Autism – challenging assumptions and functioning labels

In my life outside fo the autism and mental health and gender diversity advocacy space I am a career public servant. Shortly after I commenced my employment I responded to my boss that I ‘assumed this was the case.’ My boss responded by asking if I knew or I assumed as they were different things! That lesson stayed with me up until the present day. An assumption is not a fact – and quite often it is anything but a fact! However assumptions are very common and we all make them.

Assumptions are a natural part of being human. Apparently when we meet a new person we make an assessment – or a number of assessments – about their various elements. It takes but a few seconds to make a decision about a range of their characteristics. Our assumptions are based on things like their physical appearance, ethnic background, how they speak, if they seem educated or not,  how they dress, what we think their gender is… the list goes on. So before we even converse with a person we have made a range of assessments about them which will impact on our interactions with them and how we view them.

It is not the case that assumptions are ‘wrong’ but we need to be aware that we make them. 

When it comes to neurodiversity assumptions play a huge role and not just those snap judgements we have when we meet a person. Give someone a diagnosis of autism, ADHD, PDA, dyslexia and so forth and the assumptions will fly about the place and influence interactions with that person and expectations of their capacity. Assumptions of incompetence and a lack or capability are rife in this space. Add to this the functioning labels and levels for autism and it can make life very challenging. For example a person who is non-speaking and have the ‘low functioning’ label will almost certainly be assumed to lack competence and not be able to navigate life well or do things that others can, despite the fact that this is not necessarily the case. And take someone given the ‘high functioning’ label. They may have gained the label as a result of masking and may in fact find life extremely challenging. But that high functioning label will most likely result in them being denied access to supports that they in fact need. Assumptions plus functioning labels is a dangerous mix indeed!

Communication often relates to assumptions especially communication across neurotypes. The neurotypical / allistic majority tend to believe that their way of communicating is the only valid one and autistic / neurodivergent communication is somehow wrong. In reality both neurodivergent and neurotypical means of communication are perfectly valid – they are just different. That notion of ‘different not less’ comes into play here. I view autistic and allistic communication as being like two separate languages. It is as it autistic people speak French and allistic people speak German. French and German are both perfectly valid languages. However it is not just that autistics are speaking a different language. Int is more that allistic people do not know that autistic ‘French’ exists. So they just assume autistic people are speaking German very poorly!  I find this cultural sort of theory quite helpful in understanding the challenges in communication across neurotypes.

People are always going to make assumptions. Similarly people are always going to have biases. The issue is not so much the assumptions, rather it is people not realising their assumptions exist or challenging them. I think a lot of the assumptions around neurodivergence are really damaging and we need to challenge those assumptions with the questions ‘is that fact or assumption?’ And ‘Is this going to help people thrive or hold them back?’

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