Flipping those negative messages – Reframing misconceptions about autism

As an autistic person I have witnessed a lot of misconceptions, myths and micro-aggressions around autism. I want to flip these around with a positive spin. These are all things I have heard said about myself or another autistic person. They are not dreadfully helpful and perpetuate poor attitudes about autism and autistic people. Here goes…

The first one is ‘my child is obsessed with the hand dryers in the bathroom.’ What the parent actually meant was that their child found the noise of the hand dryers overwhelming. Being in the bathroom was a sensory onslaught for this poor kid who was trying to get their parent to help them without much luck. I suggested to the parent that they take their child to the accessible bathroom so they wouldn’t have to hear the offending technology. ‘Obsessed’ is also a fairly mean word which is often used to describe an autistic person’s passionate interest. An obsession has quite negative connotations but for those of us with the delight that is an autistic passion it is actually a very positive experience and one that happily engages our full attention. It is one of those instances where autistic people’s experience is viewed in negative terms even when it is actually overwhelmingly positive like a passionate interest.

Another response I have struggled with is that autistic children somehow play ‘wrong’ such as lining up their toys. I think that unless the child is being aggressive and destroying things then there is no ‘wrong’ way to play. Everyone plays differently and what is to say that lining up toys is ‘wrong’ but role play with dolls is ‘right’? Has anyone ever been hurt by a child lining up their toys? Probably not. However trying to get a child to play differently because they are lining up toys may well have a negative impact on that child.

Another statement I heard in a conference once was an academic speaking about a study they were doing with autistic teens. The speaker said ‘he is very resistant to using the phone.’ Fair enough I guess but what worries me with that is the way the autistic person is pathologised. If the person was allistic I imagine the language used would have been very different. They probably would have said ‘they don’t like using the phone.’ When a lot of people talk about autism – and disability more broadly – they use language which perpetuates a negative view and sees everything related to that person as a pathology.

Another one is saying an autistic person is a ‘fussy eater.’ There are many reasons that autistic people avoid certain foods. Often they literally cannot eat the food without vomiting. To say someone is a ‘fussy eater’ has a few issues, mainly that fussy implies a choice. It is also quite critical. An autistic person with sensory aversions to food does not actually have a choice. They really cannot eat that thing. I know this because I have been accused of being a ‘fussy eater’ myself.

Another criticism levelled at autistic people is that we are ‘blunt’ or 

‘rude’. In fact autistic people just have a different approach to communication than allistic folks. We ‘tell it like it is’ and often view being tactful – apparently the default setting for neurotypical folks – as being dishonest or lying. What we say is what we mean which can be disarming for allistic filks but it is just how we are. Rather than trying to force autistic folks to be tactful maybe the world needs to lean more about how autistic people approach honesty. It really is just another way of being. 

Autistic people can be criticised because they do not work or engage in further study. Far from being lazy we are often desperate to study or join the workforce but structural and other barriers exist which make it very tricky for us to find and keep a job. 

I was once told that a relative didn’t like talking to me because apparently I ‘stared right through him.’ This was really hurtful especially as my own Yennski version of eye contact is not something I can help.  Autistic people often don’t do eye contact or do it differently to others. It is not us being rude or aggressive and it doesn’t demonstrate that we are dishonest. It is just how we do it.

Finally, the one which most of the bullies in school told me and which periodically crops up… ‘you’re weird!’ Weird is usually seen as an insult. Most people don’t want to be told we are weird but what it actually means is that we approach life differently. We are quirky and interesting. We are unique and original. So I might finish this post on flipping negative statements about autism by reclaiming weird. ‘I am Yennski. I am weird, proud and different not less’. 

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