Last night somebody shared an article on Facebook. The article was called “Things never to say to parents of a child with autism.” A comment on the article asked why there wasn’t one about things not to say to an autistic adult. I decided to write that article. It’s based on not only my experience, but also the experiences of my autistic friends.
1) “You don’t look autistic.”
My response to this would be something along the lines of what Gloria Steinem said when people told her she “looked good for 50.” She said, “This is what 50 looks like.” I say, “This is what autism looks like.” However, what I’d like to say is: “I don’t look autistic, and you don’t look ignorant. I guess we’re both wrong.”
I don’t know what people who say this mean when they say I don’t look autistic. What does autism look like? If I looked at any of my autistic friends, I wouldn’t be able to say, “This person looks autistic,” if I didn’t already know they were.
Sometimes people will say, “But you look so normal.” I don’t know if that’s meant to be a compliment or not. To this I say that I am normal.
2) “You can’t be autistic because…”
This could be, “You can’t be autistic because you can talk,” “You can’t be autistic because you have friends,” “You can’t be autistic because you have a job,” or “You can’t be autistic because you are married.”
Autism is a spectrum. There are many variations among autistic people. Some are non-verbal, while others are what is known as hyperlexic, meaning they talk a lot and have large vocabularies. Some autistic people have jobs, and some don’t. Most autistic people have friends, and those that don’t usually want to have friends. Some autistic people are married, and some are not. There’s probably as wide a variation among autistic people as there is in the non-autistic population.
3) “Don’t call yourself autistic. You’re a person with autism. You must use person-first language.”
I call myself an autistic person. Many in the autism community prefer to use autism-first language. As Ari Ne’eman said, “When I go on a trip I don’t forget to pack my autism.” I’ve written blog posts before about why I prefer autism-first language. However, it is a personal preference. Some prefer to use person-first language, and others don’t. All of us would prefer to not be told what to call ourselves, especially by people who aren’t autistic.
4) “Are you like Rainman?”
Rainman was a fictional character in the movie of the same name. Rainman was portrayed as an autistic man with savant skills (savant skills are considered to be exceptional abilities by people with intellectual disabilities in the areas of “rapid calculation, art, memory, or musical ability,” according to Wikipedia.) He was based on an actual person with savant skills, Kim Peek, but Kim Peek was not autistic himself.
Most autistic people are not savants. Some are, like Daniel Tammett, author of Born on a Blue Day, but they are the exception, not the norm. Not all autistic people are savants, and not all savants are autistic.
5) “You’re autistic? Does that mean you’re retarded?”
First of all, let’s not use the “r” word. It may have once had a clinical meaning, but these days it’s used primarily as an insult. Second, does being autistic mean a person has an intellectual disability? Not always. As I said before, autism is a spectrum. There is a lot of variation among people on that spectrum. Some people have intellectual gifts, while others have intellectual disabilities. Most of us fall somewhere between those two. Many autistic people have normal to above-average IQs and have learning disabilities at the same time, which may mask their true abilities. Finally, many of us simply don’t learn the same way as non-autistic people, and we may have trouble with an educational environment that is not set up for people like us. That can cause us to be labelled as “retarded” or “disabled” when we’re not.
6) “You’re too intelligent to be autistic.”
Again, there is much variation among people on the autism spectrum. Some of us have low IQs, some of us have superior IQs, and most of us fall somewhere in between. Intelligence is not a diagnostic criterion for autism.
7) “You’re not autistic. You just have Asperger’s.”
Asperger’s Syndrome is a condition that is on the autism spectrum. The latest version of the DSM, the diagnostic manual for mental disorders, has done away with the Asperger diagnosis in favour of simply using “autism spectrum disorder.”
8) “You must be high-functioning.”
Functioning labels are not useful. They are an artificial means of trying to classify people into rigid and discrete categories. Nobody is 100 percent “high-functioning” or 100 percent “low-functioning.” Some people can change their “functioning” levels within the space of a few hours depending on their energy levels or the environment they’re in. To paraphrase Laura Tisoncik, when you’re labelled low-functioning your abilities are ignored, and when you’re labelled high-functioning your needs are ignored. There are no specific, definable criteria for what is “high” and what is “low” functioning.
9) “I know an autistic person, and you don’t act like he or she does.”
What I would like to say: “I know a neurotypical [non-autistic] person, and you don’t act like he or she does.” Again, I bring up the words “spectrum” and “variation.” When you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
10) “You don’t act like you’re autistic.”
There are two possible answers to that. One is that I am acting like an autistic person, and this is how this particular autistic person acts. Again with the spectrum and the variety of people within it.
Another answer, though, could be that I am currently expending all my energy to specifically not act like an autistic person. I could be at work or in some other situation in which it is important to act a certain way — not stimming, not talking about my special interest, trying hard to make eye contact — and I am currently doing my “mimicking the neurotypicals” act. When I am alone or in a more autism-friendly environment, them I will probably act more autistic.
11) “You’re just saying you have Asperger’s to get away with being rude.”
I’ve had that accusation levelled at me, as have many of my friends. Oddly, it is often levelled at us when we are NOT being rude. I’ve heard that there are people who say they have Asperger’s as an excuse for being rude, but I’ve never encountered any of these people. If you read the comments for any YouTube video or news article online, you’ll encounter plenty of rude people who don’t claim to have Asperger’s at all.
Generally, I’ve found that if a person who has Asperger’s does accidentally offend someone, they are genuinely sorry for it. An Aspergian person may use Asperger’s as an explanation for rudeness but not an excuse, the difference being that the person using it as an explanation will apologize and try to learn from the experience so that they don’t do it again, while the person using it as an excuse will refuse to take responsibility, won’t apologize and won’t care if they do it again.
12) “My friend’s/neighbour’s/second cousin twice removed’s child had autism, but they put him on a special diet and he got better.”
Some autistic people have food allergies, sensitivities or intolerance. Some are sensitive/allergic to gluten. Some are sensitive/allergic to dairy. Some are sensitive/allergic to other foods or ingredients in the food. In those cases, their behaviour improves once they stop eating the foods that make them sick. That doesn’t mean they are no longer autistic. It just means they are feeling better than they were when they were ingesting substances that made them sick.
In other cases, parents put their child on a gluten-free/dairy-free diet because they’ve been told that all autistic children should go on that diet. Their child is in therapy at the same time, and if the parent sees an improvement they may credit the diet for it rather than the therapy.
13) “You can get over it. It’s just in your head. It’s not physical.”
This is often said to people suffering from depression or anxiety as well as to autistic people. Apparently when something is in your head, other people think it somehow isn’t real, hence the saying, “It’s all in your head.”
Autism causes neurobiological differences in the brain. There are actual physical differences in the brains of autistic people, so it actually is physical.
Certainly, the right kind of therapy and support can help autistic people, but that doesn’t mean we are “over” our autism. We can learn to manage our symptoms, but autism is always there.
14) “You seem so normal!” “I can’t believe you have autism!” “You are doing really well, so you must be so proud of yourself.”
What can I say to these? Am I proud of myself? Yes, I am proud of myself for my accomplishments — getting a university degree, keeping the same job for 12 years, buying a house, maintaining a long-term relationship. However, as I said in response to the first item on the list, autistic people can and do achieve all of those things. “You seem normal!” That is because I AM normal. “I can’t believe you have autism!” Well, believe it. Autistic people can accomplish many things that were once believed to be impossible for us, and we will keep on achieving them.