A lot of the Autistic people I know have at some point been told by a well-meaning friend or associate that “everyone is a little Autistic.” As an ADHDer, I was once told “we all struggle with memory sometimes, don’t we?” No doubt these statements are intended to be empathetic and make the person feel accepted and understood, but that’s not how it is usually received, let me explain why.
Unbeknownst to the people who say it, it is actually a very controversial statement. To people who have experienced being othered and ostracized for their differences it sounds flippant and minimizes our experiences. If everyone was a little Dyslexic, Dyspraxic, Autistic or ADHD then why would neurominorities experience the exclusion that they do? It’s a little bit like saying to someone with chronic cluster migraines that “we all have headaches, don’t we?” And the answer is no, we don’t all have headaches like that.
Neurominorities have been empowered through the neurodiversity movement. We have gained self-confidence and ownership of our identities through accepting that our brains are different and that that difference is okay. So, when someone who has not experienced any great hardships due to their more balanced cognitive abilities tries to claim that they are “a little bit Autistic” it is not surprising that we feel they are incorrectly trying to claim a piece of our hard won identity.
However, let’s take a deeper dive into neurocognitive abilities to understand where the experiences might come from.
Neurodiversity Itself Is A Spectrum
Most of us are familiar with the concept of Autism being a spectrum, although I should be clear that this spectrum is not from low to high as some might think, but actually more of a collection of strengths, struggles and experiential variables that are different for every individual. For all humans, there are a number of different cognitive abilities in which we can excel or lack, we are all somewhere on the spectrum of human capability. Most neurominorities tend to have big differences between the peaks and the troughs, known as the ‘spiky profile’, it’s a defining feature of neurodivergence – diverging from a statistical norm, a diverse profile rather than all average scores. The ‘cut off point’ for how much difference is significant and warrants diagnosis tends to be two standard deviations but this can be blurred by an individual’s background history and environmental factors. It’s something that good Psychologists take a holistic approach to, knowing that sometimes scores can be enhanced by practice and mental training, or depleted by illness, stress and neglect, and that behaviour can be masked or misinterpreted. When broadening this idea out to a general neurodiversity spectrum we can then also start to factor diversity in emotional experience, sensory perception and more.
The degree to which neurominority conditions overlap, go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed due to the holistic approach needed is well explored by Professor Amanda Kirby. It is entirely possible that a person who relates to the concept of everyone being a little Dyslexic, is actually an undiagnosed Dyslexic themselves, or has a similar pattern to their profile without having quite met the threshold of significant difference.
The prevalence of Tourette Syndrome is now thought to be around the same as the prevalence of Autism, but has gone under the radar because we associated TS with complex, more noticeable verbal and physical tics and didn’t acknowledge the longer term, pervasive impact of repetitive strain injury and osteoarthritis associated with more subtle lifelong tics. Are some people a ‘little bit Tourettes-y’? Or did we just need to adjust the boundaries for diagnosis?
A recent piece published by Cardiff University shed even more light on the degree to which Autism may be undiagnosed because we have been too prescriptive with how Autism is diagnosed as it is causing people to slip through the net. There are undoubtedly many undiagnosed and misdiagnosed neurodivergents all around us, they may not have struggled with the exact same difficulties but are still in need of finding their community and understanding themselves better.
Who Decides How Disabled We Are?
Disablement is not as simple a concept as some might think. Is everyone disabled? No. Can the degree to which you are disabled change throughout your life? Yes. Whilst the phrasing might be a little awkward it is for this reason that someone might actually refer to themselves as a little bit Autistic. To give an example I have a Dyspraxic colleague who often wonders if she is also Autistic. This could be because there is some overlap between the two conditions, but it could also be that she is actually Autistic but not in a way that has ever warranted further investigation, most likely because as a female her need to withdraw to decompress from sensory overwhelm was typed as “introverted”. If we move beyond narrow definitions, she identifies as neurodiverse, with experiences and traits that make her feel aligned with a broader range of experiences than one diagnosis can explain.
Disability is not a competition and we should certainly not be fighting amongst ourselves as to whose experiences are more valid than the others. I believe we have become so used to a position of needing to fight for our rights or for limited funding that we are sometimes doing this in places where it is not needed, to the detriment of others.
In the same way that functioning labels harm both those who are perceived as “high” or “low” functioning by making assumptions that ultimately limit them and seek to define them in an overly simplistic way, we are becoming too attached to diagnostic labels instead of looking at people as individuals. Legislatively, diagnosis is not the criteria for legal support. Worldwide, disability is legally defined by the extent to which one experiences difficulty, not the label one has been given – this is important for employers to remember when deciding on accommodations and adjustments.
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.