A decade ago I was participating in a research seminar at an Australian university and one of the academics responded to a presentation about autism with the comment “all academics are a little bit autistic”.
Recently, I was speaking to a colleague about a someone from another university that she found hard to deal with. My colleague told me of the trouble she was having and finished up with “you know how he is … a bit on the spectrum”.
So even if not all academics “a little bit autistic”, the ones that are hard to get along with must be “a bit on the spectrum”?
Sadly, those two conversations were not isolated incidents, but rather the earliest and the most recent of dozens of occasions where I have heard people use “autistic’ as a gross over-generalisation or as an insult.
As an older woman with a successful career, I finally feel comfortable saying “I am autistic”. It is something I never would have admitted when I was starting my career.
My autism does not limit my ability to do my job – in many ways it is why I am good at what I do – but those flippant comments about “being on the spectrum” make it scary for a person to reveal their diagnosis.
As the mother of two autistic sons, and an advocate for autistic students, I am deeply aware of how damaging it is when people use “autism” as a criticism. It simplifies our challenges and ignores our strengths by limiting the definition of what autism is and what autistic people can achieve.
The message it sends to autistic children (and adults) is that it is fundamentally bad to be autistic.
What is autism? The full DSM-5 definition of autism is too wordy to replicate here, but it includes “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts” and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”.
However, autism is a spectrum not a line. An autistic person may have significant strengths in one area and significant challenges in another, which is why many in the autistic community are opposed to the use of functioning labels (“high-functioning” and “low-functioning”).
No, all academics are not “a little bit autistic” – just as all people who can’t dance are not “a little bit paraplegic”.
It is entirely possible that many academics are autistic (as are many mechanics, sales assistants, writers, etc). However, saying “all academics are a little bit autistic” trivialises the many challenges faced by autistic people in navigating the workplace and society more generally.
What you (as a neurotypical looking in) see from the outside is just a part of autism. You see unusual speech patterns, social communication difficulties, problems with eye contact, obsessive interests.
On the inside autism is a lot more than surface stuff. What you don’t see is the sensory hyperactivity (or hypoactivity) that makes it hard to work in an office with bright lights and air conditioning and people wearing perfume.
What you don’t hear is the cacophony of noise that makes it incredibly hard to focus on a task or to isolate a specific voice in a conversation. What you don’t feel is the ever-present anxiety of trying to act and speak like everyone else when it is about as natural to you as walking on your hands.
When neurotypical people use “autistic” or “spectrum” to describe someone who is a bit different or a bit hard to get along with, they are not only disregarding the challenges faced by autistic people they are also disregarding the strengths of autistic people.
If you want to describe someone who is a bit different, the English language offers you many alternatives: quirky, eccentric, unconventional or even just weird. If you want to describe someone who is stubborn or unfriendly try: obstinate, awkward, perverse or even pig-headed.
Please, don’t use our identity as your insult.
Professor Sandra Jones is pro vice-chancellor, engagement at Australian Catholic University. Her previous research includes the experience of adolescence for autistic people, the impact of diagnostic labels, and the development and evaluation of social support and peer support programs. She is also an autistic woman and the mother of two autistic adult sons.