Earlier this month, I found a great new blog by an autistic woman, Autism and expectations. Two of her posts so far have touched on how “I do that too” is not really a helpful response to someone describing their autistic experience.
People say this because it’s hard to describe being autistic. Often you end up clutching a collection of behaviours, such as social exhaustion, hating the phone, wiggling your feet.
And other people say, “I don’t like using phones either, and I wiggle my feet, and I’m shattered after a night out, maybe I’m a bit spectrumy!”
— From Re-thinking things through an Autistic filter, with follow-up “I do that too” The great miscommunication.
I think the post is great, and it’s actually gotten some coworkers talking about this issue in terms of other disability/mental health issues (since autistics aren’t the only folks dealing with this sort of thing).
But I also wanted to mention another way this response is unhelpful…
I was officially diagnosed about a year ago, but it took me about 2-3 years before deciding to see someone. In that time, while learning more about ASD, I’d been contemplating, analyzing, and reflecting on myself and my interactions. Each time I did something, I tried to sort it into “autism” or “normal, just weird”. Unsurprisingly, this was really difficult.
If “everyone’s on the spectrum”, if neurotypicals don’t like phones, get overextended when dealing with too many people, can be less socially adept… was I just making a big deal of a few common issues?
I assumed there must be some missing peice of “Autism” that I wasn’t experiencing.
I had myself convinced that there must then be something wrong with me, since I had so much trouble with normal things, things everyone dealt with. And I was missing that hidden autism thing. So instead, I just felt like I was a failure.
Turns out there is a “hidden autism” thing, which isn’t communicated well in “I don’t like crowds/phones”. It’s actually a few things… and they might not even be the same in all autistic people. What finally clued me into this was actually to just ignore neurotypicals for a while.
I dove headfirst into any autistic writing I could find. The #ActuallyAutistic tags on Tumblr, Twitter, and here on WordPress.com were great for hearing from real humans. I found a few blogs to follow (I mentioned some last post). I stumbled onto Disability in Kidlit, a great YA book review site focusing on books with disability topics. They had an “Autism on the page” series, where I found Harmonic Feedback and Rogue, and it clicked. I saw the way I communicated reflected back. Reading Rogue, I remembered being totally confused in jr high school; it captured those emotions I remembered (and the reasons behind them) so much better than anything else.
Finally I felt like maybe my struggles are not the “common issues” it seemed like. And from embracing that, I was able to stop fighting my way through things I “should be able to handle”.
By now I’ve read a few of the comments on the post, and heard from a few non-autistic coworkers who have issue with this idea. The “I do that, too” is simply a means to connect, a conversation bridge. How does trying to empathize stop conversation?
Perhaps they’re not the type of person this is written for, but that’s never how the “I do that, too” sentiment has been said to me.
Perhaps it would be a means to connect… if I hadn’t spent the first 27 years of my life thinking that “everyone does this, too — it’s just me that doesn’t get it”.
2 thoughts on “No, not everyone is “a little autistic””
I really enjoyed this. Thoughtful and informative.
“How does trying to empathize stop conversation?” I’ve been thinking about this more, and it’s because it’s not proper empathy.
The behavioural bits are the bits that show. They’re the problems caused by the lack of social processing.
I don’t believe that neurotypical people would say “I do that too”‘if they understood just how difficult the social processing itself can make life.
If a friend has a chronic, physical condition, it wouldn’t be empathy to say ” I feel pain sometimes.
Empathy means feeling what that person feels. It means understanding. If you don’t understand then you can’t empathise. If you’re matching the other person’s feelings to a lesser feeling in yourself, you’re getting it wrong. You don’t say, “I know how you feel, my friend’s cousin’s best friend died recently.” When someone tells you their mother has just died. They’re not comparable. It’s not empathy.
It’s socially inept. And if I’m the socially ept person in the room, then we have problems!
Some people, normal functioning people, just aren’t very good at empathy. Lots of autistic people are excellent at it.
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Thank you for writing this. You describe exactly what I’m going through at the moment, trying to observe myself, sorting my behaviour into “autistic” and “normal, just weird” and wondering if I have that defining autistic quality or if I’m just one of the me-too-ers. It’s difficult to figure out, though, because you can’t look into other people’s heads, and bits of behaviour are pretty much all you can go by.
But it’s always good to read someone who articulates so well what I’m thinking.