First, what does it mean to be autistic? In medical terms, it means that the person meets a set of criteria for a diagnosis (see summary below). In this definition, a person either meets the criteria, or they don’t. If the criteria are met, then the person’s situation is further described based on criteria for support needs. However, anyone who has been diagnosed with autism is by definition 100% autistic. Someone with higher support needs is not “more autistic” than someone with lower support needs.
Layman’s summary of criteria for autism diagnosis:
Communication and Social Interaction
● Difficulty with ordinary social interactions
● Difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication
● Difficulty maintaining relationships
Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior
● Need for sameness and routines
● Very specific, intense interests
● Over or under reacting to the environment or internal stimuli
Criteria for diagnosis
● These symptoms have been present since early childhood.
● These symptoms cause significant difficulties in relationships, at work or school, and in daily life.
A person could meet one or more of these criteria without having autism. A person could also be autistic, but not have a medical diagnosis. However, this does not mean that “everyone’s a little autistic”. An autism diagnosis is based on behavioral observations. Since autistic people are human beings, our behaviors come from the same repertoire of human behaviors as everyone else’s. It is not necessarily autism if you jiggle your leg when you’re sitting in a waiting room. It is not necessarily autism if you had a speech delay. It is not necessarily autism if crowds make you nervous. These are human behaviors that people display for a variety of reasons. They do not make someone “a little autistic.”
The differences that allow an autism diagnosis are based on how and when we display a certain constellation of behaviors, but autism is not behaviors! Just as the flu is not a fever, autism is not the behavioral symptoms that define autism. Autism is an inferred condition. Based on a pattern of behavior and responses, we can infer that someone has developmental neurological differences that lead them to display a certain constellation of behaviors. Just as having a fever doesn’t necessarily mean you have a touch of the flu, having one or a few of the criteria for autism doesn’t mean that you are a little autistic.
Misunderstanding the term “Autism Spectrum”
The term “Autism Spectrum” does not refer to a linear scale with one end being less autistic and the other end being more autistic. It refers to the variability observed among autistic people. People who are on the Autism Spectrum are all 100% autistic, but we have different strengths and weaknesses. This is likely because we have different sets of specific neurological differences, but what we share is that our differences are significant enough to be disabling.
I prefer the term “neurodivergent”. Autistic people are not all alike, but our differences mean that we share some common experiences of being excluded, bullied, harassed, abused, or discriminated against because of our neurological differences. Society, and especially educational institutions, were not built to be accessible to us. Systemic bias against disabled people means that medical and educational institutions seek to change our behavior, train us to appear nonautistic, “cure” us, or prevent our existence. We grow up receiving messages that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we are and with the needs we have based on our neurological functioning. We suffer, not from being autistic, but from the rejection of our true selves by society.
Why saying “everyone’s a little autistic” is harmful
Some readers of this cartoon wonder why the autistic character seems so angry. After all, most people who say “everyone’s a little autistic” do not realize that saying it is harmful. They may intend to find common ground with an autistic person, they may be attempting to be inclusive, or they may genuinely feel that they, too, might be autistic. The discussion above hopefully convinced you that the statement, “everyone’s a little autistic”, is false. But beyond that, when you say it, you are invalidating the painful experiences of autistic people of being excluded because of their neurological differences.
Additionally, the path to a diagnosis is often long and difficult. It requires extensive psychological testing and medical and personal history. It may require facing painful truths about one’s abilities and memories of childhood abuse. It can be expensive and is not always covered by medical insurance. People do not undergo the diagnostic process just for curiosity. They usually seek a diagnosis because they are struggling in their lives and want to understand why. If you haven’t experienced that, saying “everyone’s a little autistic” sounds like you’re dismissing the very real difficulties faced by autistic people.
What to say when someone discloses to you that they are autistic
This depends on the context and how well you know the autistic person, but in general thanking them for their openness and for trusting you with this information will be welcomed. If you are emotionally close to the autistic person and this is a new diagnosis or self-diagnosis, you might ask them how they are feeling about it. If you also think you might be autistic, you can share that you’ve been wondering whether you might be autistic, too. However, it’s not a good idea to ask for evidence that the person is autistic, for example asking, “Why would you think that?” or to deny that they’re autistic, for example saying, “I don’t see you that way.” And please don’t say, “Well, everyone’s a little autistic!”