day. We can liken this to those Autistic people who keep everything inside and are non verbal.

Although our wild plant may be overgrown and in some cases not look very pretty, it may still excel in one particular area (such as producing an abundance of flowers). This can be likened to the fact that some Autistic people excel in areas far beyond neurotypical capabilities.

Taking the wild plant analogy a little further, it wouldn’t be fair to leave out the comparison between Autistic traits and the neurotypical. A popular way to do this is to liken neurotypical people to Cabbages. The only reason why this comparison is drawn is because one cabbage is pretty much the same as the next cabbage and the next. In addition, cabbages are grown in fields of uniform rows – a parallel to the way that for the most part neurotypical people feel the need to fit in with the crowd and possess a similar set of neurological traits.

The pebble Analogy

There is a very popular video of this analogy on the internet by Dave Spicer (A way of describing autism). This particular video has received lots of comments both good and bad. Some people don’t like referring to people with Autism as pebbles whereas some people don’t like referring to people with Autism as Autistic people. There are also people who think it’s a wonderful representation. With this level of engagement surrounding this excellent video it wasn’t surprising that this particular comparison popped up quite a bit in people’s responses. Read it below in the words of myself on how we can compare people with Autism to different pebbles.

Clear Stone

When looking at the clear stone you can see right through it. Some Autistic people are extremely open and will open themselves and their lives up completely to anybody who wishes to see.

Black Stone

If you look at the black stone you don’t really get anything from it other than the fact that it is a black stone. Some autistic people keep everything locked in. Some are non verbal and remain a mystery much in the same way.

Chrome Stone

The chrome stone offers one abundantly obvious, unique attribute: it’s striking, shiny finish. This finish captures our attention in an obvious way. It has one particular special and unique aspect – just like autistic people who have one special interest or appear to excel in one particular area.

Patterned Stone

The patterned stone has very intricate patterns on it that must be examined and considered in order to appreciate it properly. Some Autistic people need to follow set routines and have things structured in the same way all of the time. Just like the patterned pebble, if you follow these routines as you would the patterns on the pebble you will begin to see the beauty inside.

Dual Coloured Stone

With the dual coloured stone you can look at it from two different viewpoints and potentially believe that you are in fact looking at two different stones. Although it’s the same stone, it can appear different. At first glance when looking at next to other pebbles it doesn’t seem to fit in. Do you see this as being a problem or do you accept it and enjoy it for what it is?

Tiger Eye Stone

This stone is probably my favourite. The tiger eye stone changes the more you look at it: the more you look at it the more interesting and beautiful it becomes. The comparison here is that although Autistic people act differently to neurotypical people, if you spend the time understanding them then you will eventually see how beautiful they are.

The deck of cards analogy

The deck of cards analogy is quite a simple one. Although we say deck of cards, imagine four Aces. At first glance they look the same – just like if you are looking at somebody with Autism, on the face of it you would not necessarily know they were Autistic.

When you start to look at the Aces just as Autistic People you begin to see, that although they are all Aces they are all in fact unique and have differences and strengths of their own.


These different analogies essentially tell the same story, but using a variety of different reference points with the hope of eliciting understanding. I don’t think there ever will be a global explanation of what Autism or the Spectrum is, simply because the autistic spectrum is so broad that it would be physically impossible to categorise it exactly in one statement. Id also like to say a special thank you to the community over at Talk Autism who helped immensely with the ideas and visualisations so that I could produce this article.

The world doesn’t know half as much as it should about Autism so all that can be done is for people to continue to spread awareness as far and wide as they can.


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Can we also say a special thank you to Digital Hearing Care who are supporting us by funding further work, so watch this space everybody as I will now be able to spend some more time creating some great graphics.


  1. leslye says:

    Mark think this might tie in with an idea i had for next year,to produce a calendar with the theme ;Autism is; a bit like the old ‘love is ‘cartoons.if you haven’t seen them they were very big in the eighties and were shown in newspapers mainly the Sun I think.I wanted to produce a calendar of images about objects rather than people to shown the abstract side of a condition that actually cannot understand abstract and only works on logic, a bit of a paradox I know but then autism is that paradoxical in places so think it will work…ps love this….

  2. michaelk says:

    I think it looks great and does a fantastic job of explaining a very complicated thing because it is so hard to pin down what someone with autism should be like and you did a good job of making sure the many facets are all included in your article


  3. Kelly says:

    I LOVE THIS. I have never seen this explained so simply and accurately. Hopefully this will be a good start to helping more people (and those impacted) understand autism!

  4. Joe says:

    When I explain to people My take on Autism concerning my 6 year old, I use the analogy of the fuel gauge on a car. For example, the more Autistic traits one has, the higher up on the gauge. That’s about the Simplest way for me to explain it…

  5. Diane says:

    Very interesting analogies! It IS very hard to try to explain autism and it helps to have these analogies to refer to.

  6. Jade says:

    Mark, I love this. It’s a great way to explain ASD.

  7. joanne pilgrim says:

    wow what great things i always have difficylty explaining my daughters asd but im going to use these now

  8. michelle says:

    Wow, Mark, You really explained and demonstrated Autism very well ! Thank You !

  9. stace says:

    interesting- but as a mother of an autistic child that goes to a main stream school i would say the ideas are great idea but i am not sure nuerotypicals would appreciate being refered to as cabbages… or is there a diplomatic dig there?? it could be percieved as such, given that some people read into things!!-the pebble thing is too complicated and the cards too subtle- a little tweeking and i say get it out there. well done :)

    1. admin says:

      Thanks for the comments Stacey. The analogies have all come from other people I have basically wrapped them up in a nice way and provided visuals of them. The cabbage thing I suppose could be changed but you would be surprised how many times people mentioned it when I was performing my research. Can I ask how you describe Autism to people and maybe I could visualise that and add it to the article?

  10. LOVE it description of autism says:

    I have asperger sydrome id say im the tiger eye stone and clear stone. I cant let it out and may hurt people at tiems and other times i could withdraw or keeps things in. it depends