We need to stop saying “we’re all a little autistic”


A few years ago, I was the only diagnosed autistic staff member in a special school. The rest of the staff weren’t autistic, but many jokingly claimed to be.

“Oh, that must be my autism,” some would say as they parked their car in the same space each morning. (Meanwhile, I just parked wherever was easiest.)

“Yep, that’s my autism right there,” others would say as they tidied up the staff room in a very specific manner. (Meanwhile, the messiness of my desk was repeatedly criticised throughout my teaching career.)

 

Don’t get me wrong, I was close friends with a lot of these colleagues. But were it not for the anxiety I suffered at the time, I probably would have challenged those remarks.

 

Autistic habits are surprisingly easy to pick up in a special school, since you’re constantly adapting your behaviour to suit your students’ needs. But next time you want to show off your ‘autistic traits’ because you didn’t realise your friend was being sarcastic, first go through the years of social isolation, the lifetime of not fitting in, the confusion of people’s comfort zones, the feeling of being the ‘wrong’ kind of person for not being like everyone else, and the years of having anxiety forced upon you by others. Then you can talk to me about ‘your autism’.

 

Excuse me. I needed that rant.

 

Having been in the online autism community for quite a while now (at time of writing, Autistic Not Weird’s own Facebook community has over 66,000 followers [all links open in new windows]), I’ve noticed that one of the biggest frustrations among autistic people is the following question:

 

“Aren’t we all on the spectrum somewhere?”

Well, the answer depends on whether you’re asking a neurologist, or someone with real-life experience of autism. (I’m a big fan of balanced opinions, so it may be best to ask an autistic neurologist. I imagine there’s plenty of them.)

 

The neurological theory is that, because autism is a spectrum, it can be argued that everybody is somewhere on it, even if 99% of them don’t fall within the diagnostic criteria.

The autistic perspective is… well, a resounding NO. If you can’t match an autistic person’s life experience, don’t claim their identity.

 

Because even if the phrase “everyone’s on the autism spectrum” were technically true, it’s very, very misleading.

Like these I found on Reddit. Ah, Reddit users. Don’t ever change.

 

The fact is, people may hear ‘everyone’s on the spectrum somewhere’, and interpret it as ‘everyone’s a little autistic’. Those are two entirely different things. Everyone can technically be on the autism spectrum (in the same way that almost-but-not-quite-pitch-black is technically on the visible light spectrum). But not everyone can be autistic, because the word ‘autistic’ implies that they could literally be diagnosed with autism.

 

How to belittle an autistic person without even trying:

Let’s assume that everyone truly is, neurologically speaking, on the autism spectrum. Even if this is true, the sentence “we’re all a little autistic” remains both damaging and misleading. (Just like the millions of people who say “oh, I’m super OCD about some things!” whilst displaying no genuine traits of real-life Obsessive Compulsive Disorder beyond hating that smudge on their bedroom window.)

 

When you tell an autistic person that “we’re all a little autistic”, I can almost guarantee that their first reaction will be to feel like you’re trivialising their difficulties (and I’m sorry to say it, but they’re basically right. Taking struggles specific to one group of people, then claiming they apply to humans in general, is literally what trivialising means.)

While I’m at it, here are a few other sentences that are socially unacceptable. (Admittedly, I’ve borrowed some from a previous article of mine: “You have autism? Oh, I’m so sorry.”)

“You have learning difficulties? Oh, we all find learning difficult once in a while.”

 

“You have a nut allergy? Yeah, I don’t like nuts either.”

 

“You’re dyslexic? Well most of us can’t even spell that word so we know how you feel.”

 

“You have Alzheimer’s? Don’t worry, we all forget things as we get older.”

 

“You suffer from depression? Well we all feel down from time to time.”

 

Oh, wait. People actually do say that last one.

 

When I last raised the “we’re all a little autistic” subject in Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community, several followers told me about psychiatrists using the sentence as grounds to deny someone a diagnosis (or at least make one more difficult).

My response would be “yeah, but aren’t we all psychiatrists in some way? I mean, we all have brains, we’ve all learned about them in school, and we’re all fascinated in how they work. I’m sure that makes my experience at least partly as valid as yours.”

You try telling me she was never a psychiatrist.

 

To be fair though…

Not everyone says “we’re all on the spectrum” to belittle or trivialise. Some say it with the best intentions, almost as a way of saying “don’t worry, you’re not alone”.

But there are better ways of telling someone they’re not alone, rather than falsely claiming to know what they’re going through. Or implying that everyone who ignores them, alienates them, or openly taunts them is ‘autistic’ too. Or making them think there’s no way the general population can ever come to understand them… because if they’re all autistic and still don’t understand, they never will.

 

If you want an autistic person to feel less alone, don’t use a misleading statement that means “we’re all just like you”, when all our life experience tells us it’s simply not true. Instead, ask them for their perspective, and listen attentively to it. Listeners kill loneliness.

 

And to anyone who’s still not convinced, may I present my final case.

Here we go…

 

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, autism-friendly cinema screenings would not be a new thing.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, shopping centres wouldn’t be so terrifying.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, the unwritten social rules would be clearer. Maybe they’d even be written down.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, schools would already know how to cater for an autistic child’s needs, without requiring specific autism training that their budget can’t afford.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, rates of anxiety and mental health issues would go through the roof.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, society would be driven more by ‘right and wrong’ than ‘appropriate and inappropriate’.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, automatic hand-dryers would be banned in public places.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, fashion designers would be more concerned about how soft and comfortable their clothes are than whether or not they look fashionable. (Oh, and labels would never be allowed to stab people in the neck.)

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, people like me would pass job interviews.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, people would actually say what they mean, rather than drop subtle hints then blame us for not correctly interpreting the inside of their heads.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, my career as an autism trainer wouldn’t need to exist.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, diagnosed schoolkids wouldn’t be bullied for it.

If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, several of my students would never have attempted suicide due to the isolation they felt from the rest of society.

 

And finally, if everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, people would understand our social differences rather than try to “solve” them.

 

Well, that’s all from me for this article. Next time you hear someone using the sentence “we’re all a little autistic”, feel free to steal any of the above sentences. Use all of them at once if you want, although this may freak out your conversation partner.

 

Thanks for reading, and feel free to join us on Facebook or take a look at the new series of 3-Minute Autism Advice videos I’m sharing on YouTube. And if anyone wants to help me continue to write for Autistic Not Weird as a job, take a look at the rewards available on Patreon!

 

Take care,

Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk

Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).

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19 Comments

  1. We are NOT all ‘a little autistic’. Great post.

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  2. Great post with very helpful sentences/ information.

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    • Thanks a lot! 🙂

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  3. There are some things I find offensive in the way ASD is described. Somehow we are told that we a socially incompetent. I have started saying that our unwritten social rules are different to theirs.

    I listened to ten minutes of your training lecture and thought of the potato example as one of our unwritten rules. It is frustrating to have people ask questions they do not want an answer to.

    The idea many have that we cannot lie is funny. As if. I lied as a child. My son lies. And we are definitely “on the spectrum”.

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    • Haha, yep- as I said in the video, the people who claim to have an understanding of “normal” have done some rather odd things in shaping what “normal” is supposed to be. 😉 And yep, some autistic people take lying to a pathological extreme. You know, because we’re all different!

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  4. I just spat out my drink when I read your ‘hand dryer’ comment! Great article Sooo true.

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  5. Yeeesssss!!!!! Well said Chris!

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  6. I teach Psychology at the high school level and I use a similar statement to help my students understand that all “disorders” are collections of behaviors that we all do in some way. (I also have two children of my own with ASDs) My intention in doing it is to have them understand that the behaviors are not so uncommon. For example, when I talk about OCD, I ask them about things they do that are “OCD-ish” and then take them through the diagnostic criteria to show what does and does not break the threshold for diagnosis. I agree that the casual way that people use it, as you describe in the piece, can be problematic, but I think it can make people aware that whatever behaviors you might be talking about are not so far out of from the norm. My two cents.

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    • Interesting. We recently had my son evaluated for autism and were told that he is sub threshold for diagnosis. It’s so frustrating to be in this position, because we are now just sort of left to our own devices to figure out how to deal with a kid who is, for lack of a better phrase, “almost autistic.” He still struggles with appropriateness and social cues and things. But not enough. :/

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      • Sounds similar to my younger who for a few years had a “provisional diagnosis” that we think was largely based on the family history (older brother, first cousins on both sides). She was eventually given the pdd-nos label (no longer used in the US) and her issues, like her brother, are largely social and very mild behavior (some stimming, some repeating, some change centered rigidity). Good luck to you

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    • Would that similar statement be along the lines of “everyone has/experience x but some people experience x higher”? My mother says that, she’s a social worker/counsellor.

      She said the former to me when my anxiety got debilitating and it was calming. It reaffirmed that I wasn’t alone in experiencing it but it didn’t belittle my struggle with it. Do you phrase similarly?

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      • Yes, I do approach things that way, especially when talking about anxiety.

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  7. I do not claim to be on the spectrum but as a parent I do occasionally wonder if he has inherited certain characteristics from me or his dad. On a separate note an exercise I like to give my parents is to consider the judgement they attach to certain behavior. Instead I provide them with the view- if everyone was autistic and did this behavior, would you care? Most of the time this changes their perspective and how they deal with it.

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  8. Great article.

    I read a few days after I found out that I’m not the only autistic person in the family. Almost all of my family from my mother’s side has been diagnosed in the past 5 years (I’d lost contact), up to my maternal grandparents. It is suspected that even my great grandfather was on the spectrum.

    I wasn’t really making a point, but I just thought it would be interesting to share this.

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  9. I think I’m catching on. The other day when you posted a short version of this on Facebook, I really didn’t get it. No one answered my questions there, which is fine, because I’m not the target audience/center of the world. But that example about depression did it for me. I deal with depression, as done my son. I think the biggest misperception people have is that it is “feeling sad” or “feeling really, really sad” and must involve a lot of crying. In reality, if I can cry, it means I’m coming up out of the depression, because I can feel something. At the depths, we don’t feel anything at all when we are depressed, and don’t care about anything. So if the “we are all a little autistic” feels like someone saying they know what depression is like, because they’ve been really sad, well, that’s something I don’t want to do.

    But then there is still the question that I and a few others asked on that Facebook post. To many of us, saying that in a moment that we see is awkward for someone else is a way of trying to say “I empathize with you. I may have an idea of what that feels like, to a much lesser extent”. Is saying that patronizing g? I don’t really know if what I e experienced is actually a small dose of what autosm’s Interactions with NT people feels like. I know that I was irritated the other day when someone told me she’d “hate” to make me do just what she wanted to do, and there have been many times I’ve been on the outside, because I just didn’t get the social cues. I have no idea if I’m autistic or not, but these experiences, and watching my son struggle, give me the idea that maybe I can empathize. If I want to empathize with a person so they don’t feel so awkwardly alone, what’s a better thing to say?

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    • Hi. 🙂 I do like your idea of saying “I can empathise, to a lesser extent”. I think what people really want is to tell autistic people they’re not alone, which is a wonderful thing to do. But there’s a tricky difference between saying it in a way that sounds like “your problems don’t sound that special”, and in a way that sounds like “there are people who understand you”. Perhaps the phrase “you’re not alone” might work better than “we’re all a little autistic”.
      I suppose the best thing to do (as obvious as it sounds!) would be to simply listen to their perspective and their experience first. After that, it’s easier to gauge what kind of comments would be helpful. When someone listens to you it doesn’t necessarily mean they can empathise on the same level, but the simple act of being listened to makes us feel less alone.
      This might make an interesting discussion on the Facebook page actually- if you want, I can specifically ask “what would be a better way of showing empathy than ‘we’re all a little autistic’?” 🙂

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  10. Great writing, great read. I actually found this by Googling ‘is everybody a little autistic’ to find out how much truth there is to it, and I’m glad this is the first result I clicked on. As a former high school teacher, I’ve known and worked with several kids with autism (that’s where I learned to say ‘kids with autism’ as opposed to ‘autistic kids’). I’m definitely never going to say this ‘everybody’ phrase again, because thanks to this article I can now see how it’s a trivializing utterance. While reading I actually started feeling kinda bad for imagining myself somewhere on the spectrum. But then I reached the end and read the list of examples of life experiences that sort truer autistic struggles from imagined ones, and now I’m back to thinking I AM possibly on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, because so many of those struggles do apply in my life, particularly the misophonic and social ones. What makes this all very weird to me is how I didn’t always have these difficulties; they have amassed gradually over my 44 years. I’m a biologist so I know better than to draw even a hypothesis, let alone any conclusions, from my one data point, because that’s all it is. Still, I can’t help but wonder about any research out there discussing trends in autistic presentation over the course of lifetimes. I imagine a lot of people with little familiarity beyond watching Temple Grandin would just assume that coping and adjusting tends to get better, easier, after years of living among ‘normatives.’ But are there people whose autistic differences increase in quantity and severity, and can a person with no clear signs as a child become semi-diagnosable later in life?

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    • Hi Audrey, thanks for the comment. I’m glad this was the first result you clicked too! 🙂

      There is a tricky balance between wanting the world to stop saying “we’re all a little autistic” and also not putting up barriers to those (like yourself) who feel they may be diagnosably on the spectrum. And it’s difficult to get right. So don’t feel guilty about suspecting you may be on the spectrum too. 😉
      I’ve heard of cases where autism symptoms become more noticeable with age. Then again, the reverse is true as well. Inconveniently, like most topics where autism is involved, it’s very much a case by case basis! But by the sounds of it, I’d certainly do your research and see if autism/Asperger’s is something you personally identify with (bear in mind it often manifests differently in females).
      Take care, thanks again,
      Chris

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