Urban Dictionary defines being “on the spectrum” as “a phrase used to describe a person with social tics and/or awkwardness, usually associated with autism or Asperger’s syndrome.” As in,
“That kid seems a little off to me.”
“Yeah, totally; I think he’s on the spectrum.”
In a colloquial sense, being on the spectrum is a know-it-when-I-see-it phenomenon, a shorthand way to explain odd behavior as an unavoidable mental health characteristic. Yet based on the National Institute of Mental Health’s definition of “Autism spectrum disorder,” we’re all on the spectrum. Certainly I am. According to NIMH, “people with ASD often have these characteristics: ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others, repetitive behaviors, as well as limited interests or activities…symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life.”
Let’s take these features in turn. First, “Ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others.” How many of us dread going to social gatherings – including with our own families – because of the need to make small talk or create conversations over an abyss of misunderstandings, mix of preferences, and varied personal histories? How often do any of us try to communicate, or interact, with people outside our own affinity groups, or across income class, race, or political parties?
Sure, we can all have a great time at a dinner party where the conversation is limited to well-trod topics: the high price of San Francisco real estate; the unfortunate need to step over homeless people on the way to work; oye, the traffic! But what happens if someone tries to talk about their challenges getting by on the minimum wage, how great Trump is, or the fact that their ancestors were slaughtered by the U.S. Calvary? These topics may be fine conceptually, but uncomfortable if they’re pursued by people who are actually poor, live in Tulare County, or are Native American, in which case, most of us don’t know them, or at least don’t invite them over to dinner.
Second, there’s “repetitive behaviors, as well as limited interests or activities.” I don’t know about you, but 90 percent of my day focuses on the same dozen behaviors or activities, including brushing my teeth, making coffee, shaving, sitting in front of a computer typing, reading, eating, and playing with my iPhone. Even at my most expansive there is way more things I don’t do then do, some of which are coins of the realm for many people, liking watching football on television, enjoying popular music, or Snapchatting.
Then there’s “symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life.” The key word here seems to be “hurt,” as in can’t get along with bosses, ever. Has trouble dating successfully. Finds school to be tedious and annoying. Anybody experience these things? Everybody?
This isn’t to diminish the quite real challenges with which individuals with autism have to grapple. Some of us have brains that’re wired in such a way as to make “normal” communication extra difficult, or even impossible, creating a disability that significantly threatens lifelong prospects. But, apart from these persons, being on the spectrum has become a national disorder. Those of us who dislike Trump cannot understand, or even communicate effectively with, those who support him. Same for Kardashian lovers, or Fox news junkies, while on the other end of the spectrum to many of us National Public Radio is leftwing propaganda, especially The World and Democracy Now! And don’t get me started on Rachel Maddow.
Being on the spectrum, for most of us, is just one of those things we need to deal with, like early-onset balding, or poor coordination. It’s part of life’s challenges: figuring out how to make, and keep friends; negotiating the workplace; socializing with those around us. But busting out of our narrow range of conversational klatches is essential for democracy to work. If we have difficulty communicating and interacting with Republicans, Democrats, low-income families, Alabamans, or the President, that’s a problem, one that we can’t medicate ourselves out of. Instead, we need to stop self-soothing in our same-social groups, and have the courage to have a conversation with someone who looks, and acts, differently than what we see in the mirror.
It’ll take time, and lots of experimentation, but eventually we’ll figure out one another’s language. Scary, I know. But the alternative is even more hurtful.