Can You Be a Little Bit Autistic?

It is not uncommon for people to ascribe certain behaviors or moods to medical conditions or suggest that they are driven by a diagnosable psychological disorder. Examples might include:

  • "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 (OCD), 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 clinical depression.

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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 major depression.

Others know better but will still use these terms as a colorful way to describe a passing emotion or a behavior that's not quite appropriate. This has extended to behaviors that some have haphazardly labeled as "autistic" or being "on the spectrum."

Not only is this inaccurate, but it uses the terms in a way that suggests the behaviors are either unseemly or off-putting. It marginalizes an entire population of affected individuals, framing autism as a behavioral disorder, and causes further confusion about a condition that most people don't understand.

Misconceptions

Autism is a significant developmental disorder that 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.

In order to be diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder, you must meet a specific set of diagnostic criteria. In the end, the diagnosis is made when these specific set of symptoms interfere significantly with a person's 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 this describes you or someone you know, is that the same as having autism? If so, it is possible that many people are "a little autistic?"

The quick and simple answer is "no."

Examples of Autistic Behaviors

It is hard for some people to differentiate whether certain behaviors and mannerisms are "autistic" or simply a normal response to external stimuli. Here are some examples:

Aversion to Groups

You find big parties to be uncomfortable and overwhelming but only if you're in the wrong mood. While people with autism do have a tough time with small talk and noise, a general preference for smaller groups or quiet conversation is not a sign of autism.

Tics and Repetitive Behaviors

You can't stop pacing, biting your nails, or twirling your hair because you're feeling tense. This is not uncommon.

But with autism, individuals are more likely to "stim," a symptom characterized by repetitive rocking, flicking, flapping, or speech used to calm themselves. In addition, they are likely to "stim" for other reasons, including excitement or anticipation.

Sensory Aversion

You dislike loud concerts, bright malls, or scratchy clothes. Many people do have sensory challenges, autistic people among them.

The difference is that, with autism, the aversion is centered around the inability to process sensations or stimuli in the environment (referred to as sensory processing dysfunction). It is not because they won't tolerate these sensations; it's that they can't.

Fixations

You're absolutely fascinated by a new TV series and can't stop watching or talking about it (or at least until the next new series comes along). The same may be true during sports season or a hobby you engage in passionately.

While it is true that people with autism can get "stuck on" an area of special interest, it is rare for them to move onto something new or feel the need for change. This is an extension of repetitive behaviors characteristic of autism.

Relationships and Social Attachments

You find it hard to making and keeping friends, although you have lots of acquaintances. People with autism, on the other hand, often lack the skills to grasp basic things like tone and body language that are part of social communication.

Autism is not so much characterized by "social awkwardness." It is more about not being able to interpret or process social cues central to human interactions.

Communication Barriers

You sometimes choose to take things too literally. When someone tells you repeatedly that they can't have lunch with you because they're busy, you fail to "take the hint." While taking things literally—and not being able to "read between the lines"—may be a sign of underdeveloped social skills, it doesn't make you autistic.

With autism, individuals are often unable to process language based on rhythm, tone, volume, body language, or facial expression. They will take things literally because the tools to interpret intent and abstract thought are lacking.

Self-Isolation

You enjoy spending time alone or consider yourself a "hermit." While people with autism are often far more able to enjoy their own company than others, taking pleasure in solitude is not a sign of autism.

For people with autism, social participation and acceptance are generally not prime motivators, and the "rewards" of being alone are often no different than the "rewards" of being in other people's company.

A Word From Verywell

While it's important to note the vast difference between having autistic-like behaviors and ​actually having autism, it is also helpful to notice the commonalities and understand what drives similar but distinct behaviors. Doing so may help people with autism and those without to find substantive ways to connect with one another.

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