As an autistic woman, I am perplexed on a nearly daily basis by advertisements and media that refer to the way my brain works naturally as if it were a tragic illness. Organizations such as Autism Speaks are notorious in the autistic community for using such fear mongering language. “I know where you live…I work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined and if you’re happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails…I am Autism,” runs one of their ads, which also refers to autistic children as “living behind a wall.” This alarmist organization’s ads and their blue puzzle piece logo have unfortunately become ubiquitous symbols for autism.
Gernsbacher et. al’s 2017 study found that puzzle pieces evoked negative associations in their test group and that even generic puzzle pieces were found to be associated with “incompleteness, imperfection, and oddity.” When something is perceived as incomplete, imperfect, and odd, the natural inclination is to want to fix it, but the problem here is that there is nothing wrong with us. Autistic people are not broken or diseased, we simply need people to allow us (and sometimes help us) to be ourselves.
One example of this misunderstanding in action is with the autistic stim. Stimming, short for self-stimulatory behavior, is a repetitive behavior that can be performed for self-comfort, self-expression, or communication. Some examples of stimming include rocking back and forth, jumping up and down, clicking a pen, or some self-injurious behaviors such as head-banging or biting. The latter two examples aside, stimming is harmless to everyone and helpful to the autistic person. It can alleviate anxiety and aid in combating harsh sensory input such as bright lights and strong odors. However, because non-autistic people are unused to seeing such behaviors, they may find them strange or even disturbing, and so there are whole therapy systems designed to minimize stimming. The problem with this is that autistic people need to stim. It is the way our body naturally wants to move and if repressed for too long, this leads to autistic meltdowns (often mistaken for temper tantrums in autistic children) and shutdowns (complete withdrawal). Without their completely natural and (generally) harmless behavior, autistic people are left with no coping mechanism for difficulties we face, such as sensory input and emotional distress.
Another example of a harmless autistic trait that non-autistics still try to “correct” is lack of eye contact. There is a common misconception that if someone is not looking you directly in the eyes, they are not paying attention to what you are saying. For many autistic people, the opposite is true. When I force myself to make eye contact, for example, I find myself thinking about everything but what is being said to me: I have to remember to blink, I think about which eye to look at, and I am conscious of when it’s appropriate for me to nod my head or verbally acknowledge something said by my conversation partner. In short, my comprehension of the conversation plummets, and for some autistic people (including myself, some of the time), eye contact actually causes pain. When allowed to act naturally, I incline my head toward the person I’m speaking to, angling my ear toward them and often looking around the room. This allows me to focus on the words they are saying without being distracted by the extra sensory input of having to read facial expressions. When autistic people are forced to make eye contact, it may help us look more neurotypical (non-autistic), but it decreases our understanding.
In short, autistic people aren’t like neurotypical people. We don’t process information in the same way, and when we are forced to appear neurotypical, it only harms us. It can lead to behavioral problems (due to lack of coping mechanisms), self-harm, overwhelm, burnout, and even suicide. Unfortunately, the most widely-accepted form of “therapy” for autistics, ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) relies on making autistics “indistinguishable from their peers.” This is done basically by forcing autistics to suppress their natural behaviors and to mask, or pretend to be neurotypical. While this may be more comfortable for neurotypicals in the short-term, the long-term effects are crushing for autistic people. We don’t need an “Autism Awareness Month.” Autism is not a disease people need to be made aware of. We need Autism Acceptance Month. We need to be accepted and appreciated for who we are, not judged by how poorly we live up to neurotypical standards.
In closing, I will leave you with a quote by autism researcher and advocate Steve Silberman. “One way to understand neurodiversity is to think in terms of human operating systems — Just because a PC is not running Windows, doesn’t mean it’s broken.”
Suzie Bullington lives and works in Starkville. She can be reached at [email protected] April is Autism Acceptance Month.