(Originally posted December 5, 2015)
You’ve heard someone say this before, right? “Oh, well, autism is a spectrum and I think that means that, really, everyone’s a little bit autistic.”
Now, I can see why someone might say that. I said something in my first book, No You Don’t: Essays from an Unstrange Mind, that might seem to support that idea: “And if you aren’t Autistic, don’t be surprised if you recognize pieces of yourself in here, too. Because autism is a difference of intensity and frequency but above all, it is a slice of the human condition. If you are human, you will recognize yourself in some of the things I write.”
This passage does not say that everyone is a little autistic. It says that Autistics are human beings. As my book says a couple of pages later, we are not “a different species, an alien creature, a changeling, a robot, a freak of nature.” We are human beings and so much of what we experience is fundamental to the human condition. Our autistic nervous system affects how we experience our humanity – our experience is often heightened in intensity and colored by our different perspectives on life. But it is humanity we are experiencing because we are fully human.
The converse of “all Autistics are human” – “all humans are Autistics” – is not implied and does not hold. When I say all Autistics are fully human (which, in case you were doubting, we are!) I am in no way implying that all humans are autistic . . . not even a little bit. People see that Autistics are human and that we often experience very intense versions of basic human experiences – anxiety, for example. We often carry a lot of anxiety and we get stressed out and we meltdown from high stress.
Since everyone has felt anxious at some point and everyone has felt overloaded with stress and everyone has “lost themselves” at one point or another, some people get mixed up and decide that sharing such a common experience as a stress and anxiety meltdown means that they are “a little autistic” too. But that is not true and it is a diminishing thing to say, particularly to Autistic people. You could easily deal with these issues, maybe with the help of CBD oil and other supplements. Cannabis and relaxation go hand in hand, and no one can agree more on how effective their recreational drugs are. It is no wonder that many are looking for cannabis vaporizers (check which type is best for you) to ease their daily stress. Unfortunately, for an autistic patient, that is not the same case.
If everyone were a little bit autistic, Salvation Army bell ringers would be illegal. If everyone were a little bit autistic, nothing ever would have strobe lights. Ever. Fluorescent lights, sirens, shirt tags, sock seams – these wouldn’t exist. There would be a strong social taboo against dragging a chair across the floor and making that horrible scraping sound with it. Perfume and cologne would be outlawed as hazardous substances and every school and workplace would have a quiet zone for recuperation. How we handled turn-taking would not involve long lines of people standing scrunched up close to each other. In short, if everybody were a little autistic, our whole society would look a great deal different than it does.
Experiencing a taste of what we live with does not make someone autistic, not even a little bit. It would be like me saying that, because I sometimes lose the ability to speak and need to type in order to communicate, I completely understand the lived experience of being an Autistic who never communicates with their voice. I can guess at the experience, but I do not live it. I have intermittent mutism and that does not make me “a little non-speaking” any more than someone who hates standing in lines or even someone who lives with daily anxiety is automatically “a little autistic.” The struggles I face are not the struggles others who have never spoken experience. The struggles non-autistic people face may have some surface similarities to struggles Autistics live with but that does not make someone “a little bit autistic.”
The only way I know to communicate how dismissive it is to say something like “we are all a little autistic” is to shift the whole idea into the context of some other disabilities:
“Sometimes I am looking for something and it’s right in front of me and I just kept missing it even when I was looking right at it. We’re all a little Blind, aren’t we?”
“The other day, I was sitting funny and my foot fell asleep. When I stood up, I almost fell down from the pins and needles. I guess we’re all a little paralyzed, huh?”
Those are ridiculous things to say. But so often I hear people saying analogous things, and not just about autism. How about, “I have to keep my house so clean and everything put away. I am so OCD!” Or “I am completely addicted to Sudoku puzzles!” Have you heard, “I can’t make up my mind. I just keep going back and forth I’m so schizophrenic.” Or, just as bad, the words are applied to something inanimate: “Rain, then sun, then rain, then sun. The weather is so bipolar today!”
Don’t do this! When you use someone else’s disability as an adjective for your quirks or otherwise reduce it to a one-dimensional descriptor, you are making light of their entire life. And when you say everyone is a little bit autistic, you are trivializing what it actually means to be Autistic.
I understand that some people have good intentions. They want to highlight the humanity of Autistics. Be careful – this is how person-first language arose: through an overzealous urge to bludgeon others with a disabled person’s humanity for fear that no one could see it otherwise. Others may be saying they are a little autistic in order to show solidarity with people they view as “fighting the good fight.” I’d like to show solidarity with People of Color but I would never dream of saying we’re all a little bit Asian or everyone is Native American inside or I’m a little Black. So don’t try to appropriate my disability just to show solidarity with me. I will appreciate your support just fine if you just try to pay attention and be sensitive. You can’t support my differences by pretending they don’t exist.
Amen! I only wish I had autism to understand and help my daughter more! Brilliant explanation! I wish society understood this! I tell my daughter (who was non verbal until 5- and nearly blind until 7) that she is Autistic! She never lies and recalls people’s names forever- which often helps me in an awkward situation when I see my hair dresser’s secretary in public and have no clue why I know her!!?? High five!
I meant autastic – she also knows she has autism.. Darn auto correct!!!
This is so true, and perfectly explained here – I just had to quote you on my Facebook page!
Fantastic, it is frustrating when I mention something that impacts me and makes it so I can’t function and do what needs to be done and the response is, “We all get that way sometimes.” But then no accommodation is made or suggested because, well we all supposedly have these problems after all, and then I’m stuck not functioning and looking the fool. 🙁 Thanks for putting it into words so well.
Yes that is my big issue as well with the “everyone is a little autistic, or “everyone is a little (insert any misunderstood disability here)” for that matter. While those who say things like that more often than not have good intentions, it diminishes the likelihood of being able to get reasonable accommodations in school, the workplace, etc when necessary, since that mindset could further ingrain the notion that many NT’s seem to have about those of us who appear “normal” that we don’t have a “real” disability (and it’s hard enough already to have it taken seriously) and makes it all the more difficult to be understood all around.
I get that borderline stuff so much. Thank you for the valuable insights; I have to think twice before becoming a bit paranoiac 🙂
Here’s my thing, too: what if we don’t *want* to “fight the good fight?” In my case, talking about it is the problem. I won’t speak for everybody on the spectrum, and feel free to disagree, but from what I’ve seen, this is why we isolate ourselves. We don’t like being condescended to. If you really have good intentions, maybe the best thing to do is not act on them. Hence why they’re called good “intentions” and not good “actions.”
I agree. And when I get annoyed with someone for saying things like “we are all a bit autistic”, they will react like I was the one over-reacting and seek to justify by saying they have good intentions. Of course I know their good intentions. Unfortunately, that makes them think they can get away with anything and it makes me feel guilty for blaming someone with good intention, in addition to having felt that my problem is belittled. I feel very strongly about this and wrote about this topic once in my blog, drawing an analogy with depression.
Your “Dear Lucy” is a terrific essay! Thank you for sharing that.
Thanks! I hope you don’t mind me sharing yours in my latest post, it is really a topic close to heart. The way I understand the topic, it is about being human, and if you care enough for someone, autistic or not, you would try to be more understanding and sensitive to the impact of your action and words. Thanks again for taking the time to respond and read my post. Here is the latest one:
Brilliant. Abso-bloody-lutely brilliant. You’ve encapsulated exactly what it is about the ‘everyone’s-a-little-bit-autistic’ BS that so bothers me, as an autistic who’s always felt ‘different from’ the majority of people, until I found my own kind and community.
Instead of providing insight into the autism spectrum and explaining how autism affects different people to varying degrees, this is just a petty attempt at policing language, something which is getting more and more common in the West today. “Please don’t use these words because they might hurt someones feelings” There are plenty of autistic people which do not feel part of some kind of ‘oppressed minority’ and who do not need your help.
Furthermore, its rather odd that you try to prohibit people from saying things like “the weather is bipolar” and then move on to comparing being black with having a disability.
This is not an attempt to police language; it is an attempt to get people to understand how the ways they have become accustomed to thinking about neurodivergence are harmful to others.
No matter what language one uses to express the idea, dismissing the struggles of Autistic people by saying that everyone is like that is harmful. I have written and published, literally, over a million words about how autism affects different people in different ways (I would not say “to varying degrees,” since autism is not a linear scale.) This essay was not about that topic. This essay was about the way it harms people to dismiss their requests for accommodation by saying everyone’s a little autistic, implying that since other people do not require accommodation for their challenges, Autistic people have no right to request assistance, understanding, or accommodation either.
Your issue with my declaration of cross-solidarity among movements seeking justice for disenfranchised populations seems a bit of a red herring.
Thank you for your detailed reply. I do understand the scope of your essay better now, however I believe you are reading to much into other people’s use of certain terms. I do not agree that by saying ‘everybody is a bit autistic’, one implies that ‘real’ autistic people should be denied rights. Your concerns seemed more focussed on the use of language than on the actual infringement of rights which reminded me of the kind of ‘cultivation of victimhood’ one sees among more (in your words) disenfranchised populations.
I don’t think I’m reading anything into people’s use of terms. I have had the exact experience that I have asked for necessary accommodation and been told that “everyone’s like that.” I responded, “no, they are not. This is an accommodation I require due to autism” and been told, “well, everybody’s a little autistic, aren’t they?”
No, they are not. And I don’t appreciate having my need for accommodation denied based on such dismissive hand-waving.
When I talked to other Autistics about it, I found that I am not the only one who has experienced my needs being diminished and dismissed.
It is not “cultivation of victimhood” when we try to get the ADA-protected accommodations we require and are turned away because of a cultural attitude that everyone is like we are, with the implication being that if everyone else doesn’t need accommodation, we shouldn’t need it, either.
It is *your* reading that comes away with the notion that I am “more focused on the use of language.” I am focused on the very real damage that people who say these words enact in the lives of vulnerable people. When the rest of society takes up the phrase and perpetuates it, it lends strength to those who try to deny us our legal rights and takes away strength from those of us who need people to understand that our experience is not at all the same as someone being shy or not liking to eat beets.
I am not speaking in “implications” or “political correctness.” I am speaking from the perspective of a group of people who have serious unmet needs.
Not disagreeing – but discussing: what about potentially autistic adults who are just uncertain? Who have “passed” for decades, sometimes unknowingly, but start to realize, as seems common, when their children are diagnosed? I don’t know what to think. There is clearly a genetic component at play. Many of us certainly see the same traits and patterns of traits in ourselves as in our diagnosed children, and indeed have struggled with them for our entire lives. I think, there, is a temptation to say something like “a little bit autistic” not dismissively, but in uncertainty. Where’s the threshold? Might we say “pre-autistic” (both in generational and commonality of diagnosis terms)? I don’t think “a little bit autistic” is the right way to express this, especially preceded by “we’re all”… but at the same time, I have lived in uncertainty for years now specifically NOT wanting to risk false appropriation, yet examining my life and feeling something like autism accounts for many, many things over the decades. For everything, really. I don’t know.
Researchers have a construct they use when studying how autism runs in families: BAP or Broad Autistic Phenotype. It’s not a diagnosis or identity, but it’s a way to explain why family members of Autistics tend to have a higher amount of autistic traits. It’s not “a little bit autistic” because there is no such thing and “pre-autistic” doesn’t make any sense.
In a case like yours where you’re examining your life, you can say something like that. “Since my child(ren) was/were diagnosed, I have been examining my own life.” Yes, that’s a lot of words, but you don’t actually have an Autistic identity until you identify as Autistic, so you unfortunately get lots of words.
If you’re actively seeking an assessment, that’s the way you describe it: “I’m in the process of seeking assessment for autism.”
Since the vast majority of Autistic adults are not diagnosed, and since you have family member(s) who are Autistic, there’s a strong possibility you will eventually realize you are also Autistic. It’s not guaranteed, of course, but a strong possibility. Until that point, you would do yourself and Autistics a disservice by saying you are “a little bit Autistic.” At this point, better to say you are “unsure” or “questioning.”
I totally agree with Tapoq. Anyway, what is the difference between having autistic traits and being a little bit autistic? It is a spectrum. What if you don’t quite meet the diagnostic criteria? Does this mean that you are fully NT and not a little bit autistic? Or does it mean that you are a little bit autistic but not autistic enough for a diagnosis?
If you don’t quite meet the criteria, and you don’t self-identify as Autistic, you are neurodivergent but not Autistic. Not being Autistic does not automatically mean one is neurotypical. Neurodivergence is huge and autism is just one type of neurodivergence.
There is an invisible line that exists that puts me in a space called ‘autism’, or other names that others chose for the place they put me in. There is an official set of criteria one must meet to be labelled autistic, but there is also a life time of lived reality that has deemed me autistic. None of it my choosing. It may be that everyone has some autistic traits, but those with enough to have them excluded from society have been pushed over that unseen line.
It is the daily jeers, the ever present annoyed faces, the names yelled out, the lack of invites, the straight faced lies, the hundredth rejection letter with no valid reason, the laughs behind our backs, the accusations that we don’t try hard enough, the dark nights alone mulling over day’s errors….all these tell us we are too much this, not enough that.
Great post, I just disagree with the part about person first language since I believe it was created by disabled people, specifically people with intellectual disabilities who in general prefer this way. It was not nondisabled people with good intentions.
I do not see the line in my essay that says that nondisabled people with good intentions created person-first language.
I think that might be because I didn’t say that.
The oldest reference in print (1988) says person-first language arose from disabled people and support organizations together. It was created out of fear that people would not recognize the humanity of disabled people unless an awkward linguistic construct were used to remind them that we are people.
I don’t like it. It emphasizes an assumption that there is something wrong or lacking in humanity about being disabled. I shouldn’t need to emphasize that I am a human being. Anyone who can’t see my humanity has a pretty big problem.
“When you use someone else’s disability as an adjective for your quirks or otherwise reduce it to a one-dimensional descriptor, you are making light of their entire life. ”
But autism isn’t a disability. It’s just a different way of perceiving and interacting with the world. The symptoms you use as examples are only experienced by some, not all, autistics. In fact, there is no single symptom or trait of being autistic. That’s why it is labelled as a spectrum, not a specific thing.
So given that we all perceive and interact the world in our own unique way, we are all autistic to some extent.
And by the way, experiencing blindness does not strictly mean that your eyes do not function at all, it means that you don’t see (either visually or in terms of understanding) something. Like being blind to an idea or fact. Not seeing an object that is positioned directly in front of you, despite having functional eyes, is indeed being blind to it. Even people who have ‘perfect’ eyesight cannot read a newspaper from a mile away. So it’s not really perfect, and thus we’re all physically blind to some extent or other. Just as everyone perceives and interacts with the world in their own unique way to some extent.
Autism very much is a disability.
You are speaking from the medical model of disability in which “disability” only means “something is wrong with you.”
I reject the medical model.
I am speaking from the social-relational model. In the society in which I live, Autistic people are very much Disabled. I don’t know any region of this planet where that is not the case.
And, congratulations. Every time I ask my readers to please not do something, there is always that ONE person who responds by quoting my request and then DOING EXACTLY THAT. I should make an award graphic for the people who do that. If I did, you would get a copy of it because you are That Person. “Blind to an idea” is an incredibly ableist thing to say. And I just asked people not to do that. And you quoted me asking. And then you did it. How does that even????
You just won the award. I really am going to have to make that graphic.
Truth is, there’s no such thing as autistic. It’s a made up word to promote a business from health care “professionals”. I know this for a fact because I found out what this world is and what they’re trying to do.
My 3 year old is displaying many traits that one would associate with autism. He’s already been diagnosed (is “diagnosed” the right word?) with sensory processing disorder. At the advice of our doctors and therapists, we are going through the evaluation process to see if he really is autistic.
I know you don’t really need my life story, but my point is that I’ve never experienced anything in this world before. It’s very overwhelming as a mom. Thank you for writing this and helping me understand a little more.