Expecting ways of communicating to define an Autistic person

Feedback is welcomed, but please see the bottom of the post first.*

Autistics have largely argued that no one should assume we are alike. Our differences include communication styles, external presentations, or supports needed. Being human like anyone else, we also differ in goals, interests, and hobbies. We’re all still Autistic, but we need others to stop basing all their assumptions on that. In particular, people make assumptions from communication styles. Some of us communicate with significant support, little support, or somewhere in between. Some of us use assistive technology and some of us don’t. Some of us don’t have access to language most people understand. And defining us based on communication style we use (or off any one or two traits) is unhelpful.

Yet it’s not just an issue of non-autistic people making snap judgments. Some Autistics who talk neurodiversity on the Internet also like to ascribe certain Autistic traits to select narratives. One such narrative is that those of us who identify ourselves as speaking Autistics tend to be non-visibly autistic and have few direct support needs. Often, the narrative includes the idea that we’ve learned how read non-autistic people’s behavior or at least mimic it. Many posts intended to be helpful for community members are written through this lens. There are Autistic people who fit this narrative, and there is nothing wrong with that. The issue occurs when the narrative doesn’t make room for other people’s stories.

I identify myself as a mostly-speaking Autistic, and I don’t fit well into that narrative. My communication style is assumed to be “expressive” because I talk out loud most of the time. I’ve written about it before in the blog post “You call me expressive and miss the struggle it takes.” There, I wrote about my personal relationship with speech, and the incorrect inference someone made about me. They decided that I couldn’t have many support needs or real struggles with communication out loud.

But I do have a number of direct support needs, somewhere between “needs little to no direct support” and “has high direct support needs.” My mother, who lives several states away, attempts to provide what support she can, but I honestly need more in-person help. I am able to take care of my cat, but taking care of my own needs is harder. I am forced to navigate a system and a world not designed for me with very little built-in to help me. I also am not good at reading people, and it’s a challenge to mimic non-autistic people’s social norms. The majority of the time I also display body language and speech patterns that are visibly Autistic and/or neurodivergent.

Not all autistic people who speak the majority of the time are like each other, and it is harmful to assume this falsehood. I received and still get little support, in the past (such as during college) and now, when I need it. Many posts I see that are intended to be helpful for the type of Autistic they assume I am are actually not, either. And it harms Autistic people with higher support needs than mine, as well. The narrative doesn’t leave much room to presume competence (which is different than valuing a person only if they have some secret gift, which many seem to base their respect around). Few posts in the community are geared to be helpful for high-support Autistics who are very visibly so (Yes, I have admittedly written these posts before, and will probably mess up again in the future).

People who espouse this narrative seem to assume that other Autistics have the same struggles and the same strengths – and therefore there is no room to even consider what high-support Autistic people, and other people who don’t fit the narrative, can contribute to our movement. Non-autistic people should stop judging us from one or two features. But some in the Autistic community would do well to stop, too.

*(For the record – no, I’m not saying most of the people in the community make these kinds of assumptions. Just some do, but it still really needs to stop).

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4 thoughts on “Expecting ways of communicating to define an Autistic person

  1. This. Everyone I’ve known assumes an autistic is a savant or highly organized, and I am neither. Frankly, my executive function is a giant mess. I also happen to like talking to people (contrary to the stereotype) but that does take a lot out of me and I only realized that I had been reading what people say wrong.

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    • This is also why I struggle with what I could contribute to the autistic community that helps everyone. I want to write something about executive function, having heard a fair number of autistics mention problems with it, but I feel like it would only be helpful for a portion of the community not everyone

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  2. I used to co-run a mailing list for autistic people with daily living skills difficulties — trying to help each other because often nobody else would. And there I really learned the sheer range of people who have fairly high to very high support needs and often get the support outside the system or starve etc. because they can’t get it at all. Some of them could pass at least some of the time, some couldn’t, some could speak, some couldn’t, everything in between, and ‘passing’ and ‘speaking’ were not identical groups whatsoever. One of the most autistic-looking people I’ve ever met in person is also EXTREMELY verbal pretty much all of the time. She couldn’t pass if her life depended on it, like I think I pass better than her and I really… don’t pass well. I get frustrated with the way autistic people are stereotyped even by many autistic people, and also at the way very self-selecting groups of autistic people similar to each other will decide all autistic people are just like them. Or that all autistic people who can say things online are just like them. Or etc.

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