If you spend any amount of time on the online autism community then I am sure you will know how much people with autism hate being told they don’t look autistic. But what you might not know is just why saying this is so offensive to many autistic people, and to the parents of autistic children.
Let’s have a look at all the steps that go in to making this one of the worst things you can say to someone with autism.
- It assumes autism has a look: Kind of the most obvious point; by saying someone does not look like they have autism you are stating that some people do look like they have autism. Therefore, in turn saying that you can spot autism just by looking at someone.
- Dividing people: But even though you are implying autism has a look, and is something that can be spotted at a glance, you don’t think the person you are talking to looks autistic. So they can’t be autistic in the same way as those other autistics, not like the ones who look You might not mean this, but that is what it sounds like.
- Normal: When people say “You don’t look autistic” they most often mean it as a good thing. The idea being that they are telling you that you look normal, so to speak. But think about this – they are saying that because you don’t look like you have autism you look like someone without autism, someone in their eyes who is normal. But you still have autism. So they are pretty much saying “Wow you look so normal, for someone who is not normal.”
- Better/less: If you are told you do not look autistic, and you understand that someone is trying to compliment you by saying this, think about what that compliment means. As I said it means they think you look “Normal”. As if you were `less autistic` than someone else. Now what this does is firstly to play down how your autism might impact on you, but also to put a whole mass of unknown autistic people below you in their eyes. As if you look normal, you pass for not being autistic, and somehow that makes you better than people who they can tell do have autism.
- Identity: Some people like the idea of being able to hide their autism from the outside world. And yes I can see how it might help, in terms of getting a job and such, but at the same time there are other people who see their autism as integral to what makes them who they are. To be told that they don’t look autistic can be very upsetting for that reason alone.
So those are a few of the things that I think can be taken from the statement “You don’t look autistic.” Am I being over-the-top, and reading too much in to it? Well, No. Autism does not have a look. You can’t tell just from seeing someone if they are autistic or not. So to say to them “You don’t look autistic.” is at best silly. And at worse offensive. If you have said it at any point don’t worry, this is not meant to call you out, and make you feel bad. It’s just meant to make you think a bit more about what you say. We all say silly things from time to time, but the key thing is to listen to people when they explain why said things are offensive or rude, and to learn. Next time, when someone tells you they are autistic just think for a second before you answer them, and try to avoid giving offence.
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