A stigma is, by definition, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” Simply put, stigmas surrounding disabilities are frustrating and dehumanizing on so many levels. The way we treat each other goes a long way to making this world a better and safer place for all of us.
As research for this blog, I asked for feedback from the autism community, both on social media and from those I know. I also spoke with people who may not be on the spectrum. I was able to compile a massive list of stigmas surrounding autism and other mental health factors. In compiling these lists, we also discussed how we may be able to change that view and help people better understand one another.
What’s one thing you think of when you think of autism? Is it “Rain Man” or maybe “Temple Grandin”? Do you think, “what’s their focus? Animals, anime or trains?” What about hyper fixations? The stimming that they do or flapping of their hands and arms? Or perhaps their incredible intelligence? How much or how little do they talk? They must be great with animals! These are all examples of stigmas on the autism spectrum.
Some of the feedback I received was that people on the spectrum get spoken down to a lot and made to feel inferior to people who don’t have it. I get where some people may be coming from, however, the tone comes off as dehumanizing or degrading to another person. If people don’t do it to each other, don’t do it to people on the spectrum. Another person said they felt like their actions were being misunderstood as rude or miserable. I would like to point out that people on the spectrum have a hard time socializing let alone expressing emotions. It’s hard enough to multitask when people are trying to converse. If something feels off to you, pull the person aside and talk to them politely. There is a chance they may not have realized it and it is better than calling it out in front of others.
Another harmful and dehumanizing stigma is that people on the spectrum don’t have empathy or are incapable of such things. While it may appear true on the surface, this is not even close to the truth. People on the spectrum have been shown in many studies to have a different way of expressing those emotions or their empathy differently than the average person. What they understand on surface is not inherently the whole truth. What is lacking is cognitive empathy which is the ability to predict another’s thoughts and emotions. This would be the “reading between the lines” kind of empathy. What they lack in one skill, they make up for in other areas known as compassionate empathy and affective empathy. We are often told that we are overreacting to something. Chances are that it could be something else triggering the responses as well. Figuring out what may be overstimulating to us isn’t always cut and dry for others. Just because we process things differently doesn’t mean we can act differently as an excuse.
Verbal vs non-verbal. I can’t begin to tell you how pervasive this stigma is. It was mentioned over and over in my research how people generalize that everyone on the spectrum can either talk or not say anything at all. While both are true, they are both just one side of the spectrum. Just like autism itself, verbal and communication is a spectrum. Anecdotally, those who can talk are generally sought out because of their special interests and for being able to help others better understand what is going on in their life. My own fixations ranged from horses to Metallica to even Sherlock Holmes.
There’s also stimming that people find inherently bad or negative. Stimming simply is a term that is a shortened term to mean “stimulating”, it is a self-soothing technique many neurodivergent people tend to use to bring themselves down from high stress or high emotional situations. The consensus being that stimming shouldn’t be done. While that may be true in some cases, it is not always a bad thing. The thing here to remember is if it isn’t harmful, it should be fine. It’s different, sure. Maybe it looks “weird” or “bad” to others. Even people who aren’t on the spectrum have self-soothing habits. It may be rubbing their neck or playing with or even tugging on their hair. These self-soothing actions are neither good nor bad – they just are. Being judged for things that soothe us, however, is incredibly dehumanizing. A simple suggestion here would be to help them find something that could work better or just don’t mention it. If it is hurting the person, then go ahead and help them redirect their emotions or energy into something that would be better suited to the situation. Or see if the person can tell you what’s going on. Find a pillow or something soft if they are harming themselves.
The fact that women in general are told they are overreacting or get treated differently is beyond me. By in general, I mean both for neurotypical and for those in the general neurodiverse community. That stigma alone bothers me personally, for many reasons. One of those reasons is women are often told they couldn’t possibly have autism. As if autism only affects men. This simply isn’t true. All sexes can be on the autism spectrum. It is detrimental to people’s mental and emotional health and wellbeing to have a possible diagnosis dismissed simply because you don’t have all the facts.
There are many more stigmas we could discuss here, perhaps we’ll add a follow up post in the future. For now, I hope this helps break at least some of the stigmas around the autism community. I may only be one voice but as I learn and grow, I discover so much more about myself and everyone that is around me. We learn from each other. Even teachers learn from their students in some ways.
Helping adults on the spectrum find purpose and proving exposure are only part of the how CA Human Services helps clients launch into independent living. Read additional blogs about CA’s programs here: Residence Program and here: Successfully Independent
To learn more about CA’s Programs visit our website: https://www.cahumanservices.org/adolescent-and-adult-programs/
CA is here if you need assistance with information or resources for supporting yourself or loved one with autism. Simply call our toll-free number 800-649-8481, send us an email, or search our resources for autism related services throughout Virginia.