This post is inspired by a collection of things that have happened over the past few weeks. I have seen people, who appear to genuinely want to be allies to autistic people, stuff up and stuff up big. So hopefully this list is useful.
1. Don’t explain your perspective as a neurotypical person to autistic people
I realise that this is done with good intentions, but the underlying assumption is that autistic people are unaware of neurotypical perspectives. It’s pretty condescending. Think about it for a moment: we live in a world that is dominated by neurotypical people. We don’t live in little bubbles within that world. We are really aware of neurotypical perspectives. I could go so far as to suggest that we might have greater insight into neurotypical perspectives than they even have.
Why would I suggest that? Well, if we consider what WEB Du Bois’s book, The Soul of Black Folk, and his parallel essay, The Soul of White Folk, he pretty much suggested the same thing about how people of colour have a greater understanding of the meaning of whiteness than white people do.
As a white person, I can fully accept that because we can go through our entire lives without ever having to question why we are the dominant group in most societies.
But a minority group has to learn the ways of the dominant group. The dominant group takes the way they do things and the things they think for granted. They don’t have any reason to ask themselves why they do thing in different ways so they never really explore them.
So, please don’t assume that autistic people have never heard the neurotypical perspective. We have. Those perspectives dominate our world to such a pervasive degree that we can’t help but be acutely aware of them. The difference though is we probably question them more, and so our understanding of them may have greater depth than that of a neurotypical person.
2. Don’t ever attempt to tone police autistic people
If you don’t understand what tone policing is, this post from Love Explosions gives a couple of examples. Basically, people suggest that if we, as autistic people just communicate in a nicer, calmer, more palatable way, then maybe people will listen to us more.
There is a lot wrong with that suggestion, but I’ll highlight two issues:
Firstly, autistic people have different communication styles to neurotypical people. That’s one of the key traits common to autistic people. So, telling us to communicate in your preferred style is simply a total lack of accommodation.
Secondly, when people are fighting for their rights, asking nicely for them can be pretty ineffective most of the time. This is not unique to the autistic rights movement. This applies to any equal rights movement. Of course, diplomacy can be effective too, but when you look at other successful rights movements, you will see that there were a number of people fighting for those rights without being diplomatic about it.
The diplomatic people come in after the activists. They get listened to because of the activists. You have to be assertive when fighting for rights to bring attention to the issues. Once the attention is there, then it’s the time to ask nicely. To find out more about how this works, please read this post from Neurodivergent K.
3. Don’t expect autistic people to pander to parents’ feelings
Yes, we know that it can hurt when neurotypical parents get told that the way that they’re parenting may be wrong. Do you want to know how I know that? As an autistic parent, I am continuously told by “experts” how my parenting style is wrong. Autistic people continuously struggle against the dominant narratives that tell us that, when we do things in ways that are natural for us, we’re wrong. So, really, we do understand what it’s like to have your feelings hurt when people question your actions.
Telling us that it hurts tells us that you do not realise that we go through that too, nor do you realise that we know how other people might feel. That comes down to the myth that we lack empathy or the ability to understand another person’s perspective. It is a myth. We don’t lack either of those abilities – we just express them in ways that may differ from that of neurotypical people.
4. Don’t leave if your feelings get hurt
Your feelings may very well get hurt. You may unintentionally offend us. We will point out when you have offended us, and when we do, please don’t leave because you feel hurt because you were wrong. You’re pretty much bound to offend us in the beginning. We know that. We accept that you’re learning. We will give you some latitude to learn, but you can’t learn unless we say what you’re doing wrong. Of course, once we have explained how you were wrong (again – see tone policing in point 2), then please do not double down on what you said because you’re feeling defensive about being hurt. Just take a few moments to learn from the experience.
5. Don’t call yourself an ally
Ally, in this context, is a verb. It is a doing thing. If you do any of the above, while claiming to be an ally, you are not an ally. More importantly though, and this might be hard to hear, you don’t get to decide if you’re an ally. That’s our decision to make. We will make that decision based on what you say, and more importantly, what you do. We will not make that decision on you saying that you are an ally. In fact, all of the true allies that I know have never once claimed to be allies. So, really, one of the marks of a great ally is that they never claim to be one, they simply do the things to make them one.
So, there’s the five things not to do if you want to be an ally. There are probably a whole lot more, but those are the four things that have come up, time and again, over the past few weeks.
So that’s what you mustn’t do.
Read Part 2 to find out what you could do instead.