15 Things You Should Never Say to an Autistic
There could really be a hundred or a thousand of these, but I’ve decided to choose just 15 for the sake of brevity and not imploding anyone’s browser. All of these things have actually been said to Autistics, children and adults, and some of them are unfortunately very common. Some happen more often over the internet, and some happen more often in person, but they’re all phrases or questions that can be incredibly hurtful.
Sometimes people who say these things are well-meaning, which can make the impact even worse. Especially in those cases, people might not understand why these can be so offensive and hurtful, and occasionally insist that what they’re saying is a compliment, even when it’s not.
1. “So is that like being retarded?”
Factually speaking, Autistic people in many cases do not have an intellectual or cognitive disability, and many people with intellectual or cognitive disabilities are not also Autistic. There are some Autistic people who also have an intellectual or cognitive disability. Nevertheless, the word “retarded” is often very hurtful for Autistic people, as it is frequently used as an insult to dehumanize people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The r-word is often used to express hatred for people with disabilities. Please don’t use it.
2. “You should be very proud of yourself. You seem so normal. I couldn’t tell you’re Autistic.”
While this might be rarely said to Autistic people whose disability is very visible, it is very frequently said to Autistic people with much more invisible disability. It’s insulting because it suggests that because the person doesn’t appear to be disabled or doesn’t fit preconceptions of what Autistic people are supposed to sound or act like, that person must therefore not have a disability or be Autistic. It also suggests that “normal” is the standard to which anyone should aspire to appear or act (and that “normalization” should be the ultimate goal of therapies or treatments for autism rather than pragmatic coping skills to navigate a world where Autistics are a minority), and therefore that it’s not good to act or speak in ways commonly associated with being Autistic, even if those behaviors don’t actually hurt anyone. This is dismissive of a person’s disability and experiences.
3. “You must be very high-functioning.”
Many Autistic adults take issue with the “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” labels for a variety of reasons. Some people have received both labels but at different times in their lives, and many Autistics have uneven skill levels — some people who might be able to articulate their ideas very well at a conference may be unable to travel alone or cook for themselves, while some people who are unable to communicate with oral speech might be able to live independently. That debate aside, this is also dismissive of a person’s individual experiences with disability. Unless you know someone extremely well, you have no way of knowing what specific adaptive functioning skills or life skills a person has or what their needs and challenges might be, and it’s not possible to acquire that information simply by looking at a person.
4. “You’re not like my child; you can write a blog post. My child will never be able to write a blog post.”
Not everyone who can write a blog post can live independently, tend to their own activities of daily life, get and keep a job, complete higher education, travel alone, communicate with oral speech or manage their own finances. The ability to write a blog post says absolutely nothing about a person’s needs and challenges, and how disability might affect an individual person. There are people like Amy Sequenzia, Larry Bissonnette, Mel Baggs, Tracy Thresher, Hope Block, Sue Rubin and Carly Fleischmann, all of whom are non-speaking Autistics or people with autism who have given presentations at conferences, written blog posts, written letters to the editor, published articles in newsletters or journals and visited legislators. Other people, like Kassiane Sibley and Kathryn Bjørnstad, who are frequently touted as “high-functioning” because of their blogs, do not have consistent adaptive functioning abilities.
5. “I know a kid whose autism is really severe. You don’t seem like him.”
Every Autistic person is different from every other Autistic person. Among Autistics, there is a huge range in individual abilities, skills, needs and challenges. It is impossible to know what an Autistic’s abilities and skills versus needs and challenges after a brief conversation either in person or in the comments thread of an internet post. What makes Autistic people a group united by a shared diagnosis are the commonalities of all Autistic people. All Autistic people share some of the same core characteristics that define autism — key differences in neurological functioning, sensory and cognitive processing, and communication abilities that often manifest as disability. Autistic people are Autistic regardless of whether they look, speak or act like another Autistic person you know or know of.
6. “Can you have sex?”
Yes, Autistic people can have sex. Some get married and have children. Some have Autistic children. Other Autistic people might never be taught about sex, for a variety of reasons. Autistic people, like all people with developmental disabilities, are at much higher risk for abuse or victimization — sexual or otherwise — than the general population, but that doesn’t mean Autistic people don’t know about or can’t have sex.
7. “Does that mean you’re really good at math/computers/numbers?”
If there’s one thing that’s likely to offend an Autistic, it’s seeing them in terms of common stereotypes about autism. A very small minority of Autistics are also savants. Many Autistics have higher than average measured IQ, and many Autistics have measured IQ that falls right into the median, while still others have an intellectual or cognitive disability. Some Autistics have dyscalculia or similar learning disabilities and actually find math to be extremely difficult. Other Autistics, including those who might be good at math, simply don’t like it. And yes, some Autistics happen to be excellent with math and enjoy working or studying in related fields. There are Autistics who are relatively computer illiterate as well as Autistics who thrive in the IT world and community.
8. “But you’re married/have a job/go to college. You couldn’t do that if you were really Autistic.”
Yes, it’s true that every Autistic isn’t going to get married, have a job or go to college. But plenty of Autistics do get married, have jobs or go to college. This statement is insulting because it’s ableist. (For those who may not regularly read my blog, ableism is like racism, ageism or sexism, but directed toward people with disabilities.) While not every Autistic person may be able to do all or some of these things, it’s very ableist to assume that no Autistic person can or that anyone who can must not be Autistic.
9. “Do you take any medications for that?”
This is a very personal decision. Some Autistic people take medications for various reasons, and some do not take any medications. You wouldn’t ask a stranger if they’re on medication for anything, so you shouldn’t ask an Autistic person whom you don’t know very well if they takes medications either. This is rude to ask someone, especially someone you do not know well. The only context in which such personal questions are appropriate with strangers or acquaintances might be during a conference or panel presentation where the Autistic speaker is specifically speaking about their experiences.
10. “You have no right to claim to speak for severely Autistic people who can’t speak for themselves.”
Firstly, there are non-speaking Autistics who can speak for themselves. People like Amy Sequenzia, Larry Bissonnette, Mel Baggs, Tracy Thresher, Hope Block, Sue Rubin and Carly Fleischmann are all non-speaking and they can speak quite capably for themselves. Secondly, while every Autistic person has different abilities and needs, that does not mean that Autistic people who may present as highly verbal or invisibly disabled cannot speak to the commonalities that they have with Autistic people who do not present the same way as themselves. Any Autistic person will understand another Autistic person’s experiences far better than any non-Autistic person by nature of also being Autistic. That doesn’t mean I should be advocating for your child in their school (unless you ask me to do that, it’s not my place), or that I know your child’s particular quirks or personality, because unless I actually spend time with your child, I don’t and won’t. It does mean that I share the way your child experiences the world and can speak to that.
11. “Can you please not flap/rock/spin/jump in public? It’s embarrassing.”
Flapping, rocking, spinning, jumping or other stimming (calming behaviors), in the vast majority of cases, hurts neither the person doing it nor anyone else nearby. There’s nothing wrong with stimming, and this statement communicates that the Autistic person should stop acting like themselves or stop moving in ways that come naturally and instinctively. It’s offensive, and for some people, could be triggering (psychologically and emotionally traumatic).
12. “You mean you are a person with autism. You are a person first, not a disability or a disorder label.”
Some people on the autism spectrum do prefer to be called people with autism, and if talking to someone who does, you should call them a person with autism. Many of us, however, prefer to be called Autistic or Autistic people, and if you are talking to someone who prefers to be called Autistic, you should also respect their preferences in referring to themselves, and call that person Autistic. Everyone has the right to decide how they would like to be described, and you should respect that right.
13. “What’s it like to be Autistic?”
Just as it would be improper, rude and demeaning for someone to ask me what it is like to be Asian, it is improper, rude and demeaning to ask people belonging to any marginalized group what it is like to be the way that they are. You shouldn’t ask someone you don’t know well what it’s like to be Autistic outside the context of a conference or panel presentation about that person’s experiences — in which case, more specific questions might actually be better and more effective — and if the person is someone you know well, you still should refrain from any variation on this question if the person has made it clear that the topic is an uncomfortable or off-limits one. Besides, every Autistic person’s experiences vary so much that it’d be an injustice to all of us for you to ask a question that implies that there’s one way to experience being Autistic. While we share certain characteristics and experiences of the world, our life stories and our experiences with people and ableism are vastly different.
14. “Have you ever heard of Temple Grandin? Her books are really amazing!”
The answer is almost always yes. But it gets very tiresome for Autistic people to constantly hear about Temple Grandin day in and day out. There are many prominent Autistic people in diverse fields and known for a variety of accomplishments, and it’s annoying to be constantly compared to the one same person all the time.
15. (Asking a question about the Autistic person to a parent, support person, aide, sibling, or friend who is standing or sitting beside the Autistic person)
Please don’t talk about us as if we’re not in the room when we’re sitting or standing right here. Just don’t. The message that that communicates to us is that we don’t matter and can’t possibly have anything meaningful to communicate.
Other articles to read:
S#!T Ignorant People Say To Autistics by StimNation
What to say, and not say, to an autistic adult by Kassiane Sibley
Things you should never say (or think) when you learn that someone is Autistic… (Introduction to Ableism) by Sonnolenta
Follow this journey on Autistic Hoya.