A Spectrum Women Compilation, edited by Jen Elcheson and Maura Campbell
Barb Cook, Dena Gassner, Renata Jurkevythz, Anita Lesko, Becca Lory, Terri Mayne, Jeanette Purkis, Kate Ross, Lisa Morgan
Content Warning: ableism, paternalizing, bullying, sexism (pretty much a smorgasbord of awful).
We present to you another collaborative piece where we discuss a bunch of things people should not say to autistic women (or, indeed, to any autistic person, female-presenting or otherwise) and why saying them can be negative from an autistic perspective.
1. “Are you sure you’re autistic?”
Trying to talk someone out of their diagnosis, questioning their identity, saying it’s all in their head, or telling them to suck it up and get over it is grossly invalidating and implies you equate autism with being defective rather than simply different. Getting a formal diagnosis is typically a long drawn out process. Often, we will have been misdiagnosed with other conditions, such as borderline personality disorder, or the focus will have been on our autism ‘co-stars’ (such as generalized anxiety, social phobia, depression or PTSD) before autism is correctly identified. Self-diagnosis is also perfectly valid and is usually the product of a gradual realization and extensive research. Sometimes we’re told we’re too self-aware to be autistic, but we are actually some of the most aware people you will meet. Having our autism questioned is particularly hurtful if it comes from someone we know well rather than an uninformed stranger.
2. “Smile, it’s not the end of the world!”
Just because we aren’t enthusiastically grinning all the time does not mean we are in a negative space. Do not assign emotions to us and make assumptions, or ask us if we are “okay” based solely on the arrangement of our facial features. We do not like loaded questions. Especially if they catch us off guard. It can cause us anxiety, confusion, and disruption. The surface does not necessarily match what lies beneath. And asking us if we are okay more than once? That will likely fulfill your prophecy…
3. “You don’t look autistic – I’d never have guessed!”
Well, guess no more, because we just did the guesswork for you. We are not the stereotypes portrayed in popular media or just like your cousin’s husband’s autistic nephew who is passionate about ‘Thomas and Friends’. Also, look up autistic masking and camouflaging for more information about the sheer effort we put into ‘passing’ on a daily basis. And autistic people look like *drumroll* PEOPLE! Make-up and fashion can be a big interest for autistic women. We like what we like, whether it’s Star Wars or Sephora. Telling someone they don’t look autistic is not a compliment, by the way. What you’re effectively saying is that you only accept them provided they behave in a neurologically typical way.
4. “Autistic women shouldn’t have children.”
Many autistic adults have children and are excellent parents. Neither should autistic women be judged for choosing not to have children. When a woman starts talking about autism, they aren’t necessarily referring to their offspring.
5. “You must be good with numbers.”
Negative. We are not all math geniuses and computer whizzes. Glad we had this chat.
6. “Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?”
Nope. One is either autistic or they aren’t. Only a qualified professional can make it official. And no one is a ‘little bit’ autistic. That would be like being just a little bit diabetic or pregnant. Sometimes non-autistic people will say things like this in a misguided attempt to empathize with us, but it feels dismissive and minimizing.
7. “You’re so brave – a true inspiration!”
There’s nothing inherently inspirational about being autistic. You don’t need to congratulate us for existing. Nor should we be paternalized for being open about the fact that we’re autistic – it’s only ‘brave’ if you see disclosure as admitting to being defective.
8. “Yeah, but doesn’t everyone do that?”
Do they do it for hours on end to the point of forgetting to eat or use the bathroom? Does it interfere with their mental health? Sure, non-autistics share many traits with us, but the difference is all in the intensity, frequency, and duration.
9. “You shouldn’t be calling yourself ‘autistic’. You should say person with autism…”
Most autistic people prefer identity first language over person first, though, everyone should be free to self-identify however they prefer. Do not police how we refer to ourselves.
10. “You must be very high-functioning.”
Autism is a spectrum. Every autistic person is unique just like every non-autistic is. Functioning labels need to go the way of the dinosaurs because they do none of us any favors. The term ‘high functioning’ is sometimes used to imply that you’re not ‘properly’ autistic (like your cousin’s husband’s autistic nephew) whereas ‘low functioning’ is a pretty disrespectful term to use for those who might be non-speaking/ less verbal, and/or have higher support needs.
11. “But isn’t autism a male thing?”
Do not pass go or collect $200… Autism does not discriminate based on gender.
12. “You look like you need a hug.”
That’s probably the last thing we want. Stand far away. Don’t even think about Ninja hugging, and for goodness sake, always ASK first. Touch is a touchy subject for a lot of us, so obtain consent first.
13. “Do you live at home with your mommy?”
Yes, one of us was actually asked this question. Would you ask a non-autistic adult that question? No? Then don’t do it to autistics. Some of us reside our own, with friends, family, partners, kids, housemates, or in supported living. Some autistics own homes, some rent, and then there’s homelessness, which is also common.
14. “But you’re so nice!”
In the tradition of being human beings with individual personalities, some of us are friendlier than others, and others might bite. Treat us with respect to reduce chance of biting.
15. “That’s too many cats.”
Incorrect. There is no such thing as ‘too many cats’.