The UK’s Channel 4 is currently promoting its upcoming series ‘How autistic are you?’ [edit: link no longer works]. The blurb asks if you “think you might be autistic?” as a precursor to a whistle-stop tour of reasons you might indeed be autistic:
“Struggle with social interaction, maintaining eye contact, or understanding the expressions and gestures of those around you? Do you have difficulty understanding other people’s feelings and managing your own? Or perhaps bright, loud or crowded places make you anxious?”
This isn’t helpful.
- When free to create our own spaces for social interaction we form strong bonds and lasting relationships.
- I have heard of too many children and adults refused assessment or diagnosis because they can do eye contact.
- We are empathetic of others, we just might need them to communicate in a way we understand.
- We often know exactly what to do to manage our own feelings, it’s just that external expectations often lead to us ignoring our own feelings, because ‘other people don’t feel like that’ so we must be wrong.
- We can also be hyposensitive and crave loud, bright and busy (or have a perfectly well-calibrated sensory system).
Apparently the series intends to demystify autism. I’m really not so sure it’s going to do a very good job of it. The above paragraph ends with this gem:
“Theory and research suggest that autism is a spectrum, with autistic traits distributed along a spectrum in the general population. This means, to a certain extent, that everyone has some degree of autistic traits.”
This theory, that the population ranges from thoroughly-not-autistic-in-any-way-at-all along a straight line through to extremely-very-autistic-in-every-way-possible at the other end, is a fundamental part of Simon Baron-Cohen’s contribution to autism theory, which also includes how we lack empathy (err, nope) and how autism comes from an extreme male brain (err, nope, again).
The series will apparently “feature leading experts and people from the autistic community”. Experts and autistic people. Not autistic experts. Experts and autistic people. Nuff said.
Having preambled for longer than planned, I’m going to return to my title. Is everyone really a little bit autistic? I don’t think so. Does having an autistic trait or two mean you’re a little bit autistic? No, it just means you’re human. Autistic traits are human traits, for us they’re just in a different constellation.
- If I tell you I wear reading glasses, would you say I was a little bit blind?
- If I tell you I have a headache, would you say I was having a little bit of a migraine?
- If I tell you I was a bit sad, would you say I was being a little bit clinically depressed?
- If I tell you I sprained my ankle, would you say I was a little bit paralysed?
- If I tell you I am unable to read a foreign text (whilst being perfectly capable of reading in my usual language), would you say I was a little bit illiterate?
- If I said I didn’t like peas, would you say I had a little bit of an eating disorder?
I could go on. The point isn’t that being autistic is so awful that it’s worse than everything else, the point is that suggesting everyone is a little bit autistic trivialises and vanishes the experiences (good and bad) and the support needs of autistic people.