5 things not to say to an Aspie (or anyone else autistic)
If there’s one thing you can guarantee as an autistic it’s every day you’re going to run up against the casual, unthinking, and sometimes even well-meaning ignorance, stupidity, and bigotry from our neurotypical cousins.
Despite my grumpy, abrasive, and irascible demeanour I'm a surprisingly laid-back, forgiving, and non-judgemental chap.
But some things I have no tolerance for... and wilful stupidity is one of them.
And you know what?
As often as not wilful stupidity is behind much of what follows.
Don't get me wrong — I'm not the Thought Police and far be it from me to restrict your freedom of speech.
But remember... it doesn't mean I won't call you on your bullshit, either.
1. But you don’t look autistic
I can’t begin to tell you how annoying, insulting, and just plain wrong this is.
The first thing is this: since I am autistic and I look like I do, I clearly do look autistic, by definition.
Because this, in my case, is exactly what autism looks like (I even have a badge to prove it).
But facetiousness aside, autism doesn't come along with any distinctive physical traits whatsoever. It's not like Down's or Dwarfism, or progeria, and many others where the condition causes physical changes to the face and body.
Oh, I know what you mean when you say it, of course.
Trust me, I know.
You've got some stereotypical image of a cross-eyed, drooling idiot in your head, some slack-jawed mouth-breather sitting in the corner rocking back and forth with his thumb in his mouth (probably taking a break between bouts of screaming and faeces-throwing).
I hate to be the one to trash your ignorant bigotry, but your stereotype has no basis in fact whatsoever. You likely meet autistic people every day, or at least pass them in the street, and you don't even know it.
Because they look like, you know, people.
You know what I say to people who tell me I don't look autistic?
"Well... you don't look like an idiot... but here we are".
2. Are you sure? You seem fine to me…
Yes, I'm sure (and I have been for some years).
So was the psychologist who took great pains to diagnose me.
And the reason I "seem OK" to you is you're uninformed, ignorant, and almost certainly unqualified to give any kind of diagnosis at all.
And no matter how highly qualified you are, you're definitely unqualified to give a diagnosis just by looking at me, talking to me in casual conversation for a few minutes, or reading this blog.
Anyway, what do you mean by saying I "seem fine"?
Exactly how are you judging me, here? Is this that "acceptance" I keep hearing about?
More about this below, because the two kind of go together.
3. You must be high functioning, then?
See, when they've realised they can't gainsay my autism with their stunning displays of diagnostic acuity, they try to rationalise their failure by somehow making it my fault they can't detect it.
By tacitly claiming I'm not presenting as autistic enough.
Here's the problem with calling me and other autistics "high functioning" or describing my autism itself as "mild": you're describing what you see on the outside, how you experience my autism rather than how I experience it.
And that's a problem, because at no point can you know how easy or difficult I'm finding something unless I tell you. And sometimes you're not going to believe me because, well, I seem so "normal" and must be "high functioning".
Bottom line: the ability to mask your presentation well is a two-edged sword.
If you're good at it, then it can make much of your life easier. You're no more "normal" than any autistic, but you can fool others enough so they treat you better (but don't ever think this means we are normal or are somehow curing ourselves, because we're not).
But... if you're too good any claims you make to having challenges or difficulty are met with disbelief and scepticism, and occasionally scorn and derision.
Think of it like a swan gliding across the water. Regardless of how serene and elegant it all looks above the surface, under the water is a churning, swirling mass of water kicked up by the swan's paddling.
Well, it's a bit like that.
4. I think we’re all a little bit autistic
Although thus point comes in at No.4, don't for a moment kid yourself into thinking it's not the most annoying of the lot. It's where it is because I've listed these five in the order we tend to hear them in from people (and I have more, oh so many more to write about in other posts).
First, Asperger's is autistic psychopathy. Aspies express a broadly similar set of the traits putting them on the autistic spectrum. We have Autistic Spectrum Disorder of a particular kind (this is somewhat simplistic, but I don't want to get into a deeper discussion on this here — just take it from me I'm well aware of the inevitable discussion and it's not my intention to distance myself from what some call "mainstream autistics").
So, the simple fact it's a disorder kinda tell you it isn't "normal", where "normal" means a set of traits within (fairly arbitrary) limits encompassing the vast majority of humanity (like, 98.57% of us).
So if everyone was a little bit autistic, then it wouldn't be and couldn't be a disorder (and let's not get into how MRI scans show our autistic brains are objectively different from neurotypical ones).
In short: the statement, by the very definition of what autism is, makes no sense.
I think the problem has its roots in ignorance. I mean no insult here, but most people are woefully ignorant about autism, and it shows (and how).
Autism isn't just about occasionally exhibiting one or two autistic traits when you're at a low ebb.
When I tell you the lights, sounds, and busyness of a mall or an airport terminal can send me into a meltdown where I can't think, speak, or process information please don't confuse that with feeling a bit uncomfortable and tell me you feel the same way. I can pretty much guarantee you don't. The fact you can deal with it tells me you don't.
It's like being a bit short, you know? It doesn't mean you're a bloody dwarf just because you're below average height.
If we were all “a little bit autistic” we wouldn’t face the massive daily challenges we do.
If we were all “a little bit autistic” society would be structured so autistic people fitted into it and everyone would be clear on social rules and the nuances of social interaction.
If everyone was "a little bit autistic" we wouldn’t need to promote awareness, and I wouldn’t have to write this.
I get you probably mean well (or you want to be in the best and most exclusive club in the world), and maybe you're trying to make us feel like we're included and kind of fit in.
But it’s patronising, belittling, makes light of the daily struggles we face, supremely unhelpful, and plainly incorrect.
If you really want to help us then listen to what we tell you and ask for.
5. I’m so sorry…
You don't need to be sorry because there's nothing wrong with me. I'm just different from you, that's all.
I'll make deal with you: stop feeling sorry for my autism and I'll stop feeling sorry for your crippling empathy, embarrassing need to be liked and validated by others, and glacially slow and constrained thought processes. It's almost like you're not wired up the right way, you know?
Seriously: I have a great life. I'm happily married, have brought up smart, decent, and well adjusted kids, and run my own successful business from a purpose-built, state-of-the-art office in my garden. I'm happy — probably happier than most people you know, because I've engineered my life to be exactly how I want it to be. Not many people, autistic or otherwise can say that.
Apart from anything else, feeling sorry for me scores on about the same level as "thoughts and prayers". It's about you making yourself feel better about the perceived plight of someone you feel to be less fortunate than yourself without having to do anything so useful as help them in any meaningful way.
You know how you can really help us if you want to?
I've already said it, but it's worth repeating: listen to what we tell you and ask for.
Got any of your own?
What are your favourite peeves when it comes to people saying to and about you as an autistic?
Don't be shy — feel free to comment (whether you're autistic or NT).
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate