My friend recently told me about some behavior challenges she’s been experiencing with her son, and how it’s been difficult to know how to appropriately discipline him.
She then added, “But I think he might be a little autistic.”
It bothered me. I didn’t tell her that because I couldn’t quite ascertain at the time why it bothered me so much.
After having some time to think about it, I have some answers.
The most obvious being that I am autistic. I didn’t find out until my 30’s. It was a lot to try and understand. To reorient. To reflect on my life. To see myself with a new perspective.
The amount of self-reckoning that occurred and the seriousness of it all is partially why I think that a casual flippant comment irked me. Its lack of depth, compared to the utter depths of my lived experience.
The second reason is that I see autism through a neurodivergent lens. I believe that my brain structure is different from a neurotypical person, leading to differences in sensory perception, information processinging, learning, intensity of feelings, and much more. I experience it ALL of the time.
For example, throughout the day I experience emotions and thoughts at greater volumes and intensity than most people. It helps me to be more perceptive and creative, but it always leaves me more exhausted by the end of the day.
Autism is not a singular trait. It is the way a brain works that then manifests in multiple ways. So when someone says “a little bit autistic” I often think they lack the fundamental understanding of what autism is and how it impacts an individual’s entire way of being.
I want to acknowledge here that autism is indeed a “spectrum” and that all autistic experience varying impacts. For example, I quickly get headaches from intense light, whereas I have some autistic clients that are not impacted at all.
Thus it is possible for autistics to vary in levels of sensory sensitivity, socialization skills, emotional perception, and more.
This leads me to my third reason. When phrases like “he’s a little autistic” are used, people are typically relying on stereotypical presentations of autism - what I call mainstream white boy autism. This viewpoint usually includes a flapping of hands, extreme rigidity in patterns, saying awkward things, having dramatic emotional meltdowns, severe black and white thinking, wanting solely their own way, and more.
In essence, they’ve boiled it down to the “negative” traits and left out all of the good. It reduces autism to annoying, disruptive behavior (which also bears the question, annoying to whom - the autistic or the people around?).
Most people’s perceptions of autism are shaped by TV and movies that depict autism in such a fashion. These depictions do not capture what autism is like for many people, especially girls and women.
When my friend told me her son was being a little autistic, I inquired what behaviors she was thinking of. She referenced that her son would frequently say “no” whenever he didn’t get his way or that he liked to line up his toys.
It’s not my friend’s fault that she was only exposed to stereotypical presentations of autism.
However, this leads to my final point. When someone says they think someone is a “little bit autistic,” they usually do not follow up with a serious inquiry about autism. Instead, the phrase is used to explain, downplay, excuse, or dismiss behavior.
Most people do not think their kid could actually be autistic because they have the stereotypical representations ingrained in their heads. So when a parent notices something “a little bit autistic” they leave it at that, instead of getting curious, learning more, and exploring further.
I hope what has come across in this essay is not an attack on people. My friend is doing her best with the knowledge she has. Instead, I hope this essay shows how our stereotypical depictions trap us all - autistic and allistic.
I work with late-identified autistic individuals. If you think you might be autistic or are struggling with your recent self-identification, let's talk.