The Weight of Words

Dania Jekel, Executive Director, and Sonia Janks, Contributing Editor
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A few years ago, I transported and accompanied an 85 year-old community member I’ll call Alice to get a CAT scan at a local hospital. While the technician told us about the procedure, he kept speaking directly to me, even asking Alice a question while looking at me instead. I felt this was disrespectful to Alice, so I spoke up and let the technician know Alice was the one getting the CAT scan, not me. I’m not sure if it was her age or her autism (or both) that caused the technician to ignore Alice, but it wasn’t the first time I had observed this type of behavior in my professional and my personal life. 

So, while interviewing Nik about martial arts for this month’s newsletter, I was struck by the way he spoke about his interaction with his coach compared to the other professionals he encountered.

He said, “Well my head coach…was one of the first people that actually just talked to me like a normal person instead of trying to understand me as someone on the spectrum…. It helps to have someone have a conversation with me like they would anyone else as compared to social workers being like, ‘Okay, Nik. What are we going to do now?’”

As a social worker myself, Nik’s comment resonated with me. It brings to the fore the many ways those of us who are neurotypical can unintentionally say and do things that come across as patronizing, disrespectful, or invalidating to someone on the spectrum. Without realizing what we are doing, we can inadvertently impart messages that might be inaccurate and hurtful. These are types of microaggressions, and they can have a significant impact on the people who experience them.

These subtle messages when they happen once or over and over again can be internalized and can negatively affect someone’s perception of their abilities and wear away self-esteem. It reinforces stereotypes by perpetuating damaging and false messages about neurological differences.

Here are some of the common microaggressions that I have witnessed or I have heard consistently discussed by our community members:

  • Not speaking directly to the person.
  • Using patronizing or condescending language. (Such as, “I understand you are upset, but growing up is learning to accept life’s challenges.” Or, “When you’re a grown-up, you’ll understand.”)
  • Making decisions or doing things for someone else without being asked.
  • Making assumptions about someone’s ability just because they are autistic. (For example, saying, “You should add up the bill because people like you are good at math,” or speaking slowly when you know someone is autistic, assuming they have slow auditory processing.)
  • Dismissing or invalidating someone’s autism. (For instance, saying “You are too social to have autism,” or even just “I can’t believe you have autism!”) 
  • Assuming two people should be friends just because they are both on the spectrum.
  • Treating someone like they are much younger than they are.
  • Referring to autism as a disease or sickness. (Comments like, “I didn’t know you were suffering from autism.”)
  • Dismissing someone after disclosure or downplaying the validity of autism. (Saying things like, “Everyone is on the spectrum; I probably am too.”)

Microaggressions can also be indirect. Professionals also get comments, which are demeaning to both the professional and to the autistic individuals, such as, “You’re doing God’s work,” or “You are so wonderful to dedicate yourself to this kind of work.” Parents also receive offensive comments like, “I’m so sorry your child has that diagnosis.”

Even when a person thinks they are being understanding and empathetic when they say and do things like this, these kinds of comments can be taken very differently by someone with a different set of experiences. I know this is a complex and difficult issue, but it is just so important for all of us to think carefully about the words we say, the meaning we are intending, and how they may be misinterpreted by someone else.