By that logic everyone has cancer to some degree because we all have cells that divide, we all, in some cells in our body have some mutations that cause cancer. If you agree with that statement, stop reading now. If you realise the above statement is ludicrous, allow me to explain why the phrase “everyone is on the spectrum somewhere” is equally nonsensical. Having an autistic spectrum disorder extends so much further than social situations. It means so much more than the triad of impairments. Autism affects the way you relate to other people and to yourself from infancy. It shapes the way you think and colours your entire world. Dividing cells do not equal cancer. Being socially awkward does not equal autism.
I’m sure that most people who say “everyone is on the spectrum somewhere” mean well. I’m sure that often the intention is ‘I can relate’ or ‘there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not that strange.’ It’s meant to be reassuring or comforting. It isn’t. If everyone is on the spectrum somewhere then why am I struggling so much? If everyone is on the spectrum somewhere then what is wrong with me that makes it so much harder to deal with people? If everyone is on the spectrum somewhere then am I just over reacting and making a big deal out of nothing? Those are some of the thoughts that have run through my head when people have said that phrase to me. It isn’t comforting, it invalidates everything I struggle with.
If you know someone with Asperger Syndrome (AS) or Higher Functioning Autism (HFA) – the people I suspect the phrase is directed at most frequently – it can be harder to spot their differences and difficulties. This is especially true if you don’t spend a lot of time with the person, if they’re female or if you met them as adults. There are a few reasons for that. The first one being, you probably don’t see the hardest days. The days I wake up in the morning and find the light blinding and the sound of the slightest creak of a floorboard as I roll over in bed deafening, I don’t go out. I stay away from people because I know I can’t deal with them. I know that the slightest thing will make me snap. I shut myself away and try to be as still and quiet as possible. Most people don’t have days like that unless they’re hung-over. I don’t need alcohol to have a hang-over, I get a similar feeling when I crash because I’ve been pretending to be human for too long.
The second reason is that people learn to adapt. What people probably don’t realise when they’re talking to me is that my social skills are conscious. I have to think about it because it doesn’t come naturally to me. Even simple things like when I ask ‘how are you?’ Or ‘did you have a good time at….’ I’ve had to learn. I have to remember to ask those things because it isn’t automatic. It isn’t that I don’t care, but I don’t have the same curiosity about people’s lives as other people do. When people ask me those same questions in return, I have to remind myself that they weren’t there with me and that they can’t see inside my head so that I give them an answer in context. I am constantly second guessing myself: have I said too much? Not enough? I still can’t often tell from another person’s face whether they’re bored or not.
Third, the retelling of a meltdown is not nearly as dramatic as the live event. It’s much more easily brushed off. Meltdowns happen less, but they still happen. There are still times when I become an overgrown toddler in public. It feels like being a toddler too. My whole body is so full of fear or frustration or hurt that I feel like I’m going to explode with it. So it comes out in a scream. Or a violent flinging of objects or flailing of limbs. The grown up me sits behind my eyeballs watching all this happening and crying stop. But like a tantruming toddler, I can’t stop. It isn’t the same as upset. It isn’t the same as angry. It isn’t reaching the end of your tether and snapping at someone. It’s losing control to the point where you scare yourself.
Fourth, I am capable of toning down obsessions around people. Some people on the spectrum do not have a special interest or obsession to a high degree. Some people do. It is more than just an interest. It is more than being excited about something. It takes over your life. It will be a book that I will spend all day reading cover to cover only to turn back to the beginning and start again. I will shut myself off. I will stop doing other things. I will lose sleep over it. I will feel like I’m walking myself round and round in circles, but this is all I can focus on. If I’m talking to people, chances are I’m not at the deepest point of obsession. So no, it doesn’t come across as that intense.
Lastly, I have lived with Asperger syndrome my whole life, I have learned ways of dealing with it. If I have to make a phone call, I can ask people to do it for me. I have breathing techniques and distraction techniques to help deal with sensory difficulties. I have rote learned social norms. What you see, is the practiced version of me. What you don’t see, is the effort that takes.