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.