Like almost all other human beings, I try to form, strengthen, and enrich bonds with other people. Given the fact that the world’s population dice are weighted much more heavily toward neurotypicality, chances are that most of these people aren’t going to be sitting next to me anywhere on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum.
As part of the attempted bonding process, especially with those closest to me who are neurotypical, I often find myself explaining and describing various aspects of Asperger’s/autism to them, such as individual traits, culture, vocabulary/lexicon, and some of the issues we tend to face in the autism spectrum community. After all, even though we may walk the same ground from day to day and visit the same places, we actually live in slightly different worlds. Or maybe it’s the same exact world, but perhaps skewed and viewed from different angles, depending on one’s neurological orientation.
For example, I might describe generally-autistic attributes like systemizing, hyper-focusing, alexithymia, or echolalia. Or I might explain how we experience empathy, sensory stimuli, or making eye contact. Naturally, I’ll illustrate the differences between how the different population segments approach these concepts.
And invariably, at some point, from someone, I’ll hear the inevitable stock phrase: “well, everybody’s like that, to an extent.”
They’re probably trying to be nice, to help me not feel so alone. The problem is, when they say things like this, their attempt achieved the opposite of their desired result: I feel even more alone.
Because, yet again, I didn’t feel heard.
In fact, I probably wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that every time I hear this, I die a little inside. At the very least, I roll my Inside Eyes.
How can anyone claim to know what it’s like to be anybody else? How could anyone claim to know what anyone else’s life is truly like? We only see the world through our own eyes, which are not without our personal lenses, lenses that bend, shape, and refract our worldview.
Worse yet, when someone makes the statement that “everyone is like that”, they’re inadvertently saying several other things. Things that hurt.
Things like, “you don’t actually have it hard”.
“You don’t actually get misunderstood.”
“Your experience doesn’t really matter.”
“You don’t actually struggle the way you think you do.”
“It doesn’t take that much strength to get through the day.”
“You’re probably just being melodramatic.”
“You never actually ended up as the cheese standing alone in kindergarten.”
“You shouldn’t have a problem just picking up the phone and making that call.”
In saying “everyone’s like that”, they’re dismissing my experience. They’re denying my reality.
I know that for every trait I have, even those on the autism spectrum, there’s a neurotypical person out there who has that trait, too. I’ve never claimed to have a monopoly on anything. My personality is not copyrighted or patented anywhere, nor are any of its individual traits. Other people have a right to those traits, too.
But I do have a collection of traits that, when taken together, are seen in only about 1-2% of the population. And not one of those traits is shared by everyone.
There is no single statement that I could make, beyond the most basic of human needs, that is universally true. Beyond our needs for physiological survival, every other statement made about the nature of human beings would fall flat of the absolute.
Sure, some traits are more common than others; most of us need some kind of contact with other humans, even if we’re introverted to the core. But who am I to say, at any level of certainty, that that statement applies across the board? I can’t legitimately make that kind of claim unless I happen to know every human being on the planet (which I don’t).
Assumptions like “everybody’s like that” demean who I am. They also reduce the paint palette of humanity to a boring set of lowest common denominators. Those statements actually demean everyone, on and off the spectrum.
People who make those kinds of statements may be trying to ease my discomfort, but actually, they only add to it.
Usually, whatever I said that led up to their statement was probably some kind of confiding session. For that moment, I needed their support. I needed the spotlight to be on me.
By making statements like that, they take that away from me, spreading out my pain or discomfort across the entire population, which includes people who don’t need that support. And it takes away from people like me who do.
They’re probably trying to help me not feel so pathological. But what they don’t realize is, I don’t feel pathological anyway. Do they perceive me that way? Is this an inadvertent form of Sideways Ableism? It might be buttered with love or care, but it cuts just the same. If they believe that by “normalizing” me, I’ll feel better, then I wonder if that means that they’ve made the assumption that I somehow don’t feel adequate or complete or whole on my own.
I don’t need or want to be “normalized”. Ironically, my Asperger’s/autism discovery was actually a key component that drove my self-esteem to unprecedented heights. Never in my life have I felt so solid about who I am.
And I’m sure that my vibes of elation, excitement, and having been liberated have certainly been conveyed, both through verbal and non-verbal avenues. I felt like I’d been reborn, in a way.
My newfound explanations for lifelong puzzles and enigmas have definitely been communicated as a positive, monumental development. It was akin to telling everybody it’s my birthday. So the response of, “everybody’s like that” is even more perplexing. Imagine the following conversation:
Me: “It’s my birthday!”
Neurotypical: “Well, everybody’s got a birthday…”
If such a conversation ever actually took place, the respondent would be perceived as having committed a bizarre etiquette breach. Conversational flow would halt and stop cold, replaced by confused expressions and requests for clarification, complete with the internal double-checking of my sent “it’s my birthday!” message to ensure that I hadn’t actually said something else (completely different) instead.
Nobody would dream of responding that way to a birthday proclamation, but it’s almost inevitable that someone “coming out” as autistic will hear it from somebody. I heard “everybody’s a bit like that” from–count ’em–three people, and my inner circle doesn’t have much of a wingspan.
Which led me to wonder: could their motive for saying these words involve a subconscious desire to make themselves feel better? If they feel they have to attempt “normalize” me in order to make themselves feel better, then…just–what the hell?
In an attempt to “normalize” me, they’ve actually marginalized me even more.
The “everybody’s like that” statement has a dampening, deflating effect. Best to bury that one into a grave, away from the dog that digs.
Because for many autistic people, the events of discovery and/or diagnosis is life-changing, usually (although not always) for the better, often listing side-effects of relief, liberation, validation, vindication, authenticity, and the ability to find and bond with others like them (us).
The subsequent act of “coming out” (disclosing their autism spectrum status to others) takes courage and requires trust. The desire to do so (in voluntary situations, as opposed to a case in which it has become necessary to do so) is often borne out of a compelling urge to share, usually in some type of joy or other positive context. As we share this moment with them, we want (need) them to share it with us.
So when someone discloses their Asperger’s/autism spectrum status to you, don’t minimize it with an “everyone’s like that”. Instead, just as if we were telling you it’s our birthday, share in our joy, relief, and elation, and reflect it back to us. Clap your hands and cheer for us. Celebrate with us. Explore and learn about it with us, because chances are, if we’re making the Asperger’s/autism discovery for the first time as adults, we’ll probably talk about it a lot. We’ll be reframing our entire lives in a whole new light, and we’ll want/encourage you to do it with us.
If we disclose something to you or discuss an aspect of our autism spectrumhood to you, there may be times in which you’re not sure how to answer, whether to be joyful and congratulatory or compassionate and sympathetic. When in doubt, assume nothing; simply adopt a neutral stance and ask us how we feel about it (the realization, diagnosis, stumbling across a piece of information, making a monumental realization, etc). It doesn’t hurt to ask.
It’s a lot better than, “well, everybody goes through that.”
Maybe the majority of autistic people do share the experience I was originally disclosing or explaining. If you were referring exclusively to people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, then you might arguably be correct in saying “(almost) everybody’s like that”.
But please, don’t ever assume that neurotypical people can claim the same traits in the same combination and intensity, and with the same effects and challenges as people on the spectrum do. Because it just ain’t so.
When the world at large already defaults to the position you already operate in, life is comparatively exponentially easier for you. When your neurological orientation is already widely understood, accepted, embraced, and even idolized, the effort required in living day to day is significantly less.
Not all of us are so lucky.
“Everyone” is not “like that”.