The autism spectrum is a broad word that refers to a group of neurodevelopmental disorders known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It’s important to know that ASD is not a mental illness, but rather an issue of brain development that impacts social, emotional, and communication skills. The autism spectrum is defined by a range of restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities that are clearly atypical or excessive for the individual’s age and sociocultural context, as well as deficits in the ability to initiate and sustain social interaction and social communication. The more you know about autism spectrum disorder, the better equipped you are to interact with people who have it! Here are 6 things you should never say to someone on the autism spectrum.
1. “You’re Too Sensitive”
This comment dismisses or invalidates the other person’s emotions and feelings by implying they should be “tough” like everyone else is. It’s possible that the person you’re talking to is sensitive, but the way they see it, they aren’t able to communicate their feelings in a more effective manner. It’s not uncommon that a child with ASD has problems with self-regulation of their emotions that could result in meltdowns. Meltdowns are the end of a process that occurs over time, not the result of an immediate trigger. People on the autism spectrum often rely heavily on predictability to help them cope with change and transition, so hearing someone say “you should be tougher” could lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or misunderstood. If this is something you, your child, or someone else copes with, you should take a look at guidance on pivotal response training since it is a structured, effective model for impacting behavioral change. Although it won’t change the person’s neurology or brain development, it can improve their quality of life and happiness by providing coping skills for difficult situations.
2. “You Don’t Look Autistic”
How does somebody with an ASD look? What physical characteristics indicate that a person has autism? None, really. It’s impossible to identify someone who has autism based on physical appearance. However, apart from physical appearance, there are certain characteristics that are common among people with ASD. For example, they may fixate on certain objects or routines, be extremely specific about the way things are done (e.g., having to line up toys in a particular order), repeat words or phrases over and over again (echolalia), talk incessantly about their favorite topics, etc. But it’s important to note that an individual’s journey is very unique, and there isn’t one defining look for every person on the spectrum. Not everyone will have similar symptoms or challenges. There are many factors that go into it, including the severity of the disorder.
3. “You’re Weird”
It’s not surprising that people with autism are perceived in this way when they lack social skills or express themselves differently in social interactions. They may appear to be shy, do things out of order, talk about things no one else talks about (like animals, superheroes, trains, etc.), or ask weird questions. The truth is that they want to make friends and be included in social activities, but their autism symptoms get in the way of doing these things well (or at all). People with ASD may also lack certain skills like empathy and perspective-taking, which makes it difficult for them to understand the world from another person’s point of view. However, implying that a person is weird for having ASD is not only unhelpful, but it can also be extremely offensive. Instead of saying these things, try to understand the person’s perspective and where they are coming from.
4. “You Can’t Be Autistic… You’re Smart”
A common false assumption people make about ASD is that intelligence and autism are incompatible. On the contrary, people who have ASD (even those who have been diagnosed since childhood) often have average or above-average intelligence. They may do better in school than their neurotypical peers, but they can also struggle to keep up with their studies because of anxiety and sensory overload from being in a highly stimulating environment with multiple demands. Furthermore, it’s important to note that the person’s intellectual ability or IQ isn’t necessarily indicative of their autism severity. There are many people with ASD who have average to high cognitive abilities, despite having more severe symptoms overall.
5. “I’m Weird Sometimes… I Must Be Autistic”
This may sound like a compliment, but it’s not. Telling someone they’re “autistic” can be offensive because that term is usually used as an insult or to describe the behavior of someone who is rude and inconsiderate. It’s important to understand that having ASD is not the same as being weird. We all have some difficulties (e.g., obsessiveness, out-of-the-box thinking, difficulties with transitions), but those things aren’t limited just to people on the spectrum. Even neurotypical people can exhibit similar behaviors – it’s just that people with ASD are more extreme on these things. Furthermore, it’s not accurate to try to use common behaviors on the spectrum as a way of making sense of one’s own quirky personality traits. There are some really great descriptions of autism out there—you should check them out!
6. “You’re Just Spoiled”
Parents of kids on the spectrum often feel like they don’t know what to do. For example, it’s not uncommon for children with ASD to have tantrums or meltdowns if their family isn’t following a particular routine or schedule (or if they can’t find something that’s “lost”). Some parents think these behaviors are an attempt to be “diva-ish” or “bratty,” but it’s really not the case. Some kids with ASD get upset when they try to accomplish a lot of things at once, and will react by throwing a tantrum. And because people with autism process the world differently than neurotypicals, they don’t understand that other people can’t read their minds. This can make it difficult for them to express what they want or need, which is why they may get hysterical when faced with new demands on their time. So rather than calling these kids “spoiled,” it’s important to be understanding of the challenges that lie ahead.
If you know that someone has ASD, it can be very difficult to remember not to say certain things. However, these six tips should help guide your interactions with people on the spectrum. Remember: never make assumptions about their intelligence or what they’re capable of, don’t use insulting terms like, avoid asking weird questions or making strange comments, try understanding where they are coming from and how their perspective differs from yours, offer support rather than criticism when faced with new demands on time, and finally keep in mind that some behaviors which seem spoiled may just be a result of sensory overload or anxiety.