This article is going to be a bit of a rant… but what can I say? I’ve been in that kind of mood lately. I just hope you can take something positive from it. Everybody says the wrong thing from time to time – we Aspies, in all our glorious social awkwardness, know that better than anyone else! But there are some things which, however well intentioned, it really isn’t okay to say to a person with autism. Please like, share and spread the awareness so that we can all learn to respect each other and communicate better.
1) ‘You don’t look autistic’.
This is something that has been said to me countless times, and the truth is it doesn’t even make me angry anymore. It just makes me think the person saying it is pretty fucking stupid. Okay, other disabilities like Downs Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy are a little more visible because they impact the whole body. But autism is a purely neurological disorder caused by unusual connections in the neural pathways. I don’t look autistic because you can’t see my brain or my neural pathways from here. Literally the only scenario where a comment like ‘you don’t look autistic’ would make sense is if you were looking at a CT scan of my brain and it was exactly the same as the CT scan of a neurotypical brain.
2) ‘You know, if everyone with autism decided not to have kids, eventually that disability wouldn’t exist anymore.’
A work colleague of mine informed me that another student said this to their whole class during a psychology lecture on autism. He was genuinely surprised that autism still exists and that everyone on the spectrum hasn’t managed to “wipe out” the disorder by electing not to reproduce. First of all, it’s incredibly insulting. Having kids is a personal choice. The idea that someone doesn’t deserve to make that choice, simply because they’re a little different and might produce babies that are a little different, is disturbingly close to Hitler’s idea of ethnic cleansing. Secondly, the idea of wiping out autism through enforced celibacy may seem like an extreme take on Charles Darwin’s theories regarding natural selection, but in practice it wouldn’t work. Some people with high functioning autism don’t receive their diagnosis until late in life, often when they’ve already had kids. Also, although it can be passed on through genetics, autistic children can develop at random in families that have no other relatives on the spectrum. There are just too many variables. Even if the idea of wiping out autism did work, it could result in a major loss of advancement in science, art and technology. Albert Einstein had autism. So does Steven Hawking. Imagine where we’d be if they’d never been born.
3) ‘You’re not autistic. You’re just shy.’
Autism and shyness are two very different things: one is a physical disability; the other is a personality trait. I have a friend who flat out refuses to believe I have autism, instead linking all my issues to shyness and social anxiety. I’ve already explained how hard it can be to come to terms with being disabled, and how belittling it feels when somebody throws all that back in your face by insisting you’re not. But it’s the sheer arrogance of this statement that shocks me. Do you seriously expect me to believe the countless psychologists, mental health nurses and autism specialists I’ve seen over the years were wrong and about my diagnosis and you’re right? Some people with autism may come across as shy because our sensory issues and difficulties with communication can make socialising difficult. Some autistic people are actually shy; it’s possible to be both. But personally, I think we use shyness to explain away problems with socialising far too often. I recently came across a slam poem that describes the poet experiencing a panic attack at a party. She was comforted by a well-meaning party guest who said ‘don’t worry, I used to be shy too, but then I got over it’. This poet has Generalised Anxiety Disorder, a serious mental health condition. In her own words ‘[she] would kill for shy’.
4) I think I’d know if you had autism. My brother/aunt/cousin/friend has it and you’re nothing like them.
The important thing to remember about autism spectrum disorder is… well… it’s a spectrum disorder, and has an enormous capacity for variation. I work with autistic children who are completely nonverbal and autistic children who have good verbal skills, but tend to monologue about a specific interest rather than having a conversation with back and forth exchange. Sometimes it’s hard to believe they share the same disorder- but they do. All that aside, autistic people are all individuals with their own likes and dislikes. You wouldn’t expect all neurotypicals to be exactly the same, so why should you expect all people with autism to be identical? Yes, I am nothing like that aunt/cousin/friend with autism you have. No, that doesn’t mean I don’t have the disorder. If you see yourself as an expert, able to identify anyone with autism just because you happen to know one individual on the spectrum, then you really need a reality check.
5) ‘Everybody is a bit autistic.’
This has been said to me countless times by friends and family members, always with good intentions. I think the aim is to make me feel less lonely, and like others understand me. I could write reams and reams about how this statement belittles my unique experience of the world and sweeps all my issues under the rug, but the most important thing is that it’s scientifically incorrect. The autistic brain probably begins developing in the womb during the second trimester of pregnancy; it is physically different from the neurotypical brain and remains that way for life. Therefore it’s impossible to be ‘a bit autistic’. Like blue eyes or long toes autism is a fixed physical variation, you either have it or you don’t. Perhaps what people mean by ‘everybody is a bit autistic’ is that nobody’s perfect, we all have our little quirks. But quirkiness and autism are not one and the same. If you still don’t get it, try applying the logic of ‘everyone’s a bit autistic’ to other health conditions. We all forget our keys once in a while, but that doesn’t mean everybody is a bit Alzheimer’s. We all trip up once in a while, but that doesn’t mean everybody is a bit paraplegic.