I just read a post under the irritating title of “Why we’re all on the Autism Spectrum.” I went in expecting something a lot worse than what I found: I thought I was going to encounter someone trying to claim we’re all actually on the autism spectrum to some extent. The post came close to such a claim, but just managed to swerve away from such an extreme view, by rewriting the spectrum to apply to all of humanity – that all people are on a spectrum just like other spectrums (their example being sexuality). In making the claim in this manner, the poster makes a break from the actual meaning of the autism spectrum, allowing her to then make the otherwise factually incorrect claim that we’re all really on the spectrum. But that subtle shift, and the title of the post, are still going to mislead and confuse a lot of people. (Indeed, it wasn’t clear that the author understood the subtle but important shift she made.)
The reason this confusion, and the claim we’re all on the spectrum, matters, is because of the existing immense confusions and misinformation that abounds about autism.
There are still many people who claim autism is just made up; that it’s just extreme naughtiness or extreme personalities, and nothing special or noteworthy. Basically that parents need to be stricter and adults need to learn to control themselves, and both groups of people need to stop looking to blame their problems and shortfalls on some mythical disorder. You find the same rhetoric about ODD and ADHD. This thinking shifts autism away from being an identifiable disorder, and places it instead on the completely “normal” continuum of humanity: “Nothing wrong here, just a bunch of misfits disowning their own decisions and not facing up to their problems.”
The vast majority of the public does not understand what is meant by the autism spectrum. They usually know of autism, and Aspergers, and that’s it. Many do not realise that Aspergers is considered to be part of the autism spectrum (I certainly didn’t three years ago). They’ve never heard of PDD-NOS or Retts or CDD. Educating the public about the existence and meaning of the autism spectrum is quite a challenge. There are clinical facts involved here: Some conditions are part of the autism spectrum, some are not. Some people are on the autism spectrum, some are not. If we rewrite “autism spectrum” so that it no longer matches or reflects the clinical definitions, we create further confusions and doubts about its very existence.
The arguments that the spectrum isn’t accurate enough or needs rewriting, needs to be had openly and clearly; in the way that is currently happening surrounding the DSM-5. There is nothing wrong with that discussion, and indeed in order to even have that discussion, we must first acknowledge and use the existing definitions (else what would you be arguing to change).
I do appreciate what people are trying to achieve when they rewrite and loosen the edges of the spectrum; they’re trying to let everyone know that autism isn’t so scary, they’re just like everyone else. They’re often trying to get people to think of autism as less like a disability, and more like difference. Perhaps also trying to grow the community and sense of inclusion. Increase acceptance. Even simply trying to raise awareness (though rewriting what one should be “aware of” in the process).
I don’t want to paint an overly negative picture of the people – like that well-meaning and clearly quite lovely poster – who genuinely think they’re doing the right thing for the future of autistic people. I know they’re not evil (though I also know of some people who would consider what was written, to be evil because of its efforts to change attitudes towards autism). I just think it’s incredibly important to not add further confusion to a condition that so many people already misunderstand and even deny. I think there is much more harm than good done, in the suggestion that autism is something we all have to differing extents.
We are only all on the autism spectrum, if you completely redefine what is meant by the autism spectrum.