You can't have "a little autism" or be "a bit on the spectrum." Fad diagnoses won't make you happy.

Autism is not "cool." You don't want it, you don't want your children to have it. Ask someone with ASD, ask the parent of a child with ASD. But it's the new thing.

Those who actually struggle with ASD and manage to adapt to everyday life, to overcome, are heroes who put in superhuman effort, and their stories are belittled and minimized when the diagnosis becomes a fad. Every few years, a diagnosis becomes the new fad. And suddenly it's not a "thing" anymore, except to those who truly struggle (and overcome). Actual mental illnesses don't go in and out of fashion--but psychogenic hysteria does. I wrote on this in a previous post.

It has become faddish to say "I think I might be on the spectrum," when what is meant is, "I feel awkward, depressed, and have a poor self-image." It is easier to accept a label as an identity than to take the personal responsibility to confront your actual issues and seek help. Internet searches and online support forums will not make you feel better about yourself. You will be more inside your head, depressed, and awkward than ever.

It is just as faddish to say in an insulting or patronizing manner, "She's a little on the spectrum," or, "I think she's got a touch of Austism." This way of speaking is enabled by a misunderstanding of what Autism Spectrum Disorder is, really a misunderstanding of how the word "spectrum" is used here. It is not like a rainbow, in which you can be "a little on." The spectrum simply means that there are a number of interconnected symptoms that some have and some don't, and that there are three levels of severity. If you don't meet the criteria for the serious impairment of even the lowest level of severity, Level 1, you don't have autism.

I will print the diagnostic criteria below, and you can see for yourself that the diagnosis of ASD is not a flexible matter. You either have it or you don't. It takes a specially trained professional to give testing that diagnoses ASD, not an internet search. This expert training is so serious as to be a legal requirement in some cases for an official ASD diagnosis. If you aren't impaired to the point that you need to see someone with this sort of training, your symptoms don't meet the criteria of "clinical significance." Until you see a specialized, legally licensed ASD evaluator, don't diagnose yourself.

One popular issue I definitely need to address, is that the concept of "masking" (a very real phenomenon), which means consciously or unconsciously hiding ASD symptoms to appear normal, seems to be commonly used by individuals who want to give themselves the diagnosis of ASD when they do not meet the criteria. Here is a quote from a 2020 scientific article in the journal Molecular Autism: "Whilst it has been argued that [masking] is driven by remediation of cognitive difficulties...there is growing evidence to suggest that neurotypically presenting autistic people continue being autistic at the cognitive level." So, if someone with ASD is masking (again, a very real phenomenon), such an individual will still be able to be diagnosed by a specialized ASD evaluator. Masking means that some individuals with ASD can avoid their symptoms being noticed on an external level. So regardless of whether other can see it, if you don't meet the diagnostic criteria, you still don't have ASD. If masking means that the diagnostic criteria do not apply, and cannot be recognized by a specialized evaluator very familiar with the traits of masking (there is even a test to measure masking, the CAT-Q)--well who ISN'T Autistic? I can just decide that I want to be Autistic, and when I don't meet the criteria, I'm masking. This makes a mockery of science, just like all mental health fads.

The primary way of recognizing actual ASD is to leave that task to someone specially trained to evaluate for it. But also, it is helpful to dismiss the popular notion that ASD is only a difficulty with social communication, as is depicted in TV shows, etc. Social communication issues are accounted for by "A." below, but notice "B." right after that, which describes "restricted, repetitive behaviors." Two of these very odd and distinctive "B." criteria, required for diagnosis of ASD, are usually just not present in the class of individuals who aren't Autistic, but who understandably want to explain their life struggles with an ASD diagnosis.

The net result of this discussion is to invite the reader to read the criteria, to see how the diagnosis is severe, and therefore understand why one of my professors with Asperger's (now controversially included in Level 1 ASD) was contemplating suicide at 18 until he found his place in therapy world and was able to reformulate his Autism as a major strength. You don't want Autism. It isn't fun. It isn't cool. Ask the parent of an Autistic child. Ask my professor how his childhood was for him.

However, above all, I invite the reader, as I have in other posts, is to find meaning in taking personal responsibility for one's life outcomes, rather than chasing the wind by accepting a label or group identity. Maybe you've read up on ASD on the internet, and you DO have ASD. But this principle of personal responsibility still holds true, and should result in serious investigation by a specially trained ASD evaluator, and the pursuit of treatment and self-development such that Autism becomes something you're proud of having overcome (even a strength of personality). ASD should not be used to validate your perceived victimhood, whether you have ASD or don't.

DSM-5 Autism Diagnostic Criteria

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.

  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

Specify current severity: Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior. (See table below.)

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).

  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).

  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).

  4. Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

Specify current severity: Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. (See table below.)

C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).

D. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Note: Individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Individuals who have marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not otherwise meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder, should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder.

Specify if:

  • With or without accompanying intellectual impairment

  • With or without accompanying language impairment

  • (Coding note: Use additional code to identify the associated medical or genetic condition.)

  • Associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder

  • (Coding note: Use additional code[s] to identify the associated neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder[s].)

  • With catatonia

  • Associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor

Table: Severity levels for autism spectrum disorder

Severity level

Social communication

Restricted, repetitive behaviors

Level 3 "Requiring very substantial support”

Severe deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills cause severe impairments in functioning, very limited initiation of social interactions, and minimal response to social overtures from others. For example, a person with few words of intelligible speech who rarely initiates interaction and, when he or she does, makes unusual approaches to meet needs only and responds to only very direct social approaches

Inflexibility of behavior, extreme difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors markedly interfere with functioning in all spheres. Great distress/difficulty changing focus or action.

Level 2 "Requiring substantial support”

Marked deficits in verbal and nonverbal social communication skills; social impairments apparent even with supports in place; limited initiation of social interactions; and reduced or abnormal responses to social overtures from others. For example, a person who speaks simple sentences, whose interaction is limited to narrow special interests, and how has markedly odd nonverbal communication.

Inflexibility of behavior, difficulty coping with change, or other restricted/repetitive behaviors appear frequently enough to be obvious to the casual observer and interfere with functioning in a variety of contexts. Distress and/or difficulty changing focus or action.

Level 1 "Requiring support”

Without supports in place, deficits in social communication cause noticeable impairments. Difficulty initiating social interactions, and clear examples of atypical or unsuccessful response to social overtures of others. May appear to have decreased interest in social interactions. For example, a person who is able to speak in full sentences and engages in communication but whose to-and-fro conversation with others fails, and whose attempts to make friends are odd and typically unsuccessful.

Inflexibility of behavior causes significant interference with functioning in one or more contexts. Difficulty switching between activities. Problems of organization and planning hamper independence.