“We’re all a little autistic,” says the well-meaning family member, friend, or stranger speaking to me about my son’s diagnosis. I smile and nod, feeling conflicted. I have heard this phrase a million times over the last four years. I know it’s always said with the best of intentions. It’s usually said by someone who is trying to empathize, trying to understand. They certainly don’t realize that this statement is “a little bit” ableist.
Although I have spent most of my son’s life learning about autism and how I can best advocate for my son, something I must constantly remind myself is that people who don’t have someone with autism in their lives, or aren’t autistic themselves, usually don’t know very much about autism. I don’t believe that this is (usually) out of malice or purposeful ableism; people simply don’t often seek out information about topics that don’t directly impact their lives.
So, what’s the problem with the phrase, “we’re all a little autistic”?
The Autism Spectrum
The autism spectrum is not from low to high, as some people might think. While we are all on the general spectrum of human capability, with various combinations of cognitive strengths and struggles, one of the defining features of neurodivergence is large peaks and valleys of abilities, outside of the average scores. In other words, people with autism experience their cognitive strengths and struggles with greater intensity than the average person who is neurotypical. Not to mention the different set of strengths and struggles associated with the various conditions that often co-occur with autism, such as epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder.
Yes, autism is a spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is on that spectrum. If that were the case, people with autism wouldn’t have to fight for support and inclusion in a world designed for neurotypical people. Yes, everyone has their own strengths and struggles, but not every person is disabled.
The statement “we’re all a little autistic” may also make people with autism feel as though their experiences are being minimized. Many people with autism face challenges on a daily basis that are a direct result of living in a world that was designed for neurotypical people. Many people with autism have lived experiences of feeling “othered” or excluded from society. Many people with autism have fought incredibly hard to achieve self-confidence and ownership of their identities as a neurodivergent individual. Claiming “we’re all a little autistic” is shrinking these lived experiences.
Comparing the typical cognitive strengths and struggles of neurotypical people to having “a little bit” of autism is like comparing feeling sad to having clinical depression. Sure, people do that do—but I think most of society now recognizes the latter comparison as being flippant or even ignorant. Most people, at least occasionally, have a symptom or two of various illnesses and disorders, but just because I get headaches every now and then, doesn’t mean I have a little bit of brain tumor.
A Little Bit of Empathy
With all of that being said, I should also mention that I haven’t yet confronted anyone who has ever said the words “we’re all a little autistic.”
I strongly believe that most people—but especially the wonderful people I have in my life—are simply trying their best to understand my son. With this statement, they are trying to convey that they include him, accept him, and love him as he is. They are trying to tell me that they don’t look at him any differently (which is always the horrible, gut-wrenching fear that resides in the pit of my stomach as the mother of a child with a disability).
Furthermore, who’s to say that the person saying this to me isn’t actually neurodivergent themselves? Autism is still incredibly underdiagnosed, especially within the older generations. Perhaps they feel so connected to my son’s experiences because they have similar experiences, not realizing that neurotypical people can’t relate.
People aren’t always going to say the right thing, especially about something they don’t fully understand, but it’s the intention behind it that matters. Productive conversations about autism—or anything, really—can happen when we show a little empathy and try to remember that people are doing their best.
Psychologist Nancy Doyle puts it best: “It is possible to acknowledge that some people experience greater levels of exclusion and difficulty in their lives without also needing to undermine or devalue the experiences of those who may to date have had an easier ride. Similarly, it is important that those of us with a higher degree of privilege and access do not erase the struggles of others by claiming that we are all the same and talking over them when they have a different perspective to add. We can coexist and all support each because we have more in common than that which divides us.”