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What Not to Say to Your Autistic Coworker: Common Microaggressions to Avoid


You may have heard the term microaggression. Usually, we hear it in reference to BIPOC or LGBTQIA2S+ group’s experiences in the workplace, or in social situations. It also applies to the Disability community, and thus the Autistic community.


"Microaggressions, while individually expressed, are a systemic problem at the core."

 

While all microaggressions are harmful, some come from a place of genuinely kind intentions and views that are based on misinformation that they have been exposed to. Microaggressions, while individually expressed, are a systemic problem at the core. This does not absolve the individual from responsibility to do better. We all need to be teachable and curious enough to learn and grow. Though the root cause is systemic, it is important to address it at the individual level.

 

When it comes to perceptions about autism, unfortunately a lot of misinformation exists, and the general public is unaware that this information is erroneous. Decades and decades of harmful and inaccurate narratives that we all need to unlearn.

 

Start by listening to Autistic people, not organizations of non-autistic people who have been getting it wrong for so long. Listen to our lived experiences and trust that our experiences are far more valid than the propaganda of these large non-autistic organizations who attempt to speak for us.

 

When you listen to Autistic people’s lived experiences, you will start to understand why these microaggressions are not the compliments that they are intended to be. Remember, impact is more important than intention when we are learning to reduce harm.

 

Let’s get into some of the most common, well intended but misguided microaggressions.

 

“You don’t look Autistic.”

Many Autistics have heard this time and time again. The truth is, our main complaint about this microaggression is that it is inaccurate to discuss outward appearance as autism is a cognitive disability, a neurotype; internal. The secondary issue we have with this is that it implies that autism is something “wrong” or “abnormal” about us and that since we look like anyone else, we must not be Autistic. There is nothing wrong with being Autistic. Yes, it is a disability, but there is nothing wrong with that either. We belong, just like everyone else.

 

“I don’t see you as Autistic.”

This one is similar to the previous one, but it implies that the person thinks they know us pretty well (and they might, to some extent) but that they judge you to be mostly “normal” or “acceptable” and therefore you either can’t be Autistic or it isn’t enough of who you are to be a burden to them.

 

“Don’t let autism define you.”

One of the main purposes of this statement is that non-autistics want to separate us from our autism. That simply is not possible. As a cognitive neurotype it informs and influences how we perceive and experience the world and how we react to it. It influences our health and our relationships. It influences our ability and opportunities for employment. It influences our sensory processing, our communication processing, and much more. There is no part of me that is not Autistic.

 

“Why do you make everything about Autism?”

Unlike the last one this one is usually due to non-autistic people becoming frustrated and tired of Autistic people talking about autism. However, much like the previous microaggression, the response is that every part of who we are is Autistic, from our sensitive hearing, to our deep knowledge of our special interests, and our literal interpretation of language. To us, everything is related to being Autistic. Additionally, for those of us who are identified as Autistic later in life rather than in childhood, autism may be a special interest of ours since we didn’t know about it for so long and we are trying to learn more and connect with our community and our culture.

 

“You can’t be Autistic. You’re not like my cousin’s best friend’s nephew (or any other relationship that you might use to compare one Autistic to another).”

It is true that we are not like all other Autistics, especially if you’re referring to a white male child (which is what the outdated view of autism looked like because of biased and limited research that occurred in the beginning and for many decades to follow) and the Autistic you are talking to may be an adult female (or non-binary) person. Many other aspects can affect the differences between us as well. One can be non-speaking while the other might be loquacious. They call autism a spectrum for a reason. While we share many similarities (otherwise we wouldn’t know about autism) each category of traits varies from one person to the next. We are all unique just like all non-autistics are unique from one another.


It is invalidating to hear someone tell you that your identity isn’t real or true. Many Autistics mask their traits for social assimilation as a safety measure. Additionally, many disabling traits are not outwardly apparent. Only the Autistic person can know how they experience their Autistic neurotype.

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“Be careful (to a pregnant woman that you might not know is Autistic) my (friend or family member) had (myth about cause of autism in utero like the flu or taking Tylenol) and their kid ended up Autistic.”


First of all, these are unfounded myths that do not cause autism in utero. It is hard enough for pregnant women to worry about all of the things they worry about during pregnancy, let alone the things they will worry about as a new mom once the baby comes. They don’t need inaccurate advice.


More importantly, there is nothing wrong with being Autistic or with having an Autistic child. Warning anyone that it could happen implies that it is bad, which is not only inaccurate, but it is stigmatizing.


To be honest, as an Autistic and a woman who has had two biological children, just don’t give any advice to pregnant women unless she is asking for a good obgyn, and you know one you would trust.

 

Anything about vaccines causing Autism.

Along similar lines, but far more prevalent and dangerous is the false theory that vaccines cause Autism. Let’s start with the basic fact we already covered, there is nothing wrong with being Autistic or having Autistic children. Secondly, even if it was undesirable (which it is not) to have an Autistic child or be Autistic ourselves, it is far safer to be Autistic than to catch one of the illnesses that we vaccinate for without the immunization protecting our bodies from the severity of a potentially fatal illness. Additionally, the study that claimed that vaccines cause Autism was proven false and the scientist who published it admitted to fabricating results. There is zero validity to this theory. Unfortunately, this theory has only gained momentum over time and despite being disproven, the harmful narrative has spread far and wide. This harms Autistic people because it stigmatizes autism as if it is a disease that we should attempt to prevent. Autism may be a disability, but it is not a disease, and it cannot be prevented, cured, or trained out of us, nor should it be. It harms everyone because it is preventing people from getting vaccinated.


So take this knowledge and align your good intentions with a positive impact.

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