ON THE SPECTRUM, NOT WHAT YOU THINK

Many are on a different page when it comes to understanding autism


By Anna Alford: Culture Columnist


Let’s face it, we need to stop throwing around the word ‘autistic’ like it is going out of fashion. ‘Everyone’s on the spectrum’, ‘All of us are autistic to a degree’, ‘I’m not autistic, but I’m definitely on the spectrum’. If these statements were true, then why do autistic advocates still need to fight for awareness? Is there any truth behind these myths?

Is everyone really on the spectrum? On one hand, the answer to this question is technically yes. A 2016 Harvard study found that the same genes responsible for social difficulties in autistic people also have prominence in the general population, in otherwise assumed ‘neurotypical’ people. There is currently no set point for when these social difficulties become disabling enough to be classed as an autistic trait, in the same way that there is no set height at which people start being considered ‘tall’.

From a neurologist’s point of view, because autism is a spectrum, it can be attested that everyone falls onto it somewhere, even if only 1% of people fall within the criteria for diagnosis. In the same vein, it is also technically true to also say most people have an above average number of arms, or that the Vatican has about 2 popes per square kilometre.

People may hear ‘everyone’s on the spectrum’, and interpret this as ‘everyone’s a little bit autistic’, which are two entirely different things.

When people usually discuss autism, they talk as if it were a gradient, rather than a spectrum, ranging from ‘a little bit quirky’ to ‘extremely autistic’. In fact, this is a false and oversimplified representation of a very complex disorder.

Autism is not a delineated class of symptoms that progressively worsen as you slide up the spectrum. In actuality, one of the main distinguishing features of autism is that everyone has an ‘uneven profile of abilities’, as stated by the American Psychiatric Association. Every single person with autism manifests it differently, with a different range of symptoms at disparate severities.

The true autistic spectrum looks something like this:

Individuals with autism are affected by most or all of these traits, to varying degrees exclusive to that person. Ticking just one or two of these boxes does not mean you have autism, but you could have something else.


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MACKAYAN: AUTISM SPECTRUM

For instance, if you only have complications with controlling body movements, you probably have dyspraxia. If you only have issues with sensory processing, this is a sensory processing disorder. A reliable diagnosis of autism comes when a person compasses the spectrum in observable ways, whether they be slight or obvious.

You can now see how infuriating it is for people truly on the spectrum to hear someone else say they are ‘a little bit autistic’ because they have an aversion to bright lights, or they feel slightly awkward when meeting new people. Words like these act to trivialize the challenges autistic people face, devaluing and belittling their experiences.

Although these statements maybe used with good intention to show a willingness to empathize, as a kind of ‘you are not alone’, it often comes across as close-minded. Taking the struggles of a specific group of people and trying to pertain them to humans in general shows hesitation to understand the disorder fully.

If you do want to empathize with autists, instead of saying ‘everyone’s on the spectrum’, use words such as ‘I understand where you’re coming from’, or ‘I’ve experienced something like that’. It carries the same message without the risk of causing more harm than good for people who experience the effects of autism every day.

If you do want to empathize with autists, instead of saying ‘everyone’s on the spectrum’, use words such as ‘I understand where you’re coming from’, or ‘I’ve experienced something like that’. It carries the same message without the risk of causing more harm than good for people who experience the effects of autism every day.


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