Can You Be a Little Bit Autistic?

Have you ever heard (or said) anything like this?

  • "Oh, I know I'm picky...I'm just a little obsessive compulsive."
  • "Yes, I'm moody; I guess I'm sort of bipolar."
  • "I'm in a crappy mood; I think I'm depressed."

All of these statements, which are used all the time, equate a passing mood or mild preference with a major mental illness. But of course, picky eating is a far cry from obsessive compulsive disorder, which can make it impossible to fulfill the demands of daily life. And a passing feeling of unhappiness or moodiness can't be compared in any meaningful way to the extreme challenges of bipolar disorder or chronic depression.

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Why do we use these expressions? Some people may truly believe that spending 20 minutes choosing a color scheme for a party is akin to true OCD...or that a rotten mood is the same thing as chronic depression. Others know better, but use these terms as a colorful way to describe a passing emotion or a behavior that's not quite appropriate. Whatever our reasons, the fact is that a moment of discomfort or oddness is absolutely not the same thing as a permanent mental or developmental disability.

Are Most People "a Little Autistic?"

Autism is a significant developmental disorder which is usually diagnosed in very young children. While it is possible to be mildly autistic, it takes more than a few quirks to earn the diagnosis. Bottom line: An autism diagnosis is made when a person has a specific set of symptoms that interfere significantly with their ability to live a normal life. 

Yes, people with autism tend to enjoy spending time alone. Many people with autism are very focused on a specific area of interest, and often that area of interest is related to technology, science, or science fiction. People with autism have a tough time relating to and building relationships with others.

If that seems to describe you, are you autistic? Or are most of us really "a little autistic?" While most of us have moments in which our feelings or behaviors are similar to those of people on the autism spectrum, the answer is NO.

Are You Autistic or Just Having a Hard Day?

How can you tell whether your experiences mean you're mildly autistic or whether you're just having a difficult day? This checklist should help:

  1. You find big parties to be uncomfortable and overwhelming, but only if you're in the wrong mood. Yes, people with autism do have a tough time with noise and small talk, but a general preference for smaller groups or quieter conversation is not a sign of autism.
  2. You can't stop pacing, biting your nails, or twirling your hair because you're feeling tense. Autistic people "stim" (flick, rock, etc.) to calm themselves and people without autism do the same thing. But people with autism are more likely to "stim" by rocking, flicking, or flapping, which are not socially typical. In addition, they are likely to "stim" when excited, anxious, anticipatory, and for many other reasons.
  3. You dislike loud concerts, bright malls, or scratchy clothes. Many people do have sensory challenges, autistic people among them. But sensory challenges are not enough to suggest autism (though they may suggest a sensory disorder that's worth looking into). Many people also have sensory sensitivities only under specific circumstances (for example, they are already anxious, they aren't feeling well, etc.).
  4. You're absolutely fascinated by a new TV series and can't stop watching or talking about it. Until the next cool series comes along. Or the football season starts. It's true that people with autism can get "stuck" on an area of special interest. But it is rare for an autistic person to just "move on" to something new out of a desire for novelty or a feeling of boredom.
  5. You find it hard to make and keep friends, though you have lots of acquaintances. People with autism don't generally have the skills to create a network of acquaintances. And having a tough a time finding and keeping good friends is not the exclusive domain of people on the spectrum. In fact, it's a pretty common malady in today's world.
  6. You're an uber geek. You love every incarnation of Star Trek, you've memorized the Marvel pantheon, and you're a whiz at Dungeons and Dragons. You even go to Comicons dressed as your fave superhero. No, that doesn't make you autistic. It makes you someone who enjoys a particular type of fantasy entertainment which some people with autism also enjoy!
  7. You sometimes choose to take things too literally. When someone tells you six times in a row that they can't have lunch with you because they're "too busy," you believe them. Somehow, it doesn't enter your mind that they are politely letting you know they're not interested in YOU. It can be hard for people with autism to read between the social lines, but this mild degree of social difficulty is not a sign of autism.
  8. You sometimes enjoy spending time alone. Isn't it sad that we see a desire for solitude as a symptom rather than a positive quality? People with autism are often far more able to enjoy their own company than "neurotypicals," but taking pleasure in solitude is not a sign of autism.

While it's important to note the vast difference between having autistic-like moments and ​actually having autism, it's also helpful to notice our commonalities as well. We may not all be autistic, but we can certainly find ways to connect with one another.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Screening and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Reviewed August 27, 2019.

  2. Kapp SK, Steward R, Crane L, et al. 'People should be allowed to do what they like': Autistic adults' views and experiences of stimming. Autism. 2019;:1362361319829628. doi:10.1177/1362361319829628