Guess what! My neighbor just told me a story about how people like you (he’s never met you, he’s just generalizing) are stupid, lazy, and probably shouldn’t even exist. You really want to hear all about it, right?
What if I approach it differently, and say, “My neighbor said the most horrible thing about people with autism yesterday, you would not believe it! He actually said ___________! Isn’t that disgusting?! I’m so grossed out!”
That’s not an unusual way to start a conversation, after all. And you all know what happens next–the audience commiserates, many of them tell additional stories of Things Bigots Said, and everyone involved pats each other on the back for being good allies who are not at all “like that.”
But what if they kind of… are?
I’ve been in the audience for the stories of Things People Say About Autistics. They’re usually shared by someone close to an autistic kid and they go into detail about the things a random old lady at the grocery store said, or how their grandpa blah blah blah.
These stories enter my life because people either tell them in mixed company where I’m present (most frequent method) or they tell them to me directly (much less common; I’m a hermit for good reason after all). It always plays out the same way:
- Storyteller (neurotypical) hears someone saying a bigoted thing against autistics.
- Storyteller goes to friend or group and shares story in an “isn’t that terrible” context, even though there are autistics in the audience.
- Storyteller usually expects praise for their outrage over the bigotry they shared. If others are in the audience, they will always chime in with their shared outrage as well. Sometimes they share similar, additional stories.
- If any autistic person at hand expresses discomfort at the story being shared at all, they are scolded and told to get over it, because the NTs must be able to share these things in the name of “fighting injustice.”
- If the uncomfortable autistic persists, they are usually criticized for getting emotional or taking things personally, and it is implied (or stated outright) that they can return to the conversation if/once they are able to detach themselves from their feelings on the matter.
- The autistic, being the actual subject of the prejudice (that was only moments earlier roundly denounced, remember), is silenced, alienated, and othered once again as everyone else claps themselves on the backs for being such great friends and allies. (Bonus points apply if one or more of these “allies” expresses pride in being able to discuss such sensitive topics without getting emotional.)
Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, start paying attention. A mildly social person will probably see it happen somewhere within a week. (It happens in all spheres of bigotry, not just ableism–you’ll see it with racist, classist, everything-else stuff, too.)
Why I don’t want to hear it
“So what are the actual problems with these stories? I don’t get it. You’ve explained that you’re bothered by them but I still don’t understand why. Isn’t it a good thing that people are upset by discrimination? Shouldn’t we expose these things for what they are?”
Great questions! You’re my favorite reader, did you know? Yes and yes. But the ugly truth that most people who aren’t directly affected by slurs and prejudices fail to understand is that people who are affected by bigotry hear it every day. Literally, every day. As an autistic person I am exposed every single day, usually multiple times, to appalling words and actions about people like me. I hear or read dehumanizing things several times a day. The only way I can avoid it is by staying home, staying offline, and not talking to anyone. (Thanks again, “autism awareness.”)
Which means I don’t need to hear stories about bigotry towards autistics second hand from my friends, too. I know there’s discrimination. I know people say terrible things. I know it because I hear it a thousand times more often than you do.
A lot of times, I don’t have any outrage left. I’m too tired for that. So when I hear you being outraged and expressing disbelief that anyone could actually say those things in real life, it’s depressing. It feels like you weren’t listening to me all the times I’ve tried to tell you how people are, like you wouldn’t believe it until you heard it yourself. Like you didn’t care that I have to hear it day in, day out–you’re only outraged now because you had to hear it this one time.
Most people are accustomed to ignorance of the injustices surrounding them. And frankly, most people like it that way.
Trigger warnings aren’t going to help
If you’ve been in the more liberal spheres of the internet for any length of time, you know what someone is going to suggest here: “Well let’s put a trigger warning on it so people who are affected by these things don’t have to read them.”
Have I mentioned that I’m glad you’re here? I’m so glad you’re here. Stick with me just a few more minutes and I’ll explain why the good intentions behind trigger warnings are actually making things worse in this context.
1. They’re used as silencers
Sometimes people do put TWs on these posts, or the verbal equivalent on a conversation, and an autistic decides to stick around anyway. They then get upset, because dude, this is a crappy thing to say. Why are you exposing us all to this garbage when we just wanted to hang out and get Netflix recommendations?
The response every time (Every. Time.): “Well I put a trigger warning on it, what did you expect? Maybe you shouldn’t have read it if you weren’t able to handle it without getting upset.”
Hopefully everyone understands that this isn’t a great thing to say to someone, but just in case: this is not a great thing to say to someone. Especially someone who you’ve just been claiming to defend, probably not even ten minutes ago.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: When people get upset about something you said, even if you didn’t mean any harm, hear them out. Because guess what: we know more about what the prejudice we face looks like than you do. I promise.
2. They’re used as covers for people to say awful things
This ties into #1 above, but cleverly maintains its own identity with a jaunty cap and distinctive shoe laces. I don’t know what the deal is, but once the topic is broached suddenly everyone is sharing tidbits from their favorite Archie Bunker, stories and words they hopefully would not otherwise feel comfortable plastering all over.
Dudes, no. This is a painfully transparent circus show of everyone trying to impress each other with who can be the most outraged, and, by extension, the mostest fairest of all. Except, again, they’re actually alienating the people they’re claiming to support. Which, if they care at all about what they’re claiming to care about, should result in all kinds of embarrassment and shame and shuffled feet and mumbled excuses about needing to find the bathroom. But oddly, it doesn’t.
If your inclination is to put a TW on something, maybe ask yourself: Does this actually have value to anyone? Is sharing this going to make anyone’s life the slightest bit better? Or am I counting on shock value to carry the conversation?
3. They produce anxiety in the people we’re supposedly trying to “protect”
Here is my thought process when I see a trigger warning on a thread involving autism in any way:
- Oh great, what are they saying now
- Ugh, I mean are they going to say that they’re abusing their kid, or enabling someone else to do it, or is someone expressing their own awful feelings about us or what
- I really don’t even want to deal with this right now, but if my “friends” are in there grasping for ally cookies or spouting something ridiculous then I do want to know that, because I’m better off without them and should know sooner rather than later…
- If I open it: “Uuuugghhh why?!”
- If I ignore: “…so I’m just going to keep wondering what everyone is saying about me that they think I shouldn’t read, I guess. Obviously it’s all good things.”
This isn’t going to be exactly the same for everyone of course, but I think more of us (“us” being anyone affected by one of the myriad prejudices out there) are in this scope of reaction than not. And naturally if we do respond, we’re back where we started a thousand or so words ago with being shushed and (not very) politely scooted out the door.
So what are we supposed to do?
Sometimes (often) we hear people say awful things that are truly upsetting, even when they’re not directed at us. I’m white and straight, but still get angry when I hear people say racist or heterosexist things. Treating people with equal respect has always been a core value for me. I get why you’re upset, and I’m actually really glad that you are; It means you care. Caring is good!
The next step in caring, though, is to prioritize the feelings of the people actually hurt over the person witnessing the hurt. Here’s what you can do:
Listen to us when we say bigotry is alive and well
I’m pretty vocal in the cause of autistic rights these days, and almost all of it falls on apathetic ears. That’s unfortunate but expected. What gets me is that most of the people I hear complaining about others’ bigotry are the same people who ignore me when I speak up about it.
To be fair, sometimes they don’t ignore me entirely. Sometimes they do respond, and it’s usually to make excuses for what the person said/did (“he probably had good intentions”), to defend things like child abuse as somehow justified, or to tell me that I’m misinterpreting things. In case it needs to be said: all of these things make it worse, and ignoring me would be preferable in these cases.
And yet they’re still more than happy to whine in shared spaces about how hard ableism is for them to cope with.
Confront the bigotry where you find it
If your aunt is a turd who thinks autism can be “fixed” with a good spanking or thirty, tell her how ridiculous she is. If your company is sponsoring an Autism Speaks walk, have an impassioned conversation with your marketing director about how much damage the organization does to autistics, AS quotes amply provided. If your friend is making fun of someone’s stims, give them every evil eye you’ve got and tell them how wretched they’re being.
Every bigot you don’t deal with is one we have to. Help us out.
Find a private place to vent
Talk to your therapist or NT friends in private. That means where we don’t have to hear it. This helps ensure that you’re actually doing extra work to support us rather than speaking over us. For bonus points, stick in a reminder that autistics are hearing these things more often, and if it’s this upsetting for you, imagine what it feels like for us.
Thanks for being upset
I mean that–thank you. Please, please continue. We need you, need everyone, to be a lot more upset about these things.
Autistics are abused, dehumanized, and dismissed constantly, and not only is it not taboo, it’s not even frowned upon. It’s mainstream, and the things we endure are lauded and considered inspiring. Most people haven’t even considered that prejudice against autistics exists, let alone that they could be contributing to it.
So keep being upset. Keep speaking up. Keep being disgusted and outraged and heartbroken. Just remember that however much it hurt for you to hear it, it’s worse for us. Help ensure that we can get a break from it for a few minutes.