Is autism becoming the new OCD?
I’m sitting here wondering how I could mark Autism awareness week (26th Match – 2nd April) through this blog and it occurred to me that in the last few years people seem to be talking about Autism a lot more. I would consider this a good thing over all, more discussion means more understanding, and one would hope compassion.
However, I have noticed an alarming trend in discussions surrounding Autism. That is, it is becoming the new term to describe anyone odd or developmentally delayed amongst others. It is done almost on a daily basis, a colleague does something you don’t like ‘oh, he is so autistic.’ A child is screaming in a shop ‘oh she probably has autism’, a baby isn’t crawling yet ‘oh maybe he is autistic’, you forget something or do something strange ‘I’m so autistic sometimes’.
Although I am not denying that some of the instances where someone is labelled as autistic during an off the cuff comment might be accurate, the vast majority are completely inaccurate, or at the very least complete overgeneralisations about the behavioural phenotype of individuals diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. So I’m interested in why we do it? If it is helpful? And what are the implications of doing this?
Why are we prone to making these over generalisations?
Well, in a nutshell it is human nature. Categorising and stereotyping are core components of social psychology. Humans love to categorise information because it is less effort to remember things. Is someone a man or a woman, old or young, normal or …. Autistic? Stereotyping can be helpful, you might not know enough about a person to assess whether they are nice or kind or helpful, but you know they are a doctor so you are going to assume they are all of the above- which is the right thing to do because if you thought waiting times at the GP were bad now, imagine if everyone felt they needed to get to know the doctor in order to trust them to be good at their job! However, stereotypes also lead us to assume members of a category are more similar than they are for example, this is overgeneralisation. There is a nice example of how we change our view of things simply based on category:
Tajfel (1970) showed participants one of the two pictures below.
When shown picture A participants agreed that line C and D were the same length. However, when show picture B and told one group had long lines while the other had short lines, participants judged line C & D as being different.
So all that is happening in the aforementioned example with ASD could just be a form of stereotyping, where we have some understanding of the symptoms, some more than others, and we make generalisations about it.
Are generalisations helpful?
Well, yes, they mean we use less memory to process ideas and thoughts. The positive in this exact example is that awareness of autistic type behaviours are becoming more commonly understood, potentially making the day to day life of those diagnosed or their families easier. However, I also think the generalisations are being used quite inaccurately, perhaps diluting the diagnosis of autism and making people more flippant about the effects it could have on someone’s life.
So this brings me to the OCD analogy. How many times have we heard ‘I love my house being tidy I’m so OCD’ I hate not parking straight ‘its OCD’ and the list goes on and on. I think the OCD analogy helps us see how the over extension of symptoms is actually quite unhelpful because people then do not receive the support they need when they actually do have OCD, or the general public misunderstand the gravity of the condition, and so diluting the gravity of the condition for some.
Conversely rather than diluting, if one look at social psychology again, one problem with social categorisation, or stereotyping, is that it can lead to what we call in-group and out-group categorising. That is people like me and people not like me. Again, this is a phenomenon commonly shown and pretty much accepted as happening in all humans, to the extent that previous research in psychology showed that a group of college students who are divided and told that half are ‘inmates’ and half are ‘officers’ ended up emulating those roles to the extent that the guards started punishing the offenders (this is known as the Stanford prison experiment, Zimbardo, 1971). Therefore, is the flippant use of the term ‘autistic’ or ‘OCD’ to describe someone feeding into the social categorisation of in-groups and out-groups and potentially making the ‘outgroup’ more isolated?
Where am I going with this? Well, I guess awareness of the problems brought about with the generalisations discussed, and how to maybe make the most of them and keep the negative effects at bay is what we should be focusing our efforts on.
Let’s assume that your co-worker does have autism traits- is finger pointing helpful? Or maybe the baby not crawling could be linked to other aspects of developmental delay- is labelling it useful?
What do you think?
A Guest Blog from Katerina Draper
Katerina is a Psychologist, graduate of the University of Birmingham, whose PhD and ongoing research has focused on child development, predominantly language development in children and Autism. She has a range of experience including lecturing, being a school governor, additional support teacher, tutor and working with early years in nursery settings. She recently accepted a post at the University of Gloucestershire. During her maternity leave she set up Morphosis Education, an educational consultancy specialising in supporting children, their families and wider network through potential developmental disorder diagnosis and intervention. She aims to address the problematic waiting times often faced by children who are suspected of needing additional support. Morphosis offers a range of services including assessments for children who may require additional support, short and long term 1:1 work with children, families and school, bespoke school training programmes, and events aimed to help increase the reach and use of up to date research in developmental psychology for all those interested. You can find Morphosis on Facebook or visit their website.
*Katerina is a member of the Cheltenham MumBoss Club – this post is not endorsed.