Once again it’s April, the month when stigma and stereotypes about autism reach peak saturation. I’m going to be completely honest with you: this time around, I’m really tired. I’m tired and I’m angry and I’m sad.
I’m not going to hash out, again, why “Autism Awareness” is so demeaning to autistic people, or why “Autism Acceptance” is such an important alternative. That’s been done already. Go ahead and google those terms if you need to. Or read what I wrote last year.
Then come back, because we need to talk about the way non-autistic people treat autistic people, in April as well as year-round. We need to talk about how, with everything that non-autistics assume about autistic folks, they seem to be missing a few key points about themselves.
(I recognize that not all non-autistic people say or do the things I’m going to talk about here. If you, a non-autistic person, read any of the following and think: “I don’t do that!” then let me take this opportunity to say thanks and ask you to consider what you are doing to call out this behavior in your fellow non-autistics. Do you already do that? Great. Again, thanks for showing basic human decency. Now, lets work together to bring more non-autistics into your camp.)
In the post that I linked above, I described a study in which people were asked to rate autistic and non-autistic people, presented in videos, photographs, or text-only transcriptions, against traits including “awkward” or “approachable” and intents to interact, such as “I would want to be friends with this person.” Participants rated autistic people less favorably (i.e. more awkward, less approachable, less desirable to be friends with) than they rated non-autistics after viewing short videos, long videos, or photographs. There was no difference between ratings when people read transcriptions only. From this, researchers speculated that stigma against autistic people isn’t entirely our fault, that personal biases may also play a role.
In a follow-up study, researchers replicated their results with the additional findings that 1) people tend to rate an autistic person more favorably if they know the person is autistic and 2) ratings are influenced by previous knowledge of autism.
In the most recent follow-up study, researchers demonstrated that variation in how autistic people are rated is explained more by individual differences among raters than it is by autistic traits. If a non-autistic person was familiar with autism and presented with a low degree of negative stigma, they were more likely to rate an autistic person positively – as long as they knew the person had an autism diagnosis. People who were unfamiliar with or had a negative stigma of autism tended to rate autistic people more unfavorably if they knew about their diagnoses.
Together, these three studies indicate that autistic people are not completely at fault for being judged and avoided by non-autistics. Anti-autistic bias plays a significant, often unfounded (look at how those biases disappeared when raters couldn’t see the person!) role.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest autism stereotypes, one at a time. Let’s see if there are any patterns that non-autistic people have been overlooking.
“Autistic people are bad at social interactions.”
This is a big one; if you hold any stigmas about autism, you probably have this one. Autistic people are bulls in delicate little china shops, thrashing around breaking everything and making everyone miserable because we have no idea what is going on or how we’re supposed to behave. Right? Maybe. Maybe not.
The Double Empathy Problem is a theory posited by Damian Milton in 2012, referring to the breakdown that occurs between two people who have fundamentally different ways of perceiving and understanding the world. This is a reciprocal process, meaning neither party is individually at fault. However, non-autistic people are often “wildly inaccurate” when they attempt to interpret the mental and emotional states of autistic people. According to Milton: “Such attempts are often felt as invasive, imposing and threatening by an ‘autistic person’, especially when protestations to the contrary are ignored.”
Milton later points out that any mismatch in communication between a non-autistic and autistic person is likely to be seen as “more severe” by the former because it is not a frequent occurrence for them. Autistic people, on the other hand, experience social clashes with non-autistics all the time.
Studies are mixed on how accurate autistic people are at interpreting other autistic people, but first-hand accounts from autistic adults show a tendency to prefer the company of fellow autistics, further suggesting that the perception of social awkwardness is not entirely autistic people’s fault.
UPDATE 4/24/19: A new study from the University of Edinburgh confirms that autistic people 1) share information effectively with other autistic people, 2) enjoy interacting with other autistic people, 3) have a higher rapport with autistic people in a way that is noticeable to people outside the interaction. All of these patterns match the way that non-autistic people interact with other non-autistic people; however they all decrease when there is a mix of autistic and non-autistic people. So, quality of social interaction appears to rely on communication partners having the same neurotype, rather than a specific one.
“Autistic people lack Theory of Mind.”
There’s a video on YouTube that I had the displeasure of watching recently, in which a prominent British psychologist explains that Theory of Mind – the ability to interpret other people’s thoughts and perspectives when they are different from your own – is what separates people from animals, the foundation of what makes us human.
She then goes on to explain, without a hint of irony, that autistic people don’t have Theory of Mind.
The complexities of Theory of Mind (ToM) in autistic people are beyond the scope of what I’m talking about today. To say that we lack ToM is reductive and untrue, but it’s also not accurate to say that we develop and access it in the same way that non-autistic people do.
That said, saying in an educational video that autistic people are missing a fundamental tenet of humanity shows an significant lack of ToM on her part, either through the assumption that no autistic people will ever see it (false) or that autistic people who do see it won’t care (definitely false).
Also, as I mentioned above, non-autistic people are consistently inaccurate at interpreting the mental states of autistic people. This pattern is hard enough for autistic people who can explain why and how breakdowns happen; for people who lack the communication skills, it can be downright devastating.
For all that non-autistics believe autistic people lack ToM, when it comes to interacting with us, the reverse is often closer to the truth. Some other examples include:
- Not knowing and/or caring why autistic people don’t always follow complex and arbitrary social rules
- Minimizing sensory processing needs
- Saying, “Everyone’s a little bit autistic”
- Insisting on person-first language even after an autistic person states a preference for being called “autistic”
- Assuming autistic people fall into two camps:
- People who are unable to make decisions about their lives, express preferences (or non-preferences), or understand anything around them (“low-functioning”)
- People who don’t really have a disability, and thus need no accommodations or understanding (“high-functioning”)
- Ignoring tips and recommendations for how to communicate with people who have processing difficulties
- Pretty much everything I’m about to say under the next point
“Autistic people have no empathy”
Autistic people see this one a lot. Empathy – the ability to care about other people’s feelings even when they are different from your own – is something we are told we lack. None of the stigmas about autism are particularly fun to listen to, but this one probably hurts the most, especially given the number of autistic people who describe the experience of “hyper-empathy,” which is the literal opposite.
Also, despite insisting that autistic people are the ones who lack empathy, non-autistics have done the following:
(CN: abuse, ableism, ABA, violence, death)
- Written and produced a play about how hard it is to parent an autistic child, complete with jokes at autistic people’s expense and a puppet portraying the autistic character. Here is a Twitter thread with a detailed summary of the play. For more information, look up #PuppetGate.
- Published books, blogs, and videos about how hard their lives are because of their autistic children. Sometimes they film autistic children having meltdowns; other times they give detailed descriptions of how they heroically tortured their autistic child in an effort to cure them.
- Written an article called “The Perks of Bullying” referring specifically to autistic students.
- Bullied autistic students significantly more often than they bully non-autistic students. (You can find a link to that study in the same post that I linked above.)
- Published a video during which a mother described how she almost committed suicide because of her autistic child, but didn’t because her other child was neurotypical.
- Given professional talks with titles or descriptions that explicitly refer to autistic people as being difficult to work with.
- Suggested that autistic people are lying about having meltdowns in order to garner sympathy.
- Said terrible, demeaning things about autistic people who are physically present at the time.
- Said terrible, demeaning things about autistic people online, then acted surprised when autistic people noticed and called them out.
- Made terrible, demeaning jokes about autistic people, then apologized to families and caregivers rather than autistic people themselves.
- Physically and emotionally abused autistic children for a living and called it “treatment.”
- Restrained an autistic student so forcefully that he died.
There are more examples out there, but this is a long list and I’m exhausted. Hopefully you get the idea by now.
“Autistic people are rigid and inflexible.”
Last year I was having a conversation with a non-autistic person about how when I’m hiking alone I sometimes get so “in the zone” that I don’t think to make eye-contact and say “hi” to a hiker who passes me.
They were appalled. They told me that if anyone did that to them, they would be furious. They told me I should always say hi to strangers while I’m hiking because if I fell and got hurt, I would want them to come back and help me.
I asked them to clarify – were they saying they would refuse to help an injured person simply because they hadn’t said “hello” beforehand? That it’s reasonable to expect others to do the same? They clarified: that’s exactly what they were saying.
This story probably fits under a couple different headings, but I’m putting it here because it’s an absurd example of the ways that non-autistics rigidly adhere to arbitrary social norms, unilaterally thinking terrible things about people who don’t follow their rules.
In another example of inflexible thinking, non-autistic people frequently have difficulty accepting that I can be autistic and also have valid clinical knowledge and experience. In almost every conversation about autistic people in a clinical space (even spaces that are designed to be progressive and inclusive), if I don’t immediately label myself as “an autistic SLP,” inevitably someone assumes I am one but not the other.
I have started honest, productive conversations with BCBAs about ABA Therapy, only to be abandoned after I reveal I’m autistic. In fact, a non-autistic clinician once left a conversation about autism and ABA with me, a school-based SLP, in order to privately continue talking to my non-autistic, neither-clinician-nor-educator wife, even though my wife had already stated that she was not qualified to participate in the discussion. It was wild.
There’s also the widely-held assumption that stimming and special interests are always bad (some links to resources in this post) despite studies suggesting that this is not the case. There’s the near-ubiquitous insistence on eye-contact despite evidence that it is legitimately painful for autistic people.
Speaking of empirical studies, there’s also the fact that scientists, like the general population, tend to view autistic traits as inherently bad.
For example, this book that I love called out the double standards in interpretation of neuroimaging studies. Does more blood flow to a certain part of the autistic brain during some tasks? Either that part of the brain is over-active, or autistics have to work harder on that task. Less blood-flow? It’s under-used or under-responsive. Autistic people don’t get to win when non-autistic researchers make all the rules.
Researchers presume deficits in autistic people even with traits that have clear positives. For example, because autistic children are less immediately possessive of new toys or less likely to be influenced into perceiving or reporting incorrect information than non-autistic children are, these traits are interpreted as symptoms of social impairment. I particularly enjoy the moment in the latter study in which the writers point out that “being less susceptible to social influence resulted in the older autistic group performing more accurately than their neurotypical counterparts” as a brief aside in the middle of their discussion about how this finding is a great indicator of autistic people’s social impairments.
There’s a pattern here. Over and over again, non-autistic people assign stigmas to autistic people, which become so forcefully engrained that it causes them to do and say things that fall under the very stereotypes they assign to us. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s hurtful. It’s always exhausting.
And I’m tired. I’m really tired.
I’m tired of defending my personhood to people who make all manner of verbal contortions in order to frame me as being in the wrong.
I’m tired of worrying that non-autistic people are going to take away my job, my driver’s license, my right to vote, or my ability to make legal or medical decisions.
I’m tired of having conversations that inevitably descend into repetitions of “no YOU are a bad person.”
I’m tired of spending a portion of my job trying to undo damaging effects of ABA, only to be yelled at when I point out that this is something I have to do.
I’m tired of being pathologized by people who know I’m autistic, and I’m tired of being incited to pathologize autistics by people who assume I’m not.
I’m tired of being excluded from clinical spaces and discussions unless I hide part of my identity.
I’m tired of being ignored or insulted when I point out that any of these things are happening.
And I’m tired, so tired, of non-autistics displaying the very stereotypes they assign to people like me in order to deny our humanity.
2 thoughts on “Dear Non-Autistics: We need to talk”
I think you’ve inspired a blog post that I’m going to have to write once I have a chance to consider all the implications. But briefly, I was struck mostly by your discussion of theory of mind. No one seems to notice how often non-autistics make assumptions about what another person is thinking and then take action based on those assumptions. This happens *all the time.* It’s a normal part of being human, so normal that it’s all but invisible. Except when autistics do it. Then it stands out like a red flag and is pathologised.
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Reblogged this on Autism Candles.