When sharing my autism diagnosis, it’s not unusual that I hear a variation of this phrase: “We’re all a little autistic.” (I distinctly remember my boss using this exact phrase.)
Um, no. Of course, not everyone is a little autistic. If everyone is, then there wouldn’t be a need for a diagnosis, would there? Autism would be the norm. But it’s not. It’s called the autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) for a reason – it’s a spectrum of autistic traits collectively representative of autistics, not neurotypicals.
Usually, comments like this are directed toward autistics whose traits present mildly and are highly skilled at masking them.
But responses such as this only belittle us by dismissing our autistic experiences. Essentially, the person is saying that they don’t believe that our experience is any different than others.
Some people may have good intentions behind using this response. By declaring that everyone has similar lived experiences, they hope to show an understanding of our struggles. Perhaps it’s an attempt to say, “I know what you are going through. I have social anxiety, too, so I can relate!”
Whether they don’t believe us or are misguided in their efforts to relate, falsely claiming that everyone is on the spectrum is harmful to autistics.
The dismissive nature of the response can cause us not to seek out the support we need. Because everyone is “a little autistic,” we experience similar struggles. Since everyone can overcome them without support, we are expected to do the same.
It can also lead us to question our diagnosis – specifically for late-diagnosis autistics. We’ve spent so much of our lives living with imposter syndrome because of the need to mask our traits. Too often, our ability to mask is fused with our true selves. We’ve pretended to be someone else for so long that it becomes difficult to distinguish ourselves from the mask.
If everyone else is a little like me, then am I really autistic?
We need to remember this: neurotypicals see the mask and not the struggles behind the mask. To the outside world, the authentic autistic is the imposter because that is the side of us they have not seen. While for us, the mask is the imposter and our autistic traits are a part of our authentic selves.
Yes, a neurotypical can indeed have one or two overlapping symptoms – but that doesn’t mean they are on the autistic spectrum. Anyone can be diagnosed with OCD or social anxiety, or a sensory issue. But these diagnoses are separate from autism.
As stated by the Center for Disease Control, “To meet diagnostic criteria for ASD according to DSM-5, a child must have persistent deficits in each of three areas of social communication and interaction…plus at least two of four types of restricted, repetitive behaviors…”
To be diagnosed with autism, you must exhibit a collection of autistic traits. Although each autistic has a different autistic trait profile (because, you know, it’s a spectrum), we still need to exhibit a collection of traits within the categories identified in the DSM to be diagnosed with ASD.
So, let’s take a look at social anxiety. You can be autistic and have social anxiety…or just have social anxiety.
The autistic trait is the limited ability to pick up on non-verbal social cues like tone, body language, and facial expressions. This can cause an autistic person to have social anxiety. A neurotypical person can have social anxiety but not be autistic. The trigger for neurotypical social anxiety is usually the fear of being judged.
Healthline states that “while some symptoms between [ASD] and social anxiety, like social behaviors, may overlap, [Rochelle] Whittaker [Ph.D.] emphasizes that the causes of the symptoms are not the same.”
So, why do neurotypicals believe everyone is on the spectrum somewhere?
They may not see the level of nuance in the distinction between autism and other overlapping symptoms. Quite simply, it comes down to a limited understanding of autism.
To be honest, I’m not sure they intend to be insulting. As I stated before, they are expressing, albeit poorly, the discrepancy between what they see (the masking) and the autistic traits. Or it’s their attempt to make us feel connected: others can relate to our struggles.
Either way, don’t allow someone else’s disbelief to make you feel like an imposter. You are the only person that knows where you end, and the mask begins. Only you know your lived experiences.
If you can, take this opportunity to educate them on autism. Explain why they didn’t “notice” your traits and why everyone isn’t somewhere on the spectrum. Hopefully, they are open to learning more.
Ultimately, every person’s lived experience is different from our own. We need to be open to giving space for each person to represent themselves authentically and not dismiss their experiences in disbelief or in a misguided attempt to relate. It isn’t limited to interacting with autistics; it’s for anyone with an unseen disability or condition. Many conditions and disabilities can not be seen. But we need to listen to and believe the person living with it.
5 thoughts on “But Everyone is a Little Autistic, Right?”
As a father to an autistic child I’ve heard this one often enough, as well, and I don’t believe people mean it in a bad way either. You can always dilute words and concepts if you insist. Technically, I’m a little bit of a professional soccer player, too, because I kind of enjoy playing the game and can – sometimes – score a goal. But yeah, no. 🙂
I had to laugh at your comment. I imagined myself flopping around on a soccer field with a soccer ball. It wasn’t pretty! I think people are uncomfortable with their lack of understanding and knowledge of autism that maybe they feel the need to “reassure” themselves that we are still like them and reconcile the fact that what they see from us doesn’t fit the stereotype. Whatever the case, I think it goes without saying – more awareness and education on what autism really means is needed. Thank you for reading!
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Even my clinical psychologist didn’t pick up on my Autism. And now that she has been once again told that I have a previous late diagnosis of Autism & ADHD (which she claimed she was unaware of despite me mentioning that I see a Autism psychologist that specialises in working with only women & girls due to their different presentation) and she now has said that she thinks we are all a little on the spectrum. She said to give her a good jigsaw puzzle and she’s totally absorbed, you’ll see it….🤦🏼♀️
She also always often mentioned how I was very empathic for my 12 sessions we have had before she realised I had been diagnosed with Autism. (She was in the process of trying to diagnose me. All she knew was that I had severe anxiety which she noted throughout each session and was aware that I had a huge trauma history)
The thing I found to be even more weird was that since I have been diagnosed and my therapist now “knows” I am Autistic she no longer thinks I have empathy, which is common for Autistic folk due to the literature she has studied.
I have directed her to some papers to read and further education from Autistics, but my point is that It is often so exhausting to educate others. I know it is necessary. I was 50 years old before I realised I was Autistic and my life finally began to make sense. I do have intense empathy for others, probably due to my trauma background. It was due to my abuse that I gained the skills I have developed to read others. I am not great at feeling my feelings, but I was not allowed to do so. It was always necessary to know how to navigate my surroundings and to understand others.
I’m so grateful for blogs and advocates that continue to educate in any way. We do need to let others learn. We all need to learn or nothing will ever change.
All humans mask to a degree to fit in & thrive for many reasons.
Neurodivergent folk that don’t know they are actually neurodivergent often moreso.
Knowledge gives us more choice and with choice hopefully comes more freedom and peace.
I’m still working on me atm, but educate where I can. I’m grateful for anyone that has the headspace & strength to do so. Thank you for sharing. 🙏🏻
Hi, Crystal. Wow! Your therapist doesn’t know a single thing about ASD. Unfortunately, not many do. Educating others can be exhausting. I’m often caught off guard and am not sure how to respond, which causes the perfect moment to pass by unutilized. But, we do what we can do. It’s more important, I think, to understand yourself. I, too, am late-diagnosed but it has made a world of difference. In all my years of trying to figure myself out, I felt unsuccessful until I found out I am autistic. Now, in the context of autism, it all makes sense. Thank you for sharing your story with me. It helps to know that there are others out there. (It proves to myself that I am NOT from another planet.) 🙂 I hope you are able to find a therapist who will listen to you and your lived experience.
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Connecting and sharing with other Autistic folk helps me understand myself more than I ever imagined possible & others have expressed a similar sentiment from my sharing of my experiences and realisations.
I fell into another therapist who said to me that she didn’t believe I was Autistic initially, but wasn’t going to go against my diagnosis (she only saw me in group therapy initially for DBT emotional regulation skills at the time for a few sessions, but I clicked with her and found her to be so very authentically genuine) after seeing her a couple of further private sessions for trauma she has since said that she can see that I am Autistic. She said that I mask incredibly well, but to my own detriment. She only ever diagnosed children, but since working with me has gone on to continue her education and has just become certified to work with adults. She is a little overwhelmed she admits and is going to ease into it as she mainly works with traumatised individuals and has a full client list, but she is passionate about helping understand her patients better and always is up for education as am I. I really love her for that. We are learning together.
Thanks again for all you share here. It makes a difference. 😊