There are two Big Mistakes that people make when interacting with autistics. Firstly, they presume we’re the same as everyone else. Secondly, they assume we’re NOT the same as everyone else.
If this sounds contradictory, let me elaborate on what I mean.
1) If people presume we’re the same as everyone else (this applies whether we have a diagnosis or not), it means that our actions are judged in that light. So if we do X behaviour, it’s presumed it’s done for the same reason that non-autistics would do it for.
The classic example is the autistic child whose teacher makes a mistake, and the child points this out – loudly, and in front of the rest of the class. The teacher reacts angrily, assuming that this is because the child is being deliberately cheeky, disrespectful, rude, or challenging their authority. The child, however, is far more likely to be simply distressed and/or confused by the teacher making a mistake, because errors can cause us actual pain. And as we’re less sensitive to social hierarchies, the student will likely just blurt out the correction. They will then be even more distressed by the teacher’s response, and possibly have a meltdown, especially if they’ve already had a hard day.
Even as an adult, working as a teacher aide in a classroom, I found myself in this situation. A teacher taught a grammar rule wrong, and it took all my self-control not to correct them. And if it was hard for me, imagine how hard it is for autistic kids not to say anything. A better outcome might be the teacher taking the child aside later, and asking them to tell them in private when they’ve made a mistake, rather than blurting it out in front of everyone. If the child knows that the teacher is sympathetic, they might be able to restrain themselves better.
Another scenario, which I’ve heard frequently from autistic adults, is an autistic employee asking an employer, manager or co-worker lots of questions about how to do a job. They then think we are challenging their authority, ‘acting stupid’ to bug them, and so on. Cue hostile response, and sometimes our being fired, demoted, punished or socially isolated. But we often do need way more guidance than most NTs would need, either because of anxiety issues or because we simply don’t know many things neurotypicals take for granted. In this situation, the probable best thing for the employer to do is to appoint someone helpful to act as a mentor, at least until we get the hang of the job, which we will probably then understand better than the other employees! If the job changes in any way, however, we will probably need further guidance.
2) People can also assume we are ‘not like others’, believing that everything an autistic does is BECAUSE they’re autistic. Implicit in this, and the tragedy at the core of this assumption, is the mistaken belief that we ‘don’t feel things like other people do’.
The classic example here is meltdowns. If it’s simply assumed that it’s a ‘symptom’ of our autism, ie that autistics are violent, disruptive, crying helplessly etc because we’re autistic, and for no other reason, then no-one will bother to dig deeper for the real causes. And thus we will likely have more meltdowns, and the destructive cycle will continue, until eventually we are deemed ‘intractable’ or ‘unreachable’, with all the horrible things that tend to follow on from that.
Whereas if people stop and think ‘well, if a non-autistic person was doing this behaviour, what reasons might they have?’, then they might occur to them that ‘oh! A non-autistic would be doing it because of stress!’ And then they might recognise that actually, we too are responding to various stresses. They might even start to realise the role that sensory overload plays in causing meltdowns. And they might start to change the classroom, office space, home environment, etc, as well as their (and others’) behaviour towards the autistic.
Because we do have feelings and emotions, oh how we do. We may not show them in the same way, or at the ‘right’ time, and sometimes we don’t even register them ourselves until later, if at all, because many of us are alexithymic as well as being autistic. But we do have them nonetheless. And to assume we don’t is to create a situation where our very real distress is ignored or, worse, punished. I can’t begin to describe the depths of the trauma all this causes. Because if it’s assumed that someone doesn’t have feelings, then it’s far more likely that they will be mistreated, abused, even sometimes killed, because it ‘doesn’t matter’ what happens to them.
The upshot of these two Big Mistakes is that in the first instance, the autistic is punished for being a ‘bad’ human. And in the second, we’re considered to not be human at all – and punished for that too, with the support we need denied us. Either way, our reality is denied, ignored or twisted and used against us. Both cause massive amounts of distress, confusion and pain to autistics. We end up feeling like no-one likes us, no-one understands us and no-one truly cares. We can become perpetually anxious, depressed, angry, or even suicidal – if the world is that unfriendly, why would we want to stay in it? Even if we don’t end it all, our lives tend to go on a downward spiral. It’s a harsh world for autistics in which these two mistakes rule people’s attitudes and behaviour towards us.
The curious thing is that, often, people make the same mistakes with the same autistic individual/s, at the same time. Our meltdowns, for instance, can be seen as ‘bad behaviour’, but also simultaneously as ‘well you know, they’re autistic…’, with a dismissive shrug. All the while, our real problems aren’t being looked at, and will sadly continue.
Sometimes these two mistakes combine in a particularly nasty way. In this approach, we’re seen as ‘NTs with holes’, ie that we are like others, but with lacks or deficiencies, which need to be corrected, the ‘holes filled in’. I call this the ‘empty autism theory’. It’s assumed that if we have the right therapy, we will become ‘just like normal’. But the ‘no feelings’ assumption plays its part here too – when we react badly to that therapy, eg if it’s boring, harsh or manipulative, causes us pain or upset, or involves long hours that other kids aren’t subjected to, our very real reactions to it are ignored, because they ‘aren’t real’, or ‘don’t count’. ABA is the prime example of this, but things like social skills classes, forcing us to forsake our special interests or to make eye contact can also fall into this category.
None of these approaches are helpful. We are not what people think we are, but we are definitely human. It’s just that we human differently. We desperately need and want you to learn our true reality, not operate on these wrong assumptions about us. These Big Mistakes are hurting us, hurting us badly, and it needs to stop.