11 Things Not to Say to Someone with Autism
Although autism awareness and acceptance has increased over the years, people on the spectrum still find themselves faced with questions and comments that make them confused or uncomfortable at best, offended at worst. Those who say them often don’t mean to come across as rude or disrespectful; they just don’t know better or understand what others find hurtful. That’s why people on the spectrum have spoken out on this subject on blogs, videos, and more. Here’s what some of them wish they would stop hearing—and why.
1. “But you don’t look like you have autism.”
Autism isn’t a disorder that has any sort of “look” to it. People with autism look just like everyone else!
2. “I’m sorry.”
Though it certainly comes with its unique challenges, many with autism do not view their disorder as a tragedy. In fact, many believe that’s part of what makes them who they are. Not to mention those on the spectrum often have wonderful strengths, or even advantages over neurotypicals, like attention to detail, genuineness, and fantastic memories.
3. “But you have a job/child/romantic relationship/degree.”
Lydia Brown, a blogger on the spectrum, describes such statements as “ableist” (like sexist or racist but pertaining to different abilities). In reality, everyone with autism is different. Some need support for the rest of their lives and some are able to live independently and start a family. Autism alone does not define what someone can or cannot do…or will or will not do.
4. “Wait a minute. I know someone with autism, and you aren’t like them.”
I think purpleaspie put it best; this is like saying “‘I know a neurotypical…person, and you don’t act like he or she does.'” Because autism is a spectrum disorder, everyone with it is different, from their expressions of symptoms to their personalities.
5. “You must be really good at math/science/computers.”
Nobody likes stereotypes, not even when they’re more “positive” like this one. Why? Because it can make people who don’t fit this mold feel inadequate. Again, everyone with autism is different and has different skills, abilities, talents, and likes or dislikes.
6. “You’re just saying you have autism so you can get away with being rude.”
Aside from the fact that this statement is rude in and of itself (oh, the irony!), it’s also untrue for most people on the spectrum. Those with ASD struggle socially because they don’t pick up on the cues neurotypicals inherently get, and as a result, they may come across as rude. This is not the intent for many, however, and if/when they do realize they offended someone, they are often apologetic.
7. “Please don’t flap/spin/rock/jump. It’s annoying/embarrassing/distracting.”
Stimming is a common and harmless way for people with autism to deal with too much or too little sensory information. Much like the nervous habits of neurotypicals, it helps keep anxiety and emotions in check. That being said, many people on the spectrum want society to accept stimming in the same way it accepts habits like foot tapping.
8. “Oh! So you’re like Rain Man?”
This one’s in the same vein as number 5.
“If you really want to annoy [people with autism], compare us to Rain Man,” Nicholas Fearn wrote in a Buzzfeed article. Savants are pretty rare, only making up about 10 percent of the autism community. And as Jeanette Purkis puts it, “Intellect is not much of a measure of someone’s value.”
9. “Does that mean you’re [r-word]?”
Whoa, nelly! First of all, many differently-abled people would love to see the “r” word eliminated from the English language altogether. While once a legitimate medical term to describe those with intellectual disabilities, it’s now outdated and incredibly hurtful. Amythest Schaber, a YouTuber with autism, calls this word a slur, and the organization R-Word calls it hate speech.
Second of all, more than half of people with autism have an average or above average IQ. Of course, people with intellectual disabilities are just as valuable and worthy of love as everyone else, but it’s simply not true to say that autism equals intellectual disability.
10. “So what’s it like to have autism?”
This one seems genuine and innocuous, but some on the spectrum don’t feel comfortable being asked this, and many don’t really understand the question or know how to reply. Kerry Magro, a speaker and author on the spectrum, says, “I’m just who I am. Autism is a part of who I am in many ways and my experience will vary completely to the next person you will meet on the spectrum.” Or put another way: how can you explain something if that’s all you know?
A better question is one that’s more specific: for example, “What are the unique challenges you face as a person with autism?” Keep in mind, however, that such questions may be more appropriate for people you’ve known for a while.
11. [Nothing. Directs questions/comments to friend/caregiver/family member, even though the person on the spectrum is present.]
Being talked around is a universally hurtful experience, whether a person is neurotypical or has autism. It’s invalidating. Whether intentional or not, it nonverbally says “Your thoughts don’t matter to me” or “I can’t trust your input on this.” Yes, it is true that some on the spectrum are nonspeaking, but many of them can still communicate. It’s best to assume a person with autism can and will answer you before turning to someone else. And even if they can’t answer you, they can probably understand you, so watch your words around their caregiver, family, or friends!