Most people would be surprised to find out that some seemingly innocent things you could say to an autistic person are actually hurtful. This includes items that are commonly used as a compliment. Some people may feel a tinge of resentment while reading this, because they feel like they have to be sensitive and censor themselves when conversing with an autist. Keep in mind, however, that we autists have to consciously modify not only our language, but our behavior as well. In theory, if I can make the effort to not offend the person to whom I’m talking, then that person should understand why I would not be okay with people saying certain things to me, like…
5. “You mean like [insert celebrity/TV show character/family member]?”
Sometimes, the comparison is an attempt at a compliment. Other times, people use it as a buffer to what would be, in their minds, an otherwise awkward conversation. Someone admits that they’re autistic, and the listening party responds with, “You know, Temple Grandin also has autism.” True, but as much as I like (even idolize) Temple Grandin, I am vastly different from her. I don’t think in pictures, nor do I have a mental preoccupation with cows. Rain Man, a commonly used example from the media, is another not necessarily accurate example of an autist. I myself am certainly NOT a math savant. In fact, math is my worst subject. I can do my own laundry, brush my own teeth, and shower all by myself. No, I don’t want a medal. As for Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory…let’s just all agree that Sheldon is beyond Aspergers, and has something seriously wrong with him. Us autists also don’t appreciate people comparing us to their autistic nephews. There’s a saying: “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.” Comparing two autistic people is like comparing the facial features of two African American men. Expecting all autistic people to act alike is every bit as discriminatory as the unfortunate “all members of [insert minority race here] look alike;” a phrase that is usually uttered in a manner that is pejorative toward the target race. There are obvious differences among people of all races, just as there are obvious differences between autistic people. Ableism and racism are close cousins.
4. “There’s no such thing as autism.”
There are some marked differences between an autistic brain and a neurotypical one. Neurogenesis lasts longer in the brains of autists, and those who are autistic have higher levels of electrical activity in the brain. There is commonly extra blood flow to certain parts of an autistic brain, and there was even a study done demonstrating that the brain of someone who is autistic reacts differently to pain than that of a neurotypical. Yet there are still people who believe that autism is fabricated, despite the science to back it up. On top of that, many people assert that autism is an excuse for “bad behavior.” Such a phrase is not only incorrect, but ableist as well.
3. “Get your act together.”
This is a very common phrase used while an autistic child is in the midst of a meltdown. As I have already addressed this issue in a previous article, I will link it here: https://thezoophanatic.wordpress.com/2015/07/20/regarding-autistic-meltdowns-what-they-are-how-to-deal-with-them-and-why-a-child-having-a-meltdown-is-not-a-naughty-brat/
2. “Oh, you poor thing!”
In some instances, showing sympathy toward an autist can be not only welcome, but flat out embraced. If the person is telling you of how they struggle to communicate, fail to make friends, or feel misunderstood, it’s totally okay to be sympathetic. In fact, this is when the person needs your sympathy. However, if someone you know comes out of the autist closet without singing the blues, they aren’t looking for sympathy. In this case, throwing the person a pity party will probably just come across as patronizing. Most autistic people are perfectly capable of functioning in society, given the correct resources.
1. “You don’t look/act autistic.”
Here’s a secret. Even though we recognize that it’s intended to be a compliment, phrases like “you don’t look autistic” or “I’d never know it” are the most irritating and infuriating things that autistic people hear all the time. It may seem strange that something that sounds like a compliment to the layfolk can be so hurtful to someone who is actually autistic, so I find myself having to offer an explanation. When someone tells me that I don’t look/act/sound/smell/taste autistic, they’re giving me the impression that they have preconceived, stereotypical notions in their minds about how autistic people are supposed to look or act. As I previously mentioned, we’re not all a bunch of Rain Men or Sheldon Coopers. Most of us have no visible, bodily features that distinguish us from neurotypicals. Most of us are also superb actors, learning to adjust our behaviors to fit the demands of society. How are we supposed to look or act? If somebody stims or misses a social clue, that person is reprimanded and shunned. Then, when that person adjusts their step to dance to another tune, they are met with, “Congratulations, you’re not a stereotype! Would you like a medal?”
Honorable mentions: “Does this mean you lack empathy?” or “So, does that mean that you are retarded? I don’t think these need any explanation.
Things you CAN say:
–“I accept you for who you are.”
–“Could you give me a little more info on autism?”
–“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how have you struggled with the societal stigma attached to autism? How did/are you overcoming that struggle?”
–“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Want to go and get some ice cream?”
Remember- in the wise words of Temple Grandin’s mother: “Different, not less.”