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  • Writer's pictureCory Morrison

My Perspectives on Things Not to Say to Autistic People

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

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Introduction


As many people do not always understand autism and how to respond to autistic people, there will be misunderstandings that can be damaging to autistic people's self-esteem. I know this through my first-hand experiences and me knowing other people on the spectrum over the years.


There are things you should not say to autistic people when you interact with them.


With the quotes that have crossed my mind, my perspectives aren’t entirely black and white as I try to consider people's viewpoints and specific situations, but I do not approve of these phrases. In this post, I explain why I don't support them.


What Not to Say


"Try Harder."


When people say this, they basically assume that everyone has the same capabilities. In reality, we all have unique, diverse abilities. Some things that others may classify as simple may not come as naturally to other people.


The reality is that many don't understand how much more daunting many activities can be for people on the spectrum compared to neurotypical people.


If one tells an autistic person they need to try harder to make friends when they find social interactions challenging, the autistic person will get frustrated by the ignorance.


For example, most neurotypical people may find that going out on Friday nights with a large group of friends comes easy to them, but a person on the spectrum may find it overwhelming.


With me, I'll either be a third wheel in such gatherings, or I'll shut down and unintentionally make things awkward fast. It's not what I want, but when social difficulties and sensory overload come into play, it's not something I have much control over.


The rare occasion it may be okay to say this is if a parent knows a child well enough that they are deliberately refusing to do something they can do.


For example, if a child says, "I don't know how to put blocks away", because they don't want to, even though the parent has seen them put blocks away many times.


"If This Autistic Person Did This, So Can You."


In situations like this, I refer to one of my all-time favourite autism quotes by Dr. Stephen Shore: "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."


This quote explains the various strengths and weaknesses people on the spectrum have.


For example, some autistic people may get married in their 20s, while others may be late-bloomers with finding love and relationships. Some may find dating to be anxiety-provoking even when they want a partner. If a person says, "If this autistic person got married, then so can you!" it can do more harm than you think. Why is this?


First, they compare the first autistic person to the other person and imply that one person is doing more than the other (going back to the "Try Harder" section).


Secondly, they subtly communicate a person's struggles are more or less profound than another's.


Comparing autistics to other autistics can be just as bad as comparing autistics to non-autistics, in my opinion. It's never good for self-esteem.


Instead, it's best to accept where people are as long as they aren't hurting themselves or others.


"You Don't Look Autistic."


If a person says this, the messages that come across are these:

  • You mask so well.

  • Autistic people always look and behave in specific ways.

  • Autistic people tend to look alike.

Not to mention, it's a bit condescending because a person who says this implies that autistic people aren't on the same level as neurotypicals.


It's true that people on the spectrum may struggle more than the average person with many things. Let's not ignore that reality. However, it doesn't mean autistics are less than neurotypicals and vice versa as people. There's a difference between saying that a person may struggle more (Level 3 vs. Level 1 Autism, for example) and saying that a person is less.


"If You Want Something so Bad, You'll Try to Get it."


We can't always get what we want, no matter how much we want it.


Maybe a job position got filled because someone else stood out as especially qualified, a person you see as a potential dating partner may not see you that way, or a store closes early when you badly want something from there.


Looking at these examples above, you don't want to persist too hard, or else there could be serious consequences.


We can attempt to get things we want when we don't know what the outcome will be, but once we can't, we can't.


Relating this to autistic people, given our barriers to finding employment and displaying social skills that neurotypicals may consider acceptable, it can be especially difficult for us to achieve milestones in areas we want.


We need others' approval for many things.


"Quit Using Your Diagnosis as an Excuse."


A lot of the time, when autistic people try to explain behaviours that others may not understand, they aren't making excuses.


If a person misses a social cue, it most likely wasn't intentional, as reading social cues is hard for people on the spectrum.


Again, we can't assume that we all think alike and that people who behave in ways that deviate from the norm are doing so on purpose.


That's not to say there aren't any autistic people who will do stuff they know is wrong and use autism as an excuse (no different than a neurotypical person deliberately doing something immoral and making up a poor excuse), but especially if the behaviour relates to autism's symptoms and the person's natural way of being, we can assume intentional misbehaviour is often the exception rather than the norm.

"You Need to Get Out There."


While this may be decent advice for neurotypicals who may not struggle socially as much, it doesn't take the social difficulties autistic people have into account.


Going back to the Try Harder section, autistic people are going to struggle more than neurotypicals with getting out there.


Many of us do not know exactly what to do when we approach a group of people at a bar.


"What do we talk about? Do we make small talk? Do we ask for numbers? Is this the appropriate time to talk about our latest adventures?" These questions will cross our minds constantly in these situations, sometimes to unbearable levels.


Even when we do get out there, we may be vulnerable to social rejection and bullying, leading many of us back to square one in social isolation or semi-social isolation more than we'd like.


If an autistic person isn't getting out there, it's likely because they are aware of these difficulties or they don't feel comfortable doing so.


"You Can Be Normal if You Put Your Mind to It."


This quote does overlap with the information I put in the Try Harder section to an extent. However, for this particular wording, here's my response:


"Trust me, I spent so much time trying to limit my autism symptoms so people would stop shunning and bullying me as often as they have, even if I haven't been successful much of the time. Don't think it hasn't crossed my mind. Overcoming the social barriers I have is as difficult as learning a new language. On the other hand, there are parts of autism I don't mind having, such as my special interests. I like to have a balance between accepting myself and making sure others are happy, which I understand is not always easy to do."


"I Have Trouble Socially Too, But I Don't...."


I don't want to underestimate people's challenges, but if they're not on the spectrum or have any disability or mental health condition that affects their abilities to have normal social lives, it's unlikely their social difficulties are as profound as those who have a condition.


Arguing with your best friend is not exactly a social difficulty in the same way as being shunned by the vast majority of people in your life, reluctantly spending a lot of time alone or misunderstanding social cues is.


That's not to say I don't have sympathy for any person who has troubles socially, regardless of whether they are neurodiverse or not. Still, the comparing and assuming everyone thinks like them is not okay.


Even if an autistic person said that to another autistic person, I still wouldn't approve.


Some people's social difficulties affect their lifestyles more than others; that's how it is.


"We Are All a Little Autistic."


No, not everyone is autistic. One can't assume that because they have difficulty with Person A or Person B, have the odd obsession, get annoyed by a certain noise, or have some problems with a team sport, that they are on the spectrum.


These difficulties need to be clinically significant enough to affect a person's life on a daily basis; challenges that affect a person's ability to go to weekend parties, go to sports games, go to work, pay rent, live independently and understand the social communication in ways that neurotypical people wouldn't struggle with.


For this reason, I don't approve of most self-diagnosis situations (except for when it's clear to all involved that a person is autistic based on their consistent demonstrations of nearly all symptoms, and the person isn't able to get a diagnosis).


"You Don't Have Autism."


I have a story with this one. This goes way back to 2008 or 2009 in my early days of using YouTube. Mind you; autism awareness was lower then, but even in those days, I considered this quote ignorant.


I commented something about me being autistic on a video, and an ignorant person (likely a troll) said to me, "You don't look autistic. You are just a loser making excuses for yourself."


This also refers to some people's lack of knowledge of autism, where they assume all autistic people must act like Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper or a scientist to be autistic.


They don't consider how diverse the spectrum is. While some autistic people may be like these stereotypes, a lot of them aren't.


Plus, who has a say on whether a person is autistic or not? That random person on the street or a professional and parents who clearly understand the autistic person's strengths and weaknesses?


Conclusion


Understanding how to interact with an autistic person and how to acknowledge their difficulties can go a long way in preventing gross misunderstandings and intense feelings of tension.


What we all want is acceptance, love, understanding and reduced ignorance.


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