Microagressions faced by autistic people

There are oppressions happen on a smaller scale and involve harm that is less obvious or less immediately threatening, but nonetheless painful in a more insidious way.

These are called microaggressions, defined by psychologist Derald Wing Sue as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”

Initially used with regard to race, this concept has also been extremely useful in other contexts as well, such as gender identity, religion/irreligion, etc.  This blog post is directly inspired by the article here on Everyday Feminism about microagressions faced by secular people, which was reposted by noted blogger Greta Christina on her Facebook feed, which is where I saw it.  As I read through the article with interest, I remembered the conversation we had most recently at Taco Cabana after our monthly Adult Aspie support group and realized this rubric fits ASD people as well.

So without further ado, here are some common Microggressions faced by autistic people navigating the neurotypical world

1) “….Huh, you don’t LOOK autistic….”

Sorry for not conforming to your preconceived notions about what Autism “really looks like” based on movies or maybe this one person you know…it’s a daily struggle for many of us to “pass” for “normal” and costs a lot of emotional energy and causes a well of anxiety within us, too.  Some of us have had years of practice, thank you very much.  Some of us can and do make eye contact, while others have learned to pretend to do so (they’re actually looking at an invisible spot on your forehead, say, or a mole next to your nose, say).  We live in a world built by you and not designed for us.  Some of us have learned to cope better than others, some of us are more profoundly disabled than others.  It’s a *spectrum*, which means we have a wide range of individuals with varying levels of both ability and disability along a continuum.

2) “You can’t have Autism, you can show emotions and even express empathy….”

This one makes you want to put a foot or fist through a wall, am I right?  Or at least imagine doing so.  And sadly this microaggression sometimes comes at us from mental health professionals of a certain vintage, still clinging to Leo Kanner’s much narrower conceptions of Autism.  It is heartbreaking to read account after account of UK Aspies in particular who are denied official diagnoses by health professionals on this basis but who are obviously Aspie from their mannerisms and the content of their internet postings in our Aspie-centric groups online.  We are arguably the real experts and are very skilled at recognizing our own.  We’re not all emotionless robots or cool Mr. Spocks out there, though we may come across that way in certain contexts.  My heart goes out to my fellow ASD people who are discriminated against in this manner by professionals still in the grips of outmoded ideas.  But this microaggression also comes at us everyday on the street from lay neurotypicals as well.  The empathy question in particular is complicated and evolving.  It’s too weighty a topic to go into much detail here, but I’d wager that it is often a case of lack of awareness written off by Neurotypical observers as lack of empathy rather than true lack of empathy that one would expect from psychopaths and sociopaths.  Sometimes we’re very empathetic and full of emotions, but it is so cognitively overwhelming at the moment that we suck at expressing it adequately.  Our timing may be off due to delayed processing.  I think one’s empathy can be exercised and cultivated my mindfulness, by reading fiction, or by viewing works of fiction in film and television, such as watching anime with well developed characters that have rich emotional lives.  The more one is exposed to this media, the more one learns through observation and identifying with certain characters.  At bottom this exercises and deepens one’s empathy…or at least that’s what I believe.  A t-shirt I see online that makes me smile reads: “I love Anime! and like 3 other people.”; As I’ve written elsewhere, we ASD people are what statisticians call “overrepresented” in Anime fandom, e.g. there’s more of us concentrated there than one would expect from just by chance from our overall numbers in the population.  I think Anime in particular allows us to let our guard down and just FEEL fully, in a safe environment, especially when viewed alone.  I feel like since my diagnosis, and all the anime I’ve seen between then and now, I have learned and cultivated my empathy and am in general a more empathetic person today than I was in 2010.

3) “You can’t have autism, you’re a girl”

My friend Michelle Vines has literally written the book on that, and I have nothing further to add.

4) “Isn’t autism only something kids get?  Don’t they grow out of it?”

Motherfucking Leo Kanner.  *Sigh*  No and NO.  You don’t grow out of it, it’s part of who you are.  People learn to cope, they learn social norms by often painful trial and error leading to spiraling depression and anxiety as we work things out, hopefully not giving into despair and suicide along the way.  We cultivate our empathy through practice, exposure and mental exercise.  Yet as much as we learn to adapt, I gotta be honest with you.  Sometimes we just need some alone time away from everyone, or just with our fellow ASD peeps.  We autistic folk have a pretty special bond when we connect in small, mutually supporting groups, taking a break from the neurotypical world around us.  I better understand now why all the black kids used to sit together at lunch, away from the rest of us in school.  Sometimes they just needed that close connection to heal and to bond before heading back to class to deal with the rest of us.

5)  “Oh, you have autism?  You must be like a computer genius or something, right?  Why are you still living with your parents instead of out making bank in Silicon Valley?”

This one is pretty personal.  #NotAllAspies, am I right?  *Sigh*  I’m moderately competent around computers & online stuff. I’m not completely clueless.  But I’m a liberal arts nerd, a verbal Aspie.  I do foreign languages and history and film studies & like to visit Art Museums and see foreign & artsy films & crap.  Math & computer programming just aren’t in my wheelhouse.  The tech savvy Aspie is a common thing, but it’s a stereotype and again not all of us live up to it 100% (see Microagression #1 above).

And it took my diagnosis to finally stop beating myself up about my various job failures resulting time and again in a failure at being able to live independently and maintain my own apartment away from home.  I’ve been able to manage it for stretches, even years at a time, but it never seems to last, and I always find myself landing at home with mom & dad again.  This is actually surprisingly common among Asperger men and so I learned to stop feeling ashamed of myself and stop beating myself up about it.  Hearing other Aspies’ stories about being bullied at work and mistreated by vindictive managers lets me know I am far from alone in my troubles, that my story is not some unique failing on my part, but part of a trend of living in a hostile, often ignorant and uncaring world that is grossly unfair to anyone who steps out of line or is “different” from the predominant norm.

I never thought of these things in terms of “microaggressions” before, but I think the framing fits.  What microaggressions have you experienced as an Autistic person?  Feel free to share with us in the comments section of this post!




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