Demonizing Autism, Dehumanizing Autists

A common and very harmful prejudice against autistic people is, that we are really unpleasant, rude and annoying people. Many people believe that we are difficult to like and almost impossible to love. Knowing this places autists between a rock and a hard place when pondering, whether to disclose autism and face all the prejudice that comes with it or to risk being misinterpreted due to our apparent difference. It pressures us to mask, which is not just harmful to our physical and mental health but also seldom works perfectly People may not be able to tell that we are autistic, but most can tell that something about us is a little off, and act accordingly: by showing distrust, doubt and negativity.

The problem of demonizing autism as the source of all evil that autistic people are capable of is not only misrepresenting autism, it is also dehumanizing. When people assume that all our flaws and shortcomings can be explained by autism, they essentially assume, that without autism we’d be little angels, full of happiness, goodwill and all things good, that we are people who’d never misjudge or fail, were it not for autism.

How many of your neurotypical acquintances do you recognize from above description? Me neither. To be human is to struggle against destructive impulses, to try avoiding making stupic decisions and big mistakes, to work on becoming better people -and fail way more often than we’d like to admit. Since autists are people, we are no exception to this unpleasant reality -the only way to avoid this conclusion is to carefully avoid honest self reflection (and people who do that aren’t usually considered very pleasant). When autism is demonized, autistic people are implied to be somehow inhuman in our inherent excellence that just happens to be buried under evil autism. Idolizing someone may not be as insulting as demonizing them, but it is just as effective when it comes to seeing people as something they are really not.

Sometimes people hesitate to call out bad behavior of autistic people because they feel it’s not right to blame people who are already in a disadvantaged position, or because they presume that the behavior caused by autism, in which case the autistic person can’t help it. But that’s not right. It’s not right to treat people differently from others unless there’s a good reason -and one’s personal preconceptions about who autistic people are and what autism is, are not such good reasons. If an autistic person’s bad behavior is called out, they get a chance to explain themselves so that people understand their behavior to mean something else than it would mean if a neurotypical person was behaving similarly, in case the reason behind is actually autism, and correct their behavior in case it is not. Simply assuming that behavior is caused by autism and tolerating it silently does favors to no one.

 As tempting as the idea of getting excused from working on self improvement by appealing to my autism for my every mistake and shortcoming, doing so would also mean dehumanizing and infantilizing myself because I would deny myself full moral agency that is normally assumed to adults not under protective custody. To hold autistic people responsible for their offensive behavior is to affirm that autists are equal adults capable of perceiving difference between right and wrong and correcting or at least explaining their behavior just like every other adult is expected to. The fact that we struggle with some issues is irrelevant because that is true for everyone, and besides, some virtues such as sense of justice  are easier for many autists than they typically are for neurotypical people.

People belonging to minorities find often, that everything they think, do, like or dislike is explained by referring to their minority status. Muslims can’t just like vegetarian foods. No, Muhammed has chosen vegetarian lunch because his religion compels him to do so. A lesbian can’t simply like to dress in black- that must be some sort of lesbian thing…and so on. Thinking members of any minority solely as manifestations of that minority overlooks their individuality, complexity and the sort of humanity that is automatically granted to members of majority. Once again, autists are no different from other minorites in being much more than walking and (often) talking Manifestations of Autist.

We are just people. All sorts of people.