Disclaimer: Pictures on my blog are never my own unless I claim credit for them. I am saying this because I have seen other people giving me credit for pictures that aren’t mine.
A while ago, I found an article from the BBC about self-directed homophobia. Let me digress here and say that, because I am not gay, it may be unfair to compare my experience to that of someone who is. I do, however, think that homophobia isn’t the only form of bigotry that a person can face from both others and self. This brings me to my topic for this month, which is, of course, self-directed ableism in autistic individuals.
The picture above, from fullmetalheart.com, gives what I believe is a mostly adequate definition of ableism. I do, however, think that it only covers external ableism, which is the form of ableism that gets more attention. While external ableism, or hateful attitudes toward a person for having a disability by others who aren’t disabled, is a serious issue that needs to be eradicated, there is another form of ableism that is, in my opinion, more subtle and dangerous. External ableism is definitely a playing factor in the development of self-directed ableism in autistic individuals. From the moment of their diagnosis, autistic people are labelled as “retarded,” “stupid,” “nerdy,” or “weird.” Special education children, or any child who is different, is an obvious target for bullies, and all schools are rife with bullies. Teachers and relatives do things that usually stem from having good intentions, but often cause problems or exacerbate ones that exist. Autistic children are told that their meltdowns are annoying and reprimanded for being “naughty,” or labelled as “problem children.” There is constant talk regarding autism about all the things that autistic people can’t do. Autistic children are compared to their neurotypical peers and told that they’ll never be able to live complete lives or do many things that other people can; they are told that they will always fall short. They are given weird looks if they stim or have meltdowns in public. Teachers try to suppress stimming, either because they think it’s distracting to the other kids, or simply because they think it looks weird. As I said before, autistic children are targets for bullies, and while American public schools like to pretend that they don’t tolerate bullying, they usually give bullies a slap on the wrist at most. Bullying victims are punished in public schools far more than the bullies will ever be punished.
Even as adults, autistic people continue to face ableism. There is a common myth perpetrated even by psychology “experts,” stating that autistics have little to no empathy. We are told that we have a crippling disease that limits us greatly and needs to be cured. It is difficult for autistics to get jobs, in part because some employers either can’t be bothered to make accommodations, or they assume that an autistic employee is going to be lacking in required skills. This is in spite of discrimination laws that work about as well as trying to train a grasshopper to chase wolves.
Even if it is not true that autistic people don’t have the capabilities of everyone else, or that they don’t have empathy, even those of us who are autistic start to believe these lies when we hear them over and over again. I myself have fallen victim of this dangerous pattern of thinking. For example, there is another myth that autistic people are anti-social. I bloom around the right people and tend to get along with people quite well. In spite of this, I assumed for many years that I had poor social skills, just because I’m autistic. It is true that autistic people, especially children, may have social difficulties, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn. I once thought, “I have autism; therefore, I have weak social skills.” Nonetheless, the connection here is not as straightforward as it may seem. I once shied away from working at an organization for which I wanted to volunteer. It was a charity organization for children, and I wanted to participate in it, but decided not to, because I thought, “My autism and social handicaps mean that I’ll have trouble working with the children.” Similarly, I only recently became interested in driving. I have been taking a bus service to college due to road anxiety, mixed with the mentality of, “I’ll never be able to drive. I’m too easily distracted, too quick to panic, too…autistic. I’d land myself in the ER before I’m even fully backed out of the driveway.” Only recently has it occurred to me that driving isn’t a high apple on a 20-foot-tree, out of the reach of proverbial arms that are stumpy from autism. Both literally and metaphorically, my arms are the same length as those of anyone else. As a teenager, I seriously started to question if I was even human. Around the time I was fourteen, I started suspecting that I might be some sort of defective cyborg or alien abomination. It took me a long time to fully accept myself.
I am not the only person who has fallen into the trap of self-directed ableism. Many of my friends who are autistic have long-held tenets that there are certain things that they can just never do, simply because they are autistic. Some of my friends who are autistic don’t drive, for similar reasons that I only recently started studying Driver’s Ed in hopes of validating my permit. Another one of my friends once said that he wanted to be sterilized because he’s autistic. Still another friend once told me that he doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to live independently, nor does he think he can have any job that isn’t menial labor, such as “stocking shelves.” The friend who told me this happens to be one of the smartest people I know–this came from a psychology student, as well as someone with whom I like to discuss and debate philosophical and religious ideas, someone who plans to study to be an Addictions Counselor, and someone who thinks that independent living is out of his reach, for no other reason than because he has autism.
It isn’t easy to break out of these toxic thought patterns, especially if they start at a young age. Self-directed ableism is easier to prevent than it is to cure. Fortunately, it is possible for autistic people to overcome self-directed ableism. If you are a relative of an autistic child, or if you’re working at an institution (ie a hospital or a school) where there is an autistic child, the first thing you should do is educate yourself about autism. It’s good to be discriminatory in what sources you use, because even some psychologists, and organizations such as Autism $peaks, perpetuate many of the harmful myths about autism. If you can, talk to autistic adults. We’re always happy to answer whatever questions you may have about autism, so that you can understand it better and know how to work with people who are autistic. ASAN, or Autistic Self Advocacy Network, is a good place to start.
I have many other posts on this blog about autism. Instead of comparing autistic people to others and telling them what they can and cannot do, or treating them like they can’t live wholesome lives, encourage them. Allow them to stim, as long as they aren’t causing any property or bodily harm. Sit through their meltdowns (yes, I know they’re annoying) but don’t punish them. Get to know each individual, and remember that no two autistic people are alike. What worked for your nephew who’s autistic may not work for a student in your classroom. Figure out the person’s triggers, and watch their behavior for any clues or warnings that they are distressed. If the person needs accommodations, let them have accommodations. Don’t be tolerant of bullying. Be willing to give autistic people a chance–they just might surprise you. If you’re in a supermarket and you see a child flapping her hands or hollering, crying, and kicking, don’t stare. Preventing self-directed ableism starts with relatives, school staff, or anyone else around an autistic person as they come of age.
If you are autistic and have fallen victim to self-directed ableism, the first thing to keep in mind is to not be ashamed of yourself. This is an all-too-common phenomenon that afflicts many, if not most, autistic people. It is a good idea to see a therapist, preferably one who has experience with autistic patients. A therapist will help you with any other issues you may have, such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is especially helpful, because it will point out any cognitive distortions you may have, allow you to see things from a fresh perspective, and give you a chance to develop a new, more positive mindset. Many of the old beliefs that one may still have, such as those connected to self-directed ableism, can be helped by CBT. Keep in mind that this method requires your active participation, and CBT is a gradual process, meaning that you will relapse on some days. Don’t get mad at yourself. It’s part of the process of recovery, and your issue won’t go away overnight. Another method that may help with self-directed ableism is to attempt something that you think you can’t do. This one might be somewhat risky, because if you have trouble, it may only serve to affirm your beliefs of inadequacy. The best way to deal with this issue is to remind yourself that other people who are autistic are probably able to do it, and we all have our talents. For instance, if you try drawing but find that you aren’t that into art, remember that there are lots of autistics who are talented artists, so if you have trouble, it’s not because of your autism. If you assume that you’re non-empathetic just because you have autism, try volunteering somewhere, and see how good it really feels to help others. That’s empathy in action. Dare to challenge the misconceptions about autism, especially the ones that you believe. Self-directed ableism is difficult to overcome, but if I can do it, so can you.