Five Things Never To Say To An Autistic
*For the purposes of this article,“autistic” includes self-diagnosis, people with ADHD, PDD-NOS, Tourette’s Syndrome, and other conditions included in the term neurodivergent as defined by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
1. “You don't look/sound/seem autistic!”
This can only be a compliment if looking/sounding/seeming autistic is undesirable.
It’s the ableist’s rendition of “you’re so articulate for a Black person” — it does nothing more than reveal your ignorance about autism and reiterate exclusion of autistics because we are autistic.
If we are having an intimate enough conversation for you to proffer a compliment based on my person and not my work, skills and/or abilities, understand that I am expending great effort to accommodate allistic standards for the privilege of an audience with you. Complimenting my functioning is diminishing, dehumanizing and humiliating. This holds true for both professional and personal relationships. Don’t do it.
Frame your compliment in terms of what’s important to the autist besides successfully passing as non-autistic.
2. “Calm down.”
This one is a trigger for me —from decades of failed attempts to convince the world (and myself) that an outspoken trans male autistic assigned and socialized as female from birth and labelled ‘mentally ill’ before high school graduation could carve out a path best suited to fulfil their full potential.
I was first put on Zoloft for “teenage depression” in 1999 at age 14. It was the first time anyone in my family needed professional psychiatric help. Derisive “go take a happy pill” snarks were de rigueur back then; but it was watching Saturday Night Live with my family shortly after starting on the psychiatric drug that made it abundantly clear just needing the medication was grounds for mockery. When the ‘neurotic blonde’ character presented a box of Arrowroot biscuits from her shopping and exclaimed they were her ‘Zoloft biscuits’ my whole family cracked up. I tried to disappear into the sofa.
Violence lurks behind these deceptively empathic words. Their invocation others we who are too loud/angry, assumes authority and establishes a hierarchy: a ‘cooler head’ must prevail, reign us in and restore order. Language is weaponized against us when we get too uppity and speak for ourselves, demanding access to employment, health care and housing.
Involuntary psychiatric holds are recognized as a violation of disabled peoples’ right to experience, interact and engage with the world on our terms. Attempts to seek help — in the most desperate moments of our lives, when we are in such distress that we break down and call a suicide hotline, or confess our feelings to a loved one who contacts emergency services on our behalf — are met with disdain, state violence and detention without cause.
This is the price we pay for needing assistance, and for doing what all the mental health awareness campaigns preach: asking for help.
It’s worth noting that Black people and their allies around the world are rising up in opposition to punishment for nonconformity to the white supremacist capitalism status quo.
Disrupt the status quo and give permission to the autists you know to be our authentic selves with you.
3. “Everyone’s on the spectrum…”
At best, this is a lazy attempt to empathize with us. At worst, it’s a deliberate effort to erase autistic bodies, voices and lived experiences.
If everyone is autistic, then why are 85% of autistics unemployed?
This claim often comes from allistic people eager to score woke points for watching Big Bang Theory and Rain Man. The ableist assumption is that highly accomplished and famous autists/presumed autists (Temple Grandin, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell) succeeded despite communication, sensory processing and learning challenges as well as ableism — so what’s wrong with the rest of us non-famous autists?
This is inspiration porn, and it’s just as damaging to real autistics as commercial porn is to everyone. Consider one of the first Google image search results for “inspiration porn”:
The intended audience for this “motivational poster” is able-bodied men seeking self-improvement. Much as women in commercially produced porn are reduced to ‘desirable’ (breasts, mouths, genitals) and ‘undesirable’ (body hair and fat, menstrual blood) parts, the men pictured missing their left legs are reduced to spare parts by the abled gaze.
It doesn’t matter if the pictures are Photoshopped, whether ‘before’ and ‘after’ are really the same individual or whether the image represents reality. The means is objectification of disabled bodies; the ends is an ego-boost for the able-privileged consumer.
4. “Maybe you should [insert earnest advice that works for non-autistics here]”
Bonus points if you append again to that sentence.
We understand that you want to help us overcome the odds and become one of the few autists who gets a job, finds a partner, starts an influential blog, etc. We appreciate it. We really do.
The problem is not you, me, or our other autistic friends and allies. It’s that there are layers of complex and intersecting structural and individual factors at play: Autists sorely lack the social, economic and institutional power required to influence public opinion and government policy. Similar to the critiques of institutional biomedical research that arose from the revelation that ignoring the unique clinical profile of cardiovascular disease in women cost many women their lives, awareness of the critical need for autistic/neurodivergent-centred health is still an unknown unknown.
Instead of dispensing suggestions that worked for non-autistics you know, accommodate by centering us in your offer: respect our agency by asking first if we want your assistance (don’t assume we do). If the answer is yes, keep the help autist-directed – this means resisting the urge to assume authority as the job/partner/hobby-haver.
This also means not assuming you have permission to “give it to us straight”, even if you’ve known us our whole lives. Autists have been gaslighted, blackmailed and coerced into following “advice” that is disingenuous, misleading and dangerous for us for at least as long as we’ve known you. Non-autistic allies, take note: this is absolutely one of those times to take a seat.
5. “I think of you guys as the next stage of evolution!”
Another “compliment” that positions autistics only insofar as our value to others, rather than our inherent value. The only context in which we are promised humanity at some undefined point in the future is one in which our humanity is denied today.
The concept of evolution is predicated upon the assumption that nature trumps nurture: it assumes that complex human desires and behaviors are dictated by biology. Evolutionary biology is the foundational receipt for ‘objective, scientific’ biological essentialism: classist, cissexist, racist and ableist biases (‘slow’; ‘dumb’; ‘Neanderthal’) that posit us as lesser than non-autistic (white/middle-class/able-bodied/cishet male) individuals.
In practical terms: we are deemed too functional by governments to qualify for assistance, but not functional enough by employers to be permitted access to the labor market. This, and not individual failings, is why autism is a life sentence for poverty and exclusion.
Like many millennial and older autists assigned female at birth, I received my diagnosis before publication of the DSM-V in 2013, when the diagnosis Asperger’s syndrome was rolled into the entry for autism. Adoption of “autistic” is an act of solidarity with all neurodivergent folks, as well as a rejection of the white supremacist ideology underpinning atrocities committed by Nazi scientist Hans Asperger.
In 2018, medical historian Herwig Czech published evidence that Asperger’s Am Spiegelgrund clinic selected and sent autistic children deemed “a burden… not worthy of life” as part of the Third Reich’s racial hygiene/eugenics program.
“This was a lot darker than I expected for a listicle…”
I know, and I'm sorry about that. A sense of urgency underpins my work for two reasons:
Polite requests to spare our lives didn’t work in 1930s Europe, either. Ask the descendents of the handful of Jewish refugees who survived the journey of the damned that was the SS St. Louis.
Just like the Third Reich’s Asperger once selected kids like me and mine for removal from the Aryan gene pool, this week the Trump regime initiated the “exterminate queers and cr*ps” phase of America’s Final Solution.
In March of this year, I turned 35.
I’m using it.