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!”
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”.