What to remember when you meet someone with autism

I have Asperger’s, but that doesn’t mean I like the nickname ‘Aspie’

April 2016 is Autism Month, raising awareness and giving autistic individuals (such as myself – I have Asperger’s Syndrome) a platform. Some of the representations of autistic people in the media and in everyday life are problematic though. These errors can result in unnecessary misunderstandings and frustration for everyone.

Firstly, it shouldn’t be difficult to agree that autistic people are individuals. Given this, you can see why referring to people with autism as the “autistic community”, which is commonly done, is misleading at best. This is because a community, by definition, cannot speak for everyone.

I should be treated as an individual, not as part of a ‘community’

If you would never ever say “the black community rejects this”, or “the LGBT community accepts this”, you’ll understand the importance of treating autistic people consistently and not assuming we’re all the same. I remember how once, when discussing (in an admittedly heated manner) the validity of certain naming strategies for autistic people, I was offered quite a painful education. Apparently, “the autistic community” had already settled the matter already. The implication was that anyone who dissented from “the community” was basically committing treason.

Some autistic individuals have chosen certain forms of naming, such as “aspie” or “autie”, to replace some more stiff or formal (medicalese) terms that they don’t identify with. Let me be clear that as with other forms of naming (e.g. queer, as used by a proportion of LGBT individuals), it must never be assumed that an autistic individual is necessarily comfortable with such names.

These names were not chosen by “the autistic community”, but by a proportion of autistic individuals. Only individuals can accept or reject a name.

The final thing to remember is that autistic people, as individuals with free will and individuality, cannot reasonably rely on a universal get-out-of-jail card for inappropriate behaviour. There are indeed certain circumstances where autistic individuals may genuinely err because of certain autistic traits. However, the idea that autism is an excuse for everything is demeaning to autistic individuals. Such excuse-making also risks legitimising sexism, racism, and other prejudices, on the ground that slights and wounds towards minority individuals are to be merely ignored and brushed over, provided only that the person who speaks out of turn is autistic.

Ultimately, not every autistic individual is able to “get it right” all the time, but it does not follow from this that every autistic person is incapable of apologising, or of reflecting on our actions. Respect for autistic people should never, ever come at the price of disrespecting other minority individuals.

Don’t assume you fully understand autism because of the programmes you’ve watched on TV

In the past, after any minor blunder, I used to cringe to my now ex-girlfriend in a wheedling tone: “It’s not myyy fault… I’m autistic!” In the context of this relationship, she understood this was not genuine excuse-making, but was a satirical reference to the sense of entitlement that can be found among a proportion of autistic individuals, as among other groups of people.

Admittedly, I cannot say I am 100 per cent free of entitlement, but self-parody is always a great safety-valve for letting out the smoke of frustration and despair that can easily suffocate me.

My girlfriend never treated me with the soft bigotry of low expectations. This was a great strength and if you know any autistic people, please be mindful of how a great number of us actually despise being humoured. For many of us, showing the same rigour you would show to anyone else is a priceless gift for which we cannot ever thank you enough.

Ultimately, engaging with autistic individuals is fundamentally a question of empathy; an essential character trait which knows no neurological boundaries. As the Negative Golden Rule of Confucius says: “Do not inflict on others what you would not like to be inflicted on you!”

That about sums it up for me.