Help Autistic People; by Tossing Out These 6 Toxic Norms

People don’t mean to push us down, but it happens every day.

Photo by Will Porada on Unsplash

Originally published in the Medium publication, The Ascent. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)

In our society, with its multitude of toxic norms, people often hurt one another without even realizing it — an unfortunate fact that likely applies to everyone, and one that is a result of something called social conditioning.

Society trains us how to act, teaches us how to “fit in,” the things we need to do, and the ways we need to be to succeed.

Some of these things are helpful. Good manners are lovely: I like that it’s customary to say “please,” that we should apologize if we’ve hurt someone, I dig that it’s considered rude to invade personal space, etc.

Basically, I’m into all the ones that are about caring and safety.

But then there are the other ones

The norms that wind up hurting people — perhaps especially autistic people — are often the ones that aren’t taught, or even really talked about; the norms that aren’t kind, but are also socially acceptable.

People don’t get called out for these behaviors. People certainly get hurt, but there are no repercussions for doing the hurting.

For example, gender norms are undergoing reconstruction, at last, due to high toxicity: women are, at large, no longer tolerating the unwanted sexual attention put upon us for centuries, men are increasingly less expected to just repress their emotions (thank goodness), and those who don’t identify with either category are finally starting to get their stories heard.

This evolution of our norms is a result of the original toxic expectations that were put upon us — and we’re nowhere near done, there’s still toxic norms all over the place.

The conditioning that creates these norms happens from the very beginning, with our parents teaching us the things they were taught; then it amps up when the socialization of school begins, and gets really serious once we’re learning not to “rock the boat” at work.

Serious harm is very often done in ways that are completely socially acceptable.

We Autistics don’t comprehend much of this conditioning, so we’re disadvantaged due to frequently misinterpreting these norms, thereby not knowing what’s expected of us; then further disadvantaged because adhering to these standards is extremely difficult due to having a different neurotype, so being quite different at large.

Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

While I had a few plain ol’ bullies, most of my adverse social experiences happened casually and persistently, even with people who I know to be generally kind.

I’m not talking about our social evils here, but our social blindspots; “normal” modes of behavior people don’t seem to realize are harmful.

This kind of socially accepted behavior is usually othering, and/or discourages Autistic people from speaking up about our needs, teaching us instead to disregard them in order to blend in — which has consequences. Dire ones.

Fortunately, we each have the power to start changing the toxic norms we find ourselves surrounded by.

We just need to care enough to try and change.

I’m suggesting that the following changes apply to our social norms at large, not just to people who’ve disclosed that they are Autistic.

Of course, we need to address many harmful social norms in our society; but I’ve gathered a handful of tips relating to Autistic folks.

Before you dive in, it’s crucial to know that since there’s such stigma and misunderstanding around Autism, especially in adults, many of us aren’t open about it; working very hard to mask these differences (which, btw, creates other issues).

You cannot tell if someone’s Autistic or not by appearances, especially in adults.

So, while the explanations are going to be in relation to Autism, I’m suggesting that the following changes apply to everyone in our society — not just to people who’ve disclosed they’re Autistic.

Also, since it’s can be hard to articulate these things, and because internalized ableism is most definitely a thing, I recommend my fellow Autists also watch for these unconscious behaviors in ourselves.

Finally, I believe that everyone in society would benefit from these shifts in behavior, that they can help us all better support one another.

I hope you’ll consider them. (TW: #5 has a suicide statistic.)

Help Autistics by Tossing Out These 6 Toxic Norms

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
  1. Pointing out “weirdness.” Even when a comment about my weirdness (or its many synonyms) is potentially meant as a compliment, it’s usually triggering — like so many Auties, it’s just been used negatively and resulted in my being isolated far too many times. When admiring how someone’s doing something different, something like “I like your style,” or getting specific about why their different approach is notable is probably a safer bet.
  2. Telling people what they need instead of asking. When Autistic people draw boundaries to protect ourselves, or otherwise go about things differently; people very often push back, suggesting we do it their way instead. This pressure can lead to meltdowns, shutdowns, and Autistic burnout — all things known to completely disable us. Our needs need to be taken seriously, and since we are the ones that can feel our bodies…we are the ones who know what they are.
  3. Judging others based on how things “seem.” We all know that looks can be deceiving, that we shouldn’t judge books by covers, and that there’s more than meets the eye — and yet, people so often think they can quickly size someone up, judging their character and competence based on how things “seem.” Things will seem a jillion different ways based on our own experiences, personality, and…neurotype. At large, coming to a quick conclusion about people is not a wise way to facilitate an accurate understanding of other human beings.

    But in the case of autistic people, this huge societal problem can become straight-up dangerous. Being misjudged can lead to our lack of employment, housing issues, and isolation, which are all stressors that make our brain functionality decrease. So, before you assume someone isn’t a great fit for a job/home/friend because they “seem slow,” or strike you as “goofy,” or look a bit disheveled, etc. — give them a chance. In our society, far too much importance is put on “seeming together,” and it’s not helping anyone.
  4. Writing someone off because you “just don’t understand them.” People are all different, and some people will take longer to understand — especially when they‘re of a different neurotype. It’s not fair to just disregard someone because you don’t intuitively get them; as a society, we write people off way too fast, and often for harmless things. This happens a lot to many Autistic people, leaving us with the feeling of, “What did I even do wrong??”

    Sometimes a good conversation will clarify everything, but people usually don’t bother. When I was diagnosed, I asked the therapist if neurotypical people might have an easier time connecting with me now that I’m able to explain my differences. She responded by gently managing my expectations, saying, “Honestly, probably not. Most feel like it’s too much work.” But why are we expected to do all of the work?? (Questions asked with kindness are always the first step towards understanding.)
  5. Ignoring (or laughing at) someone’s struggle because it’s “too different.” This is heavy, but it needs to be known: isolation is a top reason the rate of suicidal ideation in Autistic people is a terrifying 72%. Serious emotional harm is often done in completely socially acceptable ways, like no longer communicating with someone who’s going through something very different, and/or difficult — and people in our society are big on that.

    It can be hard to reach out when someone’s struggling, sometimes it brings up our own fears and issues; I’ve been there and done the wrong thing because I was scared. But it wasn’t okay. As a whole, we like “happy and normal,” and try to ignore the rest, or even mock it. Hard times are often faced alone in this society, regardless of neurotype. It‘s messed up and we can do better.
  6. Suggesting people are “just _____,” when they’re struggling. When someone’s having a hard time and it’s suggested that a condition may be the reason, people often say things like, “they’re not Autistic, they’re just crazy.” (This is something that applies to chronic illnesses as well, i.e. “they don’t have chronic fatigue, they’re just lazy.”) When someone in our life is having a struggle that we don’t understand, we need to ask *them* questions to better understand their experience; and to do so whilst giving the honest benefit of the doubt.

So, if we could start cutting out these behaviors in ourselves, and speaking up when they’re coming from others, it’d sure help!

I know a lot is going on right now, with many different communities asking for change; and even when the changes are wanted, warranted, and we’re on board — changes in what’s normal can still be hard.

But since the reward is a kinder society with improved mental health, making the effort is so f**king worth it.

Image of Autism + Neurodiversity symbol via Pixabay

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