In my home province of Ontario, Canada, there is a lot of chatter online and in political spaces about us having an ‘Autism crisis’. The novel coronavirus pandemic brought many challenges to Autistic people around the world, and here in Ontario, many children and teens experienced education loss, as titled in a CBC article.
This is not, however, a problem unique to Ontario. Autistic, and other disabled children around the world often face barriers and challenges to education, not including the segregation that is ‘special education’. Due to schools mismanaging, or sometimes even causing Autistic children to experience crises, such as meltdowns, Autistic people are often sent away, or worse, are homeschooled as some parents see no other way to ensure their children are not mistreated.
Nor has this been a problem because of COVID-19. Autistic people deal with many problems in school, from a lack of a supportive environment to peer and sometimes even teacher bullying. These issues have persisted long before COVID emerged, and unless action is taken to address them, will continue to persist after COVID.
Unfortunately, news and advocacy organizations continue to get a lot wrong, especially here in Ontario.
That is a given, however: in a province where the ABA lobby has worked hard to monopolize all the services.
ABA providers, in cahoots with organizations, lobbyists, and politicians, will tell you that ABA is “evidence based”, that Autistic people need it to even have a shot at life. All in all, there is a lot of propaganda, often based off of illogical fearmongering, capitalizing on the fears that parents have when their kids are first identified as Autistic.
Never mind that the Autistic community has been fighting against ABA for decades. They decry ABA as abusive, citing its expressed intention of ‘reducing’ or ‘eliminating’ Autistic behaviours. ABA has been linked to increased trauma symptoms in Autistic people, including suicidality.
One would think that a so-called “treatment” opposed by the vast majority of people it purports to support would be rightfully seen as objectively bad; however, instead these brave Autistic advocates are decried as being a loud “high-functioning” minority – something which, of course, could not be further from the truth.
In reality, the ABA lobby along with puppet organizations such as the Ontario Autism Coalition, continue to try and discredit Autistic voices – a common tactic involves individual supporters of ABA directly or indirectly trolling Autistic people until they have a meltdown, and then posting out-of-context screenshots of said retaliation to make Autistic people seem like we are irrational or abusive. This tactic, of course, should be a surprise to no one, as historically speaking, people in positions of power have historically tried to label various oppressed communities as hysterical, violent, or unhinged in order to discredit them. This continues to be done to left-wing activists or social justice advocates regularly, and Autistic activists are no exception. Rather, it is a testament to the courage, resilience and tenacity of Autistic advocates who continue to persist despite enduring harassment, gaslighting and abuse from those who have a stake in making sure Autistic people do not take the lead on issues pertaining to us.
Tragically, however, the overwhelming power and influence that ABA and ABA groups in Ontario pretty much ensure that Autistic people are rarely, if ever, consulted by the media to talk about issues pertaining to us.
Do parents and caregivers have valid concerns about a lack of services or supports for their Autistic children? Absolutely. And should the government be doing more to help Autistic and disabled people in general? Doubtlessly. But we cannot forget the people responsible for this void in services available for Autistic children: the ABA lobby. ABA practitioners, effectively monopolizing autism services, have made sure that their so-called “therapies” are the only ones funded by the government. Even worse, they seek to take control of helpful supports such as AAC (Augmentative Adaptive Communication) devices to help nonspeaking Autistics communicate.
The ABA industry wherever it exists, has mastered the art of manipulation and fear. Being the behaviourists they are, they reinforce society’s fear, ignorance, or pity of disabled people, scaring parents into believing their children are doomed without ABA, and scaring the government into believing that Autistic people will be a drain on the government.
Until “Big Behaviourism’s” hold on autism services is broken for good, these problems will continue to persist. And the first step in breaking that hold is to recognize the ABA industry for what it is: a predatory corporate scheme attempting to gain ultimate influence over society, the government, and Autistic people, and much like “big oil”, preventing newer or better services from taking hold.
One such organization that is devoted to fighting against ABA and other fraudulent or harmful autism “treatments”, is A4A Ontario – short for “Autistics 4 Autistics” Ontario, an activist group comprised of Autistic adults, to help guide and influence policy in Ontario in a way that protects and supports Autistic people.
If you truly care about the wellbeing of Autistic people, support Autistic-led initiatives and grassroots. As the saying goes – nothing about us without us.
Autistics, like other marginalized people, are regularly forced to self-sabotage in order to protect ourselves. With the rise in diagnoses and people in previously unrecognized demographics being accurately identified as Autistic, there is unwarranted concern that some people might ‘fake’ being Autistic for clout – yet the opposite is true; we often feel obligated to feign neurotypicality for a superficial sense of safety.
With the end of April, the annual “World Autism Month”, something I have been thinking about a lot is on the nature of ‘masking’. As the world is briefly saturated with often inaccurate propaganda about Autistic people, I am often reminded of how many of us, even during a month that is supposed to be ‘about’ us, resort to masking. But what really is masking, and what are the broader implications?
Masking, also known as ‘camouflaging’ in some forms of academia, refer to the Autistic person’s tendency to hide their Autistic traits in an attempt to ‘blend in’, or to pass as neurotypical. It can also mean modifying your actions to seem neurotypical, often at the expense of your own comfort and wellbeing. And the said expense is quite high. Not only does masking put tremendous pressure on the individual, but can also lead to increased rates of anxiety and depression – and has been linked to outcomes involving PTSD, a variety of other mental health struggles, and even suicide. These are some of the worst effects that prolonged masking can have on an individual. But what are the less commonly discussed, everyday impacts of masking?
To answer this in a scientific lens would require extensive research and studies of which not nearly enough are done. But what I can speak on is my own experience and what that tells me about masking.
I have been a part of Autistic communities both online and in-person for several years now. I am always amazed at the diversity of people and experiences. However, there are a few commonalities that I find: not only do many of us mask, but many of us become more withdrawn and afraid of social interaction as we get older.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with introversion. But as a social species, everyone requires some degree of human interaction, even if they have less energy to devote to it. Connection is vital, and loneliness often kills… literally. Yet Autistics who are accustomed to masking, whether through fear, or invasive psychological conditioning, are often averse to social interaction. After all, how can anybody have the willingness to continuously expose themselves to social situations under the belief that being who you really are will get you rejected or harmed?
The consequences of this can often go far beyond that of loneliness or ostracism. Careers and economies are built on social networking, and when Autistics are afraid to interact because of the pressures of masking, our career prospects are often dim. It’s no wonder Autistic unemployment rates are so high, despite many of us being not only qualified, but excellent workers. It is hard to fathom how many amazing opportunities have passed us by due to the pressures of masking.
Now I want to switch gears and talk about something that is not often discussed paired with masking, and those are Autistic strengths. Autistic people have plenty of common strengths that are not necessarily things that are stereotyped as “savant skills”. Some of these can include having good memories, attention to details, pattern recognition, and more. The specific skillsets may vary, however most of us will have some combination of strengths that commonly come with being Autistic.
In the same way that shortcomings can make a person stand out as different or odd, however, so can strengths. Whether it is intense knowledge and expertise in a topic, or seemingly knowing things out of the blue, or being able to sense and perceive things others cannot… Autistic talents that differ from the norm can freak people out just as easily. And so, sometimes we learn to hold our tongues, or just to hold back in general.
How many of us, in addition to trying to hide or overcompensate for our shortcomings, intentionally underperform on things that we actually can do, lest we invite peoples’ jealousy, ire, or bewilderment? I am certain that I am not the only one in this regard.
I am also certain I am not the only one who has suffered setbacks because of this. Just as some Autistics can be very high achievers, I would wager that there are just as many, if not more, who are chronic underachievers as a result of this lesser-known side-effect of masking.
Masking in all its forms, ultimately, is a form of self-sabotage, and one that is unfortunately a learned adaptation to distress. Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as solely encouraging or telling Autistics to drop the mask. For one, masking has become so integral to the being of some Autistics, that it comes instinctually. Sometimes we lose a true sense of who we are in the process, and have to embark on a path of rediscovery. Worse yet, many of us, especially those who are multiply marginalized, are forced to mask in order to protect ourselves.
In other words, Autistics, like other marginalized people, are regularly forced to self-sabotage in order to protect ourselves. With the rise in diagnoses and people in previously unrecognized demographics being accurately identified as Autistic, there is unwarranted concern that some people might ‘fake’ being Autistic for clout – yet the opposite is true; we often feel obligated to feign neurotypicality for a superficial sense of safety.
But as long as we have to hide who we are, as long as we have to sabotage our own growth and success, we will never truly be safe, happy, or free.
And so the solution lies in creating a society where Autistic people do not have to mask, camouflage, or self-sabotage in order to fit in. Such a world, once it is achieved, will see more of us living up to our full potential, with our struggles supported, and our strengths encouraged.
In a world where being Autistic can open you to legal and medical discrimination, those who are Autistic may wish to hide it. But none should be barred from receiving Autistic community support.
Self-diagnosis is valid.
There, I said it.
Am I self-diagnosed? No, I am not. But does it really matter? Would I be neurotypical if I wasn’t diagnosed as Autistic? Did the tree even fall?
This is only really a hot topic in some corners of the Autistic community. Of course, there are some people who, often in opposition to pro-neurodiversity activists or Autistic users on the popular TikTok app, will go on diatribes about how supposedly harmful “self diagnosed” Autistic people are. Oftentimes, however, they will simply assume that an Autistic person they happen to not like is self-diagnosed, without any proof – sometimes they’re just plain wrong but insist on that position anyway, which is the typical modus operandi of reactionaries of any type.
But let’s talk about why self-diagnosis is a contentious issue, and why Autistic communities must consider it valid.
The first and most obvious answer is that formal diagnosis remains inaccessible to many people. There are quite a number of reasons for this.
I could state the most obvious one, which is simply that autism and mental health in general are only really discussed in “developed”, capitalist nations – the global south, or “third world” continues to lag behind in many regards – but make no mistake, Autistic people still exist plenty in those countries. Places like India, the Middle East, the African continent, indigenous people around the world – where you find humans, you will find neurodiversity, and where you find neurodiversity, you will almost certainly find Autistics. We’re everywhere! We could be lurking right behind you (just kidding).
But chances are, you have interacted with more Autistics than you know, without even being aware of it. In fact, there is a chance some of them continue to be unaware of it. Which, of course, brings me to my next point: ignorance and stigma.
Compared to other sciences, psychology remains in its’ infancy. Autism was only ‘discovered’ less than a century ago. The first person to ever receive a diagnosis, Donald Gray Triplett, is reportedly still alive today. In academia, autism continues to be treated as an ‘enigma’ of sorts. Plenty of wild theories have been and continue to be concocted about what it means to be Autistic; what “causes” autism. Bad parenting, to certain types of television, have been proposed at different times. It was only in the 1990’s that a new form of thinking – a movement, the neurodiversity movement – was developed by Autistic activists, and paved the way for more ‘progressive’ research – research that sought to understand autism, rather than try to prevent Autistic people for existing, or try to find something to blame for our existence.
The point is, of course, autism is something that continues to come with a heavy social stigmatization. The result is that even formally diagnosed Autistic people will often go to great lengths to hide it – I would know, because I was one such individual growing up. Therefore, the idea that anyone would want to be Autistic “for attention”, is ludicrous – because the attention we get is rarely ever positive.
The stigma, of course, does not merely extend to the layperson. Yes, it is true that the average person probably has a lot of misconceptions about being Autistic. Even parents of Autistic children are often bombarded with said misinformation. But… professionals can be ruled by distorted truths and stereotypes just as often.
This was true then, and it unfortunately reigns true now. Despite the efforts of some in the activist and research communities, stereotypes continue to run amok – that we lack empathy, that we need some sort of ‘treatment’ or early intervention or “social skills training” – not to mention the continued pushing of ABA, something I refer to as ‘Autistic conversion therapy’.
The result is that people who are obviously, clearly Autistic, are often not given a diagnosis. This was almost me at one point as a child, since I was still “too outgoing” to be Autistic. Luckily, others saw otherwise. This also happens to women, and to other marginalized populations – it does not help that the media depictions of Autistics are always of a particular archetype, one that is typically male, Caucasian, and straight.
Further, Autistic kids grow into Autistic adults. But this is something that continues to be disregarded by pretty much anyone who hasn’t knowingly come into contact with Autistic people at some point in their lives. Not only are there no services for Autistic people, but adult Autistic activists are often sidelined because people forget that we were once Autistic children, too.
Because supports for adult Autistics are little to none, however, some professionals see no point in giving out a formal diagnosis to adults – and, as I will discuss later in this article, they are not entirely wrong. But at the end of the day, it really isn’t their call to make. I personally know some Autistics who were refused a formal diagnosis precisely because they were adults – with the professionals explicitly stating that they are Autistic, but denying them a diagnosis anyway.
This is why simply advocating for universal healthcare is important, but insufficient at solving the problem. Since the most common argument for self-diagnosis being valid is rooted in the fact that a diagnosis is not cheap or accessible to many, some have argued for a quick fix of universal healthcare. But what are we to do when stigma and misinformation have permeated our healthcare system? We cannot pretend that the professional institutions, which are often heavily problematic, are infallible, or even correct in a number of areas.
Some people argue that autism is “over diagnosed”, but I would disagree with that. I think Autistic people are more common than are let on. We are getting better at recognizing us, however because the diagnostic criteria is based on deficits, which, coincidentally, tend to be linked to trauma and crisis responses, we tend to end up missing a lot of Autistic people. Combine that with cultural differences, racism, and gender stereotypes, and it is plain to see that some Autistic people will live out their entire lives without ever realizing they are one of us.
In an ideal world, universal design will reign supreme, and people will be able to receive whatever accommodations they feel they desire; no questions asked.
In the mean time, however, while those who seek a formal diagnosis of autism are free to pursue it, many may encounter barriers, in the form of professionals whose judgments are prejudiced; ruled by stereotypes, or may not wish to seek a diagnosis for a myriad of reasons. In a world where being Autistic can open you to legal and medical discrimination, those who are Autistic may wish to hide it. But none should be barred from receiving Autistic community support.
Therefore, any truly accepting Autistic community or space, must accept those who are self or community-diagnosed.
(Note: This article contains spoilers for “The Accountant”. If you are planning to watch this movie for the first time and do not want any plot points spoiled, consider saving this opinion piece until after you have seen it.)
Back in 2016, an action flick called “The Accountant” was released. Starring Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff, an Autistic forensic accountant, prodigious in mathematics, shooting, and physical combat, the film looked at his ‘adventures’ as he uncovered corruption, and fought and killed ‘bad’ people as a vigilante, often to protect or avenge those he cared about – assisted by someone who was revealed to be a nonspeaking Autistic childhood friend of his who stayed at a center and used her technical proficiency to aid him on missions.
The film, as one can expect, was controversial. It drew praise and criticism alike from both Autistic and non-autistic individuals.
Many criticisms of the movie, particularly those put forth by Autistic critics, were valid, and I agree with many of them. For instance, I agree that adding flashy strobe lights was an unnecessary and harmful decision. I also agree that Autistic characters should be played by Autistic actors. The film also did not have that much diversity among its’ cast – all things that can and should be improved upon, especially should there ever be sequel(s) written. Autistic people should also be consulted and worked with on projects like these.
However…. In spite of these flaws, I nonetheless enjoy this film, and would like to share why – all the while, pointing out certain criticisms of the movie that I disagree with.
The Accountant’s Moral Compass
One major criticism that some Autistics had of this movie was the portrayal of an Autistic character as a killer. Now, this is absolutely a valid concern. Autistics are, unfortunately, sometimes stereotyped as dangerous, violent people – it doesn’t help that on the rare occasion when Autistic people do commit violent atrocities, they attempt to use being Autistic as a defense – which often results in Autistic people being stereotyped and hated as a consequence.
The problem with characterizing Christian Wolff as some soulless, remorseless, violent killer, however, is… inaccurate.
At most, he is akin to Frank Castle, better known as The Punisher – a Marvel comic character who, like The Accountant, eliminates ‘bad’ people. In fact, if you have seen The Punisher on Netflix, the dynamic between Wolff and Justine was a little similar to Punisher and Micro.
Now, many people also argue that The Punisher is not a good person at all, either – after all, what right do vigilantes have to play judge, jury, or executioner?
However, what is important to remember is that their motivations do not just stem from a desire to kill innocent people – they are not equivalent to mass shooters who gun down innocent people in cold blood, or ‘incels’ who are frustrated at a lack of romance, or political terrorists trying to send a message. These individuals have a sort of moral code, and the people they go after are themselves often violent, dangerous people who have taken the lives of others, many of whom never face any consequences.
Both characters are also motivated by the desire to avenge people they love being lost, and protecting individuals that they care about.
One can criticize the approach these characters take, however it is a complete mischaracterization to paint them as cold-blooded murderers. Especially when a sizeable portion of their kills on-screen were done to protect others – Christian Wolff saved the lives of an elderly couple, and later, a colleague, from extremely dangerous and vile individuals.
A common argument put forth is that Christian Wolff is not much more than a caricature.
Now, I think character development could have been vastly improved. However, over time I have realized that as an Autistic character, Christian is not as one-dimensional as some people have made him out to be. True, he sort of fits the stereotype of being a socially awkward math prodigy – but there is a lot more to him than that.
Wolff exhibits a number of other Autistic traits, that are often overlooked in favour of stereotypes. He is perseverant, and has an excellent amount of focus. Determined to solve a case he was working on, he looked at an extensive number of records overnight, working it all out and coming to major conclusions about fraud within a company. What he did takes more than some arithmetic skills: it takes very complex problem solving abilities, the ability to connect dots, to pay attention to minute details, and make logical conclusions based on the data observed.
Accounting itself takes a lot more than just good math skills to understand. When he deals with his clients, he demonstrates a very astute understanding of taxes and government policies, essentially helping some of his clients commit tax fraud.
All in all, his characterization is a lot more than just “quirky white math nerd”, it is of someone who was successfully able to learn and monetize a special interest of his, and develop sophisticated problem solving skills to help the people around him.
Many Autistic people have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and a desire to help others. Christian, as stated before, saved the lives of multiple people, and avenged a friend of his that was murdered.
Treatment of Autistics on Screen
Sia’s flop of a movie, Music, was heavily criticized for a number of reasons, some of them similar to The Accountant. However, one major controversial scene was that featuring a prone restraint, which was egregious enough to prompt Sia to remove it from future screenings.
What was the difference between that scene, and scenes in the movie featuring Christian Wolff’s abusive childhood flashbacks?
For one, that his experiences were portrayed as negative. Whereas Music depicts harmful interactions as positive and healthy, The Accountant does not shy away from the fact that Christian Wolff was raised in an abusive military environment where any supports or attempts to understand him were taken away, in favour of a brutal training regimen in stoicism, combat, and psychological conditioning. As such, Wolff is accustomed to putting himself through sensory overloads on purpose to “overcome” it – scenes that could have been handled better, to be sure. But those scenes are clearly not portrayed as positive things – it was a trauma response akin to self-harm, evidenced by the fact that Christian would relive traumatic childhood memories during them.
Imagine a typical film about an Autistic character. What do you think of? Probably the same story: a perfect neurotypical family has an Autistic family member, usually a child, who provides either major challenges or some tacky ‘inspirational’ message as they struggle to navigate their daily lives. It is almost never about the Autistic person and how they feel.
The Accountant, in contrast, had a plot that deviated from a stereotypical “autism story”. Rather than being about a tragic burden on the family, or going through the motions of ‘learning social skills’, the movie featured an Autistic person successfully navigating the world, going on various adventures and tackling complex scenarios. It had an actual plotline.
While it is important to have authentic movies that take a look at the issues Autistics face, it is important to be represented in media where we are just regular characters going about lives just like everybody else – one of the reasons Carl Gould from the childhood series ‘Arthur’ is a good depiction of an Autistic character.
Overall Portrayal of Autism & Philosophical Considerations
The film’s overall mindset of Autism and Autistic people was surprisingly progressive, especially for its’ time. True, they didn’t get it all right, and true, Autistic people need to be consulted more and more for these types of projects.
However, presenting being Autistic as a divergence to be supported, rather than an illness to be ‘treated away’, was a central point of the movie. If there was any tragedy revolving around Autism in this movie, it was Christian’s abusive upbringing, that left deep scars in his psyche. The overall message was pro-neurodiversity – perhaps one of the first big movies of its’ kind to advocate such a thing. Words that are used by Autistics to describe Autistic traits such as ‘stimming’ was used. Portraying Autistic stimming as a calming, regulatory function was extremely well done – such as Christian’s tendency to recite “Solomon Grundy”, a childhood nursery rhyme, when in stressful situations.
Perhaps one of the most progressive plot points of the movie was to portray a nonspeaking Autistic woman as one of the key characters. It was a surprise reveal that she was the ‘voice’ that electronically communicated with him, by way of typing into a computer. It was quite spectacular to see a nonspeaking Autistic character portrayed in an active role – and it showed speaking and non-speaking Autistic people working together, looking out for one another – a very positive, and important message.
The Accountant is not without its’ flaws, from unnecessary flashy strobe lights to an apparent lack of Autistic consulting. The story development could have been vastly improved – at times it seemed bland, and very confusing to follow.
However, for its’ time, the movie is quite progressive. And it took a concept that needs to be seen more often in fiction – Autistic people organizing and working together toward common goals – and moved forward with it in a fascinating way.
Its’ depiction of Christian Wolff went far beyond the stereotypical “tragic inspiration” narrative of most Autistic media representation, and it centered the experiences of an Autistic character, that went beyond mere caricatures or stereotypes – and presented Autistic traits in a positive way.
In my opinion, we need more Autistic stories like this – depicting us working together toward common ends, fighting for causes we believe in, and demonstrating versatility in our talents. Stories that focus on Autistic people and what we have to offer to the world. Focusing not just on our flaws, but our strengths, and how we adapt to different situations.
The Accountant’s flaws should be taken as a way for future producers to improve upon movies like it. I, for one, would love to see a sequel – perhaps even one where he faces an Autistic adversary.
Autistic people are likelier to get bullied. In fact, almost all of us have to some extent. And if your childhood was anything like mine, there is a good chance the experiences went beyond some schoolyard jerk calling you a mean name or teasing you.
But bullying in any form can be unpleasant.
People commonly say that anti-Autistic bullying is ever-present. But nobody ever really wants to do something about it. At least not something that helps the Autistic recipient in a way that doesn’t deprive us of our humanity, subtly implying that we are responsible for it somehow.
We know that being Autistic, especially openly, can invite trouble for us. We just do not always know what to do about it. And any real help for bullying is practically nonexistent. Institutions are rarely reliable, and their advice is ineffective at best, oppressive at worst.
Anti-Autistic bullying can occur at any point in our lives, at any age, in any situation. Given that there are no real guides on how to address it that are Autistic centered, I have decided to create one.
Why did I decide to make this?
For one, it has been a passion of mine since getting into Autistic activism, to arm Autistics with the knowledge and skills to protect ourselves in a world that is hostile to our very existence. This is necessary until Autistic acceptance and the embracing of neurodiversity on a grand scale takes place.
All around me, Autistic people continue to suffer from bullying and maltreatment. From being pushed around or systematically excluded in school, to random attacks on us – often planned.
Even the social distancing mandates of the COVID crisis has not stopped people from wanting to be cruel to us – even jeopardizing the health and safety of themselves or their own friends. In one the examples linked above (obligatory content warning for disturbing violence), in an effort to put bear spray into the face of the Autistic victim, they nearly got one of their own, which goes to show the sheer level of hatred for Autistics that some people do carry. Kids getting pushed in the playground. People going behind your back and planning to engineer entire situations with the goal of getting you into trouble. Will our struggles never end?
But enough is enough. Autistic people need to know that we are not alone, and that we do not have to be afraid of bullies. We deserve to live openly without the fear of abuse.
So, what can we do?
Here are some general-purpose tips:
1. Measure your surroundings.
Take context into account – what kind of bullying are you on the receiving end of? Physical bullying? Social exclusion? Cyber-harassment? How did the situation take place? Was there a background story that led to the events that take place? How many people are involved, and what are their roles?
2. Know your enemy.
It’s an old, but still relevant adage – to defeat your enemy, you must understand them. Autistic people are generally universally known to be great at two things: attention to details, and pattern recognition. Use these. Observe.
Who is bullying you? What methods do they tend to use (Autistics aren’t the only people who love routine – humans are creatures of habit)? What is their motivating mindset? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
If possible, learn more about your bully – about their past, about their current circumstances. This may not only possibly shed light on their actions, but can give you ammunition to fight back.
In short: knowledge is power, and bullying is all about power imbalances – so level the playing field.
3. Analyze the best response.
I wouldn’t be writing this to feed people the same tired nonsense of “tell a trusted adult”, or “be the bigger person, fighting back makes you just as bad.”
Instead, I will acknowledge that there is no one-approach-fits-all response to bullying. Every situation is different. Every person is different. Every environment is different. And accordingly, a response must be tailored to the specific situation.
For instance, a bully that is popular, has a tight-knit group of friends, or seems to be someone who can put up a fight, is probably not somebody you should directly challenge. (And if they’re in a position of authority…. Don’t even think about it. I don’t care how strong, capable or crafty you think you are, it will not end well.)
While “trusted adults” can be scarce, and institutions unreliable, sometimes they can help. I would exercise even more caution taking this route than fighting back, though – because you’re Autistic, and Autistics have our every action scrutinized, and any opportunity they can take to blame you, to take any moment where you might have ‘talked back’ or done something to ‘deserve it’, they often will. However, there may be specific individuals who are good to you. There may be people you can trust. Supportive parents or siblings can also be helpful in some cases.
Sometimes, avoidance can be the simplest solution – which tends to only really work when a bully is not particularly committed toward giving you a hard time. Staying away from them, taking a different path to and from school/work/campus, enrolling in different classes if that is possible (or if not, staying in the opposite side of the room), blocking them online – if these methods work, you may not need anything else.
4. Make a plan.
Another popular saying is that a failure in planning is a plan for failure. So after you have gathered enough knowledge about the situation and decided on a response, go to the drawing board and make a plan that you feel confident in executing. Tweak, customize and personalize it to your liking. Then, execute that plan. Be sure to factor in contingencies and backup plans in case something goes wrong. Particularly nefarious bullies can often be organized and make plans themselves – and some of you may be surprised at just how far some people are willing to go to harm someone. Or, if you’re Autistic, you probably aren’t surprised at all – maybe you have experienced something.
Whether it is reporting the incident to teachers (or reporting harassing online posts), or throwing a witty comeback, planning ahead is important. If you choose to defend yourself from a physical bully, it can be invaluable to plan the environment beforehand – if they are chasing you, luring them to a location of your choice where you feel you have the upper hand, or finding some other way to undermine them can be the difference between getting beaten up and being the person handing out the beating.
In addition to knowing your enemy, know yourself – make an appraisal of your skills and how you can use them to help you get through this situation.
5. Make allies.
When you’re Autistic, this can be a scary thing. Making friends doesn’t always come easy to us. But when it comes to bullying, forming alliances can be easier than you think. Here’s why: in my experience, bullies and abusers rarely have just one victim. There is a decent chance you are not the only one being targeted. Further, if there are more Autistics around you, it is quite possible they are having the same experiences.
This provides an opportunity. Being on the receiving end of bullying, harassment or abuse, is pleasant to absolutely no one. If you can seek out others who have had your same experience – others who may be afraid to stand up for themselves on their own – you can form an alliance, and work together. If your goal is to report them, that is arguably when strength in numbers is the strongest.
6. Reduce your chances of being a target.
Let me be clear on this one – nobody, absolutely nobody, deserves to be bullied. However, it is an (unfortunate) reality for many people. But it doesn’t have to be you.
Bullying, at its’ core, is about power imbalances. Bullies want power over their victims. It is as simple as that. Where there is no power imbalance, there is no bullying. Bullies want victims – not opponents. Giving yourself the appearance of a confident, unapologetic, strong person, or even a person who will not take nonsense from anybody, can reduce your chances of being victimized drastically. Being perceived as someone who is well-liked or has a lot of friends, being someone who appears physically strong, or confident, can help. Consider taking up a martial art or fighting style to further bolster your confidence, and do your best to stay fit.
You do not even need to actually possess confidence or popularity to make yourself less of a target – the illusion itself can be enough. Even being your Autistic self unapologetically, can dissuade some people from trying to harm you – as doing so is an indisputable act of bravery.
All in all, dealing with bullying is something almost every Autistic individual will have to factor into their lives. And these tips, while helpful, may not be sufficient to help you in every situation. This is why, I am working on writing a book that will give more detailed outlines about different hostile situations and how to deal with them. There’s no planned “release date” but you can expect it around the end of 2021. At the soonest.
A quick note on the nature of bullying
Bullying may seem like a complex issue. Many argue that bullying is just a sad reality of life and that people should just suck it up – this is, of course, male bovine manure.
Bullying is ultimately a reflection of broader social ills – specifically, discrimination and oppression. It may not always seem obvious at first – but when examining who tends to be the victims of bullying, they almost always fit into some form of socially marginalized demographic: gender-based bullying can happen. Racialized kids can experience racially charged bullying. LGBTQ children are all-too-familiar with some of the most atrocious kinds of bullying. And people with various kinds of disabilities or neurodivergences may perhaps make up the most frequent victims of bullying. Ableism is, after all, a seeming ubiquitous force – in a world fit for certain types of minds, bodies, and identities, those who do not ‘fit in’ are going to find themselves more vulnerable to various forms of attacks.
Learning how to protect ourselves is a necessity.
But what is an even greater necessity? Working to end these evils.
Then, and only then, will bullying cease to exist – and contrary to what some people attest, it is possible.
If you’re Autistic, there are two words you are all too familiar with. In fact, you may be so familiar with these two words, that you grow tired of hearing them. Hearing them can make you feel annoyed, irritated, or even nauseous. Or, in some cases, hearing these two words may be triggering for you, as traumatizing or abusive actions are frequently taken against Autistic people in the name of teaching us this.
If you are related to an Autistic person, however, the story is different. Particularly if you are a non-autistic parent or professional, you may use these words in a positive light, emphasize them, repeatedly. These words are important to you, and you insist that the Autistics in your lives gain mastery over this concept in order to have a shot at surviving this world – no matter what.
Fundamentally speaking, neither perspective is entirely in the wrong. This concept is an important one, necessary to learn in order to survive in this world. However, the way this idea is taught, “trained”, and imparted into us often gets it wrong. It is ineffective at best; traumatizing at its’ very worst. Hence, it is not surprising in the slightest that many Autistic people will have a variety of justified negative reactions to hearing this term – from rolling their eyes, to displays of righteous fury.
There is a good chance you have already taken a guess at what these two words are. But if you are still wondering, I’ll say it: Social skills.
As Autism became more recognized in the 80’s, it was primarily considered to be a deficit of the social kind. Autistic people were different, communicated differently, and because it differed from the majority of neurotypical individuals, that meant something was wrong with us. And thus, one of the priorities of ‘helping’ Autistics has always entailed trying to indoctrinate us with “social skills” of some kind or another.
Usually this is done by teaching Autistic people to imitate neurotypical social norms – eye contact, the mimicking of nonautistic movements, the suppression of outward Autistic traits, and more. In fact, most of the time, especially on children, it is done in ways that would be seen as abusive if done to most people.
Forcing Autistic people to mask is known to be traumatizing, and it is honestly common sense: if you spend your whole life being forced to be someone you are not and suppress your very instincts, you will likely face a lot of struggle as well.
But beyond all that, let us examine the fallacy of “social skills training”. First of all, the idea that learning to interact with other people can be “trained” is… well, questionable.
More importantly, and unsettlingly, it is predicated on the assumption that Autistic people are the ones who are inherently “bad” at socialization. This is categorically not the case, and modern literature actually flips the script, showing that from an Autistic perspective, it is not us who cause most socialization problems – because Autistic people are less likely to make quick thin-slice judgements about other people. (This is not to say that Autistics are free of unconscious bias or prejudice, but we seem to be less likely to jump to conclusions about ‘different’ people than neurotypicals.)
In essence, it means that many neurotypicals will instantly see us as ‘deviant’, sometimes even unconsciously, and automatically judge us as ‘bad’ or ‘undesirable’ based on that. It is a story most Autistics can relate to – even in situations where we are not overtly bullied for our differences, almost all of us are able to sense when we are not quite accepted in a social environment. Sometimes, it is confirmed in the most heartbreaking of ways when we catch people gossiping about us behind our back. If you’re Autistic, the next time you find yourself in a group situation, pretend to “leave”, only to hide behind a corner and try to listen to peoples’ reactions. There is a good chance you will hear something along the lines of “phew, finally he/she/they’re gone”. It is absolutely painful to hear, but sometimes it can be better to know peoples’ true attitudes about you. Moreover, to the neurotypicals reading this – Autistic people will almost never engage in social behaviour that is so cruel. So who is the flawed one, again?
And no amount of masking will help. Even for those who can “pass” more easily, we shouldn’t have to live our lives like that. Nobody should.
However, all of this does not change the fact that as social creatures, humans must rely on each other to survive. This means needing to develop the ability to interact with other people. We know forced masking does not work, and that treating Autistics as if we are the innate problem is both wrong and cruel. So, what is to be done?
Let us go back to the concept of “social skills”. There is a key word we need to break down: skills.
Skills can be taught, and skills can be learned. Playing an instrument. Driving a car. Sports. Combat/martial arts. Mathematics. Visual arts. Dance. These are all skills that many Autistic people are capable of excelling at (different skillsets for different people) – all, usually, without the cruelty that social skills “training” entails.
So, what is the key difference here? Practice.
Social ‘skills’ are, like all the other examples listed above; skills. And skills are developed with practice. Every example listed above are complex skills that can take years of practice to learn, for some people.
Social skills are no different. And no matter how much people try to train Autistic people to socialize inside a classroom, nothing can truly prepare us for actual socialization other than practicing in a live environment – the same as driving a car. Putting us in a classroom and giving us all these instructions and “roleplaying” hyperbolic and phony situations is not going to do anything to prepare us for real situations, in which dynamics can be a lot more fluid and people can be far more unpredictable. Most of these training programs utterly fail at actually teaching anybody to socialize.
So, I am going to suggest another option: giving Autistic people opportunities to “practice” socializing in live environments; getting to know real people, and having a chance to foster interactions and learn from mistakes in a trial and error setting.
This can be visualized as the saying, “sometimes you need to throw someone into water to teach them how to swim”. This does not mean we need to be thrown into deep water, or in the case of socialization, be put into high-stress situations on purpose right away – we can start as small as we need to, at our own pace.
But trying it any other way than live practice will just set us up for disappointment and failure. Either we realize that whatever roleplay exercises we do will not actually hold up outside of a controlled environment, or worse, we internalize the belief that we are innately broken.
All human beings need to learn to socialize to some extent. And most people practice naturally, and build their skills up. Autistic people deserve that same opportunity.
Autistic people have our own unique ways of communicating – and while it may sometimes seem strange or odd, there are many strengths to it – the tendency toward honesty and sincerity, being free of underlying motives, directness as opposed to subtlety, and for many of us, compassion and reverence for others, a strong sense of justice, and the tendency to question prevailing social norms. Autistic courage is never to be underestimated.
An empowered, happy Autistic individual can actually socialize quite well, and the friendships we make in that manner can be the strongest of all. The few windows in my life where I was confident enough to truly put myself out there, without fear of rejection or bullying, was when I forged the strongest connections of them all. We have a lot to offer to any social interaction, and deserve the opportunity to practice our way there.
Of course, this should be paired with aggressive campaigning for Autistic rights, neurodiversity, and inclusion, in order to decrease the number of hostile environments toward neurodivergent people. And if Autistic people are to engage with the world without masking, we may need to learn skills to defend ourselves – but that is for a different discussion topic altogether.
All in all, the current, popular model of “social skills training” has failed us, repeatedly. Or, to invoke a Mean Girls reference, “Stop trying to make it happen. It’s not gonna happen.”
It has created a sociocultural environment where many Autistics isolate ourselves; afraid to interact with others out of fear of ridicule and abuse. I think the current world circumstances show what isolation can do to a person – even those who tend toward introversion.
Therefore, drop social skills ‘training’. And move to social skills practice.
A common debate that often pops up in media discourse around Autism is whether being Autistic should be considered a superpower, or a disability.
While every person sees being Autistic differently, and not everyone sees it as a ‘superpower’, there are just as many who do: who perceive it as a gift they are fortunate to have; one that can enable them to do great things, perform incredible feats, to demonstrate high levels of skill and talent, to be pioneers who expand ways of thinking and being – to accidentally starting massive social movements.
However, being Autistic very clearly imposes struggle and limitations as well: struggles that are exacerbated by the society we live in.
This once again begs the question: Is Autism a superpower, or a disability?
My answer is one that you might not expect: both.
To analyze why I have come to believe this, it’s necessary to look at what society constitutes as ‘superhuman’. Given that the term ‘superhero’ in the real world is incredibly subjective, there are not many real life ‘superheroes’ (as we know it) to analyze, so I will be primarily drawing examples from fiction.
Being a superhero (or sometimes villain): it’s every child’s dream. To have powers beyond that most people have, to be able to perform incredible feats, to go on incredible, awesome adventures and use these abilities however one sees fit, for better or worse.
A closer look might make one think twice, however. Superhuman capabilities tend to have limitations – which may sometimes be written into the plot, but are typically things that can be seen as an obvious side effect of the powers themselves.
As I am currently going through the MCU’s Netflix shows at a slow pace, a character that comes to mind is Luke Cage. How cool would it be to have impenetrable, unbreakable skin along with super strength? Sounds awesome. But what about the fact that, as comes up in the plot on more than one occasion, it makes medical procedures incredibly difficult? That unbreakable skin comes in handy when stopping bullets; less so when one is incapable of taking vaccines, blood tests, or any other medically invasive procedures that might be necessary. From a certain point of view, this makes his condition incredibly disabling under the wrong circumstances.
One of my favourite video game series, Infamous, features Cole McGrath in the first two games. With the power to essentially “bend” electricity, using it for many different purposes, you would think there were no drawbacks, right? Think again: being unable to swim or even shower, being unable to enter the inside of a car without it exploding, firearms exploding on contact as the hand’s electricity ignites the gunpowder. Interactions with people can be risky, especially near bodies of water, as the wrong move can electrocute a person to death – there will never be any romantic days out at the beach for this hero.
Further, he must be in the presence of electricity, or else his body experiences distress.
A third major example I can think of would be found in Star Wars: Force-users are beings that I actually consider analogous to Autistics: in some ways, it may be (albeit unintentionally) allegorical. There are many commonalities: hyper-sensitivity to the environment, deep attention to detail, emotional intensity, and typically having above-average skills in certain areas. Having the deep ability to focus, to be insightful, and to find solutions that are not obvious to others. Often being unable to relate to other people who are not like you. Being a Jedi or a Sith sounds pretty awesome, but it’s pretty plainly obvious that their lives are not necessarily happy. More importantly, the Jedi and Sith have limitations (that can also be analogous to Autism): for instance, feeling a “disturbance in the Force” is something that is glossed over, but described in novels to actually be physically and emotionally traumatic; another common way to “beat” Force users in-universe is to cause suffering, which takes advantage of hyper-empathy, or to mask one’s feelings with thoughts to avoid having one’s true intentions detected – something to this effect played a role in Order 66, as the clones systemically carried out their betrayal in a dispassionate fashion that took most Jedi by surprise.
My point in drawing all these analogies isn’t to make direct comparisons between reality and fiction, but rather to show that ‘superpower’ and ‘disability’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact, in many ways they are linked. Both involve the differing of minds and bodies from the norm, and both can result in people who possess these differences being ‘othered’, perceived as freaks or threats. Further, works of fiction often reflect and critique on our real world; Star Wars and certain superhero-based stories very specifically do this.
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that people who demonstrate ‘extraordinary’ abilities of any kind in this world, are viewed with prejudice as much as reverence. Gifted kids may be seen as nerds. Monks and yogis in Asia capable of performing incredible physical or mental feats are viewed as freaks as much as they are viewed with awe.
And Autistic people in this world are seen as ‘freaks’ as much, if not more than we are seen as ‘special’ or ‘prodigies’ for any talent we may have. You would think that memorizing complex subjects, remembering everyone’s birthday, or naming a lot about trains would make us more interesting, but the sad reality is that many will just see it as ‘freaky’. Autistics who can read beyond their peers at a young age are not treated with admiration, but resentment. Greta Thunberg herself, driver of one of the biggest environmental movements the world has seen, is met as much with condescension and intimidation as she has rightfully earned the respect of many around the world. She regards being Autistic as a superpower, but it was not always that way for her. Being allowed to find her true path made it that way.
When I watch the X-Men films, or read about how people with extraordinary abilities are treated in various universes, or even how cyborgs – which are essentially physically disabled people with access to advanced technology – are treated, I cannot help but feel as though, like dystopian fiction, it is a commentary on how people with diverging minds and bodies are treated in our world today. It reinforces the concept of the social model of disability: that disability is a construct; a product of social inaccessibility. Ultimately, the same fear of difference that drives the persecution of the X-Men or the extermination of the Jedi Order, are what turn the wheels of ableism in the real world. And the sooner these parallels are seen for what they are, the sooner we as a society can seek to dismantle ableism.
Autistic people have so much to offer to this world, if we are given the chance – and the access – so that our challenges are subsided, and we can allow our superpowers to shine.
Moreover, when confronted with criticism from the very group you claim to represent, it is unacceptable to insult or berate them, or to minimize their concerns. If you truly love the people in said communities, if you really wish to start a conversation, it means you will listen to what people in your target audience really have to say.
Art is an important part of culture. While it may be considered ‘common sense’ not to solely base insights on the world we live in based on artistic depictions, it is an undeniable fact that art bares a significant influence on sociocultural interpretations of a great many things.
A new controversy has been sparked within the Autistic community. It is a controversy that has brought the Autistic community into a major spotlight of discussion, after a long time of advocating on the sidelines, behind the scenes. When I saw that the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic was trending on Twitter for the first time, perhaps ever, I was initially excited. However, that excitement waned when I started to look into why.
By now, most people are aware of the issue. Sia: an Australian singer, songwriter, and aspiring filmmaker, is releasing a movie ‘Music’, a story centered around a nonspeaking Autistic teenage girl, named Music, played by Maddie Ziegler.
Is there a problem with what I described in the above sentence? If you aren’t Autistic, you may not think so. If you are not familiar with Autism, you may not even notice it. Here’s a hint: it’s the last four words.
#ActuallyAutistic was trending as a result of Autistic advocates justifiably disappointed that a non-autistic actor was being yet again cast in an Autistic role.
Why is this problematic, you may ask? What is fundamentally wrong with having a nonautistic actor portray an Autistic person? It’s been done before, right? Isn’t acting all about putting yourself into another person’s shoes?
Yes, it is. However, Autistic people are just that: a group of people. Autistic brains and minds work differently than non-autistic people, as do our sensory experiences, and while in theory it is possible for an allistic (non-autistic) actor to pick up on some of these, it is almost never an authentic depiction. While movies and shows like RainMan or Atypical functioned to make society more “aware” of Autistic people, an unfortunate side effect is that a lot of these performances become stereotypical. Such portrayals of Autistics often become like caricatures. More importantly, while it can be easy for a neurotypical to guess at what it is like to be Autistic, they will never truly know what it is like.
It’s one thing to cast someone not representing a group to play a someone from a group once in a blue moon. However, this isn’t the issue here. And those who are accusing the Autistic community of trying to monopolize Autistic acting roles are simply lying. Nobody is saying, “only Autistic people should EVER play Autistic characters”. However, the vast majority of Autistic characters are played by non-autistic actors, and it’s ultimately us who pay the price. If the goal of having Autistic characters in stories, which is a good thing, is to represent us, it is being done wrong.
Representation is worthless if it is not done accurately. More than that, it is harmful. Even more than that, it cannot really be called representation to begin with.
There is also no argument that Autistic actors could not be hired. There are many Autistics in the arts, including acting, who are underemployed. Some have even reached out to Sia about this, only to be rebuffed and insulted. Further, just because Music is nonspeaking does not mean a speaking Autistic cannot at least play the role to some extent – many Autistic people experience situations in which speaking is a challenge, even if they are not nonspeaking, and those familiar with the neurodiversity movement and the “Actually Autistic” community should understand why functioning levels are bogus. Moreover, there are in fact non-speaking Autistic actors out there, such as the person who supplied the voice for the main character of Loop, a short film on Disney+. If an Autistic person has access needs on set, provide them. If you, a presumably reasonably wealthy filmmaker cannot do this, then representational movies are probably not for you. In The Mandalorian, a deaf actor played the role of a Tusken Raider in Season 1. In Unfriended: Dark Web, the role of a deaf character was played by a deaf actress. Access needs can almost always be accommodated if one puts in the effort.
The argument that it was not possible to hire an Autistic actor is patently false.
On “cancel culture”: people make mistakes, and deserve chances to fix them (most of the time, anyway). Sia was not being cancelled – at least, not at the beginning. Rather than accepting Autistic criticism in good faith, however – she took a different approach. It is ironic, then, that a singer who has written songs about bullying, and been open about her mental health, has taken to bullying an online community – that struggles with mental health at considerably high rates.
Berating Autistic people online, accusing Autistic artists of being “bad actors”, and acting as though she is the unfortunate victim of “mean Autistic people” simply defeats any purpose she might have had of releasing a film about Autistic people.
Sia claims to be passionate about depicting Autism and neurodiversity, and yet she has barely consulted Autistic people in doing so. In fact, as an insult to injury, she has allegedly worked with Autism Speaks, an anti-autistic group and the last group anyone wishing to represent Autism should go to. In fact, if Sia had truly put in the effort to consult Autistics, she would have known this. If you are going to make a film about Autistic people and not have the Autistic character played by an Autistic actor, the least you can at least do is consult Autistic advocates throughout the process – which Sia has not done.
Moreover, when confronted with criticism from the very group you claim to represent, it is unacceptable to insult or berate them, or to minimize their concerns. If you truly love the people in said communities, if you really wish to start a conversation, it means you will listen to what people in your target audience really have to say.
Sia had the chance to respond to criticism in a respectful, mature manner. Instead, she chose to throw a tantrum akin to a teenage Call of Duty player.
Representation matters. We deserve more than a seat at the table – we deserve to be the primary voice and the primary consultants, and whenever possible (also known as most of the time), be the portrayers of our own experiences.
Since originally drafting this piece, I have caught wind of a few updates regarding problematic scenes within the film, such as their depiction of prone restraints. While this is a serious issue, I plan to dedicate a separate article to it.
What is to be done when the services you receive themselves are the problem? When the very system we live in treats us as burdens, and, failing to “fix” what isn’t broken, lock us up in institutions? And what kind of solution is it when we just slap a band-aid and expect everyone to get better?
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE EXPLICITLY TALKS ABOUT SUICIDE AND MENTAL HEALTH/TRAUMA. While in-depth discussion surrounding these topics is important, it is important to recognize and step back from the discussion if or when it takes a toll on your own emotional wellbeing. Take care when reading this.
September is considered to be ‘National Suicide Prevention Month’ in some places around the world. When discussing mental health and suicide, it is important to include Autistic people in the conversation, as a staggering number of us struggle with severe trauma.
Autistic activist Cal Montgomery once said, “We do not know what Autism truly looks like. We only know what Autism with trauma looks like.”
Trauma is almost universally found within the Autistic community, tragically. The seeds of trauma are planted in childhood, and grows and sprouts as we grow. The trauma often compounds, and by adolescence a number of us have faced some sort of major mental health challenge. Depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress are most common among us. But far more disturbing than that, is the prevalence of suicidal ideation, and subsequent attempts, within our community.
More than half of Autistic people experience suicidal thoughts. The average life expectancy of Autistic people is, tragically, only 38 years old. One of the leading causes of death? You guessed it: suicide.
I first learned what the term suicide meant when I was very young. At first, it seemed like a strange concept: people killing themselves. But over time, I began to, quite disturbingly, understand its’ allure. What started as morbid curiosity eventually devolved into a dark, disturbing feeling that started deep in the back of my head. It then began to evolve into passing thoughts during moments of stress. Things always went wrong. It seemed nobody ever truly cared about or cared to even try and understand me. I was different, and that was bad. I was broken.
By my early teens, the thought of suicide was well within my head, but in some ways the concept itself was like a dark mystery. And as a result, it became something of a special interest of mine. I began to research and learn about suicide, what the people who experienced it went through, the scars it left on their loved ones, what the facts and statistics were around suicide – including the usage of different methods, and which demographics experienced a higher suicide rate.
It would not be until later on that I began to embrace my Autistic identity. But there was a time when I rejected myself, based on the tired belief that people like me were broken human beings, and that I was not worthy the way I was, because I could never be “normal”.
And then I realized: this is the problem. This is what people like me are essentially engineered to believe.
The cycle of masking, of camouflaging our true identities, wishing we were someone we were not – is something quite literally engineered into us, as people attempt to hard-wire us into beings that mask our true selves, that imitate neurotypicals, and never get to explore and grow in our own way – the way we were meant to.
And so: we are alienated. We feel pressured to “fit in”. And when we do not, we begin to question our very worth. The isolation, rejection, bullying, and plain coldness of the world.
The biggest misconception about Autism is the idea that we lack empathy. That we cannot feel. It is also by far, the most harmful. Because if we do not have real feelings, why bother to care about us? Why bother to treat us with kindness? Why bother to even treat us like we are human beings? What is to stop people from abusing us just for the hell of it? I am certain every Autistic has at least one story where they were treated like a zoo animal, used and abused for the entertainment for other people. Our existence being reduced to a laughingstock for neurotypicals to mock day and night. Too many of us have our strengths downplayed and our flaws zeroed in on. Even more of us have our hands slapped away when we actually seek help. And above all, a great number of us are starved of any social or emotional connection.
And humans are social species. Some are introverted. Some are less social than others. But virtually all human beings have a biological and psychological need to establish connections with other people.
The intense world theory posits that Autism is the result of extreme sensitivity to stimuli, and to emotions, which results in a chaotic and intense experience of the world. This is not innately a bad thing. We are afforded just as much good from this as we are bad – such as deep compassion, intense passions, strong senses – and the ability to hyperfocus and hone talents in certain areas – sometimes to a superhuman level. And while it is not easy to understand the thought processes of non-autistic people, we can pick up emotions – sometimes, quite intensely.
The downside? A lot of Autistic people report, or confide that we feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. So much struggle, strife, and pain in life. A world divided by chaos, exploitation, hatred, violence, and grief. And it never ends. For a demographic of people who are often indignant at any injustice, it can be too much to bear.
And when an Autistic person finally dies by their own hand, the question is often asked: How did we get here…. again?
Perhaps the most common contributor to Autistic death is masking. To hide who you are, to suppress your natural state of being – is agonizing. To have to live in constant fear of ridicule, shame, humiliation, and oppression is no way to live. Too many of us come to this conclusion and decide life might not be all it is cut out to be.
When the gold standard “therapy” for Autistic people is designed to alter our very being, and requires people to deny our humanity, it continues to perpetuate this cycle of ignorance and hate. Autistic pain is pathologized, rather than having any attempts made at trying to understand us and make our lives more comfortable.
In fact, the very pathologization of being Autistic – of seeing our way of being as a disorder to be ‘cured’ away or prevented through eugenics – sends Autistic children, teens and adults a message: that our existence is ultimately unwanted and undesirable.
And the natural consequence is the general social treatment: bullying and abuse of almost every kind. Emotional neglect. Systemic oppression and violence, which is exponentially compounded if the Autistic also belongs to additional marginalized communities.
People who do not want to befriend us, or who easily abandon us. Being discriminated at against every walk of life.
This can sound very bleak. But here’s the thing: it does not have to be this way.
It does not have to be this way.
It does not have to be this way.
We can create a better world. We can create a world that people want to be in.
I have seen a post with a particular theme going around lately this month. The gist is, that we have reduced suicide prevention month to “check on your friends”, when we should also be advocating for expanded healthcare and social services, proper mental health services, defunding the police, and more. But this stance is missing much-needed nuance.
What is to be done when the services you receive themselves are the problem? When the very system we live in treats us as burdens, and, failing to “fix” what isn’t broken, lock us up in institutions? And what kind of solution is it when we just slap a band-aid and expect everyone to get better?
Blaming suicide solely on ‘mental illness’ is a copout. Mental health is important. Wellness is important. But to treat wellness as something no more than a mere abstract concept divorced from the rigors of daily life, is nothing more than capitalist brainwashing.
In most cases, it takes a lot more than simply a “chemical imbalance” to cause suicide – especially suicide rates as high as what Autistics experience. Whether to absolve social responsibility, or just to preserve the status quo, a lot of people take tremendous leaps to avoid this simple truth:
Suicide is caused by cruelty, violence, apathy, and oppression. In no particular order.
The expansion of services and support to help neurodivergent people is crucial. This can include healthier forms of therapy and mental health support, accessibility accommodations, equal access to healthcare, education, and more. A fundamental expansion and meeting of human rights, legal and social protections, and more.
But beyond that: Kindness. Empathy. Compassion. Understanding. In addition to advocating for better social services, do check on your friends. Support them, and love them. Do the best you can. Have faith when situations are tough.
And then, work to erase the social conditions that allow Autistics to suffer. Work to promote inclusion, neurodiversity, and acceptance. Dismantle the pathology paradigm, ableism, and the system that allows these to fester – capitalism. Empower the Autistic people in your lives. Include us. Listen to us. Make friends with us, and get to know us better – some of us are pretty cool.
Work to create a world that Autistic people, and people in general, want to be in.
“A common Autistic experience, this means people deliberately go out of their way to troll, bully and harass us through various ways, to trigger a meltdown. In some cases, they can be subtle – exposing us to unpleasant sensory stimuli, invoking dogwhistles, or coded terms meant to degrade us for being different – so that they can act like they did nothing wrong, and we get all the blame. In some cases, nitpicking and criticizing every single thing we do can also put us under a great level of stress and anxiety – and many individuals pick up on and capitalize on this.
All in all, it is a predatory action designed to entrap Autistic people.”
This article discusses various forms of abuse, which may be upsetting or disturbing to some audiences.
While every Autistic person is unique, there are many shared experiences within our community: experiences that are innately part of being Autistic, but also our experiences in a world that fails to accommodate our differences. Unfortunately, one very commonly reported experience is abuse.
Trauma is almost universally present in Autistic people in varying degrees, and the root cause of this stems largely from being abused in various ways – often from a young age. Some of us had abusive homes growing up – but almost all of us were brutally abused at some point in school, whether by other students, or even staff.
It really does not help that when you are Autistic, abuse is often seen as “love”, or “tough love” (which is, in my view, an oxymoron). After all, this is what has kept Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)as a “gold standard” “therapy” for Autistic children.
Abuse, as most of us know, takes many forms. It can be physical – this is likely the most common form of abuse discussed. Then, there are abuses that are less discussed, often due to stigma or ignorance. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse – psychological abuse.
In a sense, it can be argued that all abuse is inherently psychological– because all kinds of abuse has lasting, devastating impacts on a person’s psyche. However, there is one particularly devious kind of psychological abuse that focuses specifically on psychological manipulation:
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which an individual is manipulated into questioning their own reality and experiences. In extreme cases, a victim can be manipulated into questioning their very own sanity.
From a tender age, Autistics are made to believe that our experiences of the world are inherently flawed. A great many of us have had this burned into our brains through ABA, but even aside from Autistic conversion therapy, we face a great deal of gaslighting from people in general.
When you start with the pathology paradigm, the mindset that Autistic brains are broken, everything becomes our fault. Thus, I grew up being told that any conflict, regardless of context or circumstances, was entirely my fault. Oftentimes, little to zero inquiries are made as to the nature of the conflict at all. Moreover, we are coerced into believing that our reactions, no matter big or small, were “extreme”, while those who seek to target or harm us almost always get away with it.
In my personal life, gaslighting has involved people deliberately taking my remarks out of context to make me seem dangerous, or threatening. It has led to people trying to explain my social relationships to me, because apparently as an Autistic person I am unable to mange those on my own.
In the broader scheme of things, gaslighting is something people in the disabled community experience on the regular. If someone needs an accommodation or support, people assume they always require it – and if someone asks for independence, the immediate assumption is that we no longer need any sort of support or accommodation at all; that our access needs have suddenly gone away.
Gaslighting takes many other forms, and like many forms of abuse, can occur in the workplace, at school, or in intimate and familial relationships.
When it comes to Autistics (and sometimes other neurodivergent people), however, gaslighting comes in an additional form, a special form of gaslighting that is so common, it is hard to believe that this is not more commonly discussed.
There are people who get a kick out of being cruel to people like us. And then there are people who, sometimes subconsciously, recognize the impact of gaslighting on our collective psyche. And when the sadistic enjoyment of cruelty, combined with a basic knowledge of Autistic meltdowns, combined with gaslighting, takes form, it creates one of the most toxic and harmful forms of psychological abuse Autistic people can face.
How many Autistics can relate to this following scenario?:
An Autistic teenager is at school, and some people decide that they want to get a reaction out of them. So, they start mocking them – perhaps they make mean or teasing comments, perhaps they try to create unpleasant sensory experiences, such as sudden loud noises or unpleasant visual stimuli. Perhaps they quietly throw terrible insults under their breath, or make obscene gestures. Maybe they make a show of whispering mean things making sure the target notices. Perhaps it is passive aggression with very thinly veiled insults.
At first, it may easy to brush off – a one time thing, people just goofing around, “I can handle it” – but it continues. Persistently. After all, the goal is to break down the Autistic’s will, to cause a meltdown. Maybe it persists, transitioning into personal attacks, blatant mocking of Autistic traits. Perhaps they say things on purpose to offend you. Slowly whittling down your defenses. Criticizing every single thing they can about you. Maybe they are shouting at you, on purpose, knowing it is hard for you to tolerate.
At one point, it becomes too much. Finally, you snap. What happens in that circumstance can vary. Sometimes it is a simple nervous breakdown. Sometimes, the Autistic person is the one who commences yelling. In a grade school setting, it can devolve into physical fighting. Maybe you decided that a threatening aura was the only way to get your abusers to back off. Or maybe, in a moment of extreme anger and pain, you said something equally or exceedingly harsh and cruel. Things you would not be prompted to say about people easily, in most other circumstances.
Suddenly, the bullies change dynamics. They go from being cruel and supposedly ‘strong’ individuals to people crying, begging for help – playing the victim. In a scene similar to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine pretends to cower at the hands of Mace Windu to try and sway Anakin against him.
Unfortunately, it works. Suddenly, the Autistic person, the person ruthlessly bullied, brutally harassed, is labeled the aggressor, for “overreacting”.
“It’s just a prank, bro!” “Lighten up, dude!” “Jesus, take a joke…” Or, another common one, “there was no excuse for reacting the way you did”.
This form of gaslighting has a name of it’s own: reactive abuse.
Put simply, reactive abuse takes place when an individual is purposefully trying to instigate a powerful reaction from another person, often of a violent nature – specifically so that they can then turn around, play the victim, and lay the entire blame of the situation on the real victim.
A common Autistic experience, this means people deliberately go out of their way to troll, bully and harass us through various ways, to trigger a meltdown. In some cases, they can be subtle – exposing us to unpleasant sensory stimuli, invoking dogwhistles, or coded terms meant to degrade us for being different – so that they can act like they did nothing wrong, and we get all the blame. In some cases, nitpicking and criticizing every single thing we do can also put us under a great level of stress and anxiety – and many individuals pick up on and capitalize on this.
All in all, it is a predatory action designed to entrap Autistics.
In my personal experience, reactive abuse came in two forms: criticizing and nitpicking every single thing I do – not in a friendly manner, but rather as a malicious way to frustrate me. Contrary to what people think, we Autistics can often pick up on bad intentions rather well, and can sense whether or not someone is interacting in good faith.
The other experience I have had is with more blatant forms of reactive abuse – bullying and mockery, all with the intent to provoke a reaction. Sometimes, it is at the hands of anti-vaxxers on the internet gish-galloping me repeatedly with dishonest arguments and constantly linking “studies” to prove Autism as a brain injury, while playing it off as an ‘honest discussion’, even though it is anything but.
Other, more nefarious encounters, involve (often anonymous) individuals repeatedly sending me harassing messages on social media platforms, often filled with slurs, and various horrible personal attacks – all with a jeering tone. I always try to respond as non-aggressively as possible, at least at first – but in these types of pressured situations, faltering is inevitable. In some cases, I may threaten them to back off. Or say something exceedingly cruel.
Reactive abusers prey on their victim’s insecurities, their main goal being to provoke a reaction just so they can do further damage to their target’s image and safety.
It is very important for people to understand gaslighting and reactive abuse in its’ entirety. It is important for Autistics to realize when someone is attempting to employ these tactics on you. When you know what is being done, it is easier to respond – sometimes, the most effective way to stop an abuser is to call them out on the very actions they are attempting to take.
For allistic(non-autistic) and neurotypical peers and allies, recognize when your Autistic friends are being targeted for gaslighting or reactive abuse. Assure them that they are good people, that you believe them, and offer them what help you can to cope with the situation. If it is safe to do so, stand up along with your friend, as reactive abusers lose their power once others catch onto their tactics.
For educators and professionals, it is crucial that you recognize and watch for reactive abusers who may target Autistic staff or pupils – and step in. Sometimes, it may be necessary to look out for gaslighting from your colleagues as well. Be someone the Autistics in your life feel safe and comfortable around. Listen to them and their story – and in the event that they are in a conflict, take any allegations levied against them with a freight car full of salt.
Lastly, if you are the kind of person who engages in gaslighting or reactive abuse toward Autistics, then quite frankly, you deserve the full brunt of whatever retaliation you receive.