7 Ways to Be An Ally to Autistic People

I don’t have anything fancy for New Year’s (okay, being completely honest, I had other deadlines this week I worked on first and finished this with 10 minutes before the automatic email goes out XD), but if one of your resolutions is to be a greater ally to autistic people, perhaps this may be useful :).

Honestly don’t feel like a lot of intro is needed for this one.  Started thinking about practical ways people at large could make the world a friendlier place for autists.  It made a nice list.  Disclaimer that this is just my perspective based on personal experience and what friends have complained about, not a comprehensive guide that covers everything relevant.

#1: Remember that the way you experience the world isn’t universal, even if many share it.  I feel like the heart of a lot of problems for us, and a lot of seemingly harmless social interactions that can sting over time, goes back to people not really comprehending that other people may have genuinely quite different experiences than them.  Just because most people don’t have problems with a specific indoor light level, for example, doesn’t mean there aren’t a minority who will find it physically painful.

#2: Give people space to get away for a bit if need be.  For example, if you’re hosting a party, let people know where they can find a quiet, non-social room if they start getting overwhelmed by the people and noise.  When I went to a friendsgiving dinner a year or two with a lot of people in a small apartment, the hosts officially announced that the bedroom that served as the coat dump was also open to anyone who wanted to just sit in a corner when they got overstimulated.

#3: Don’t make light of serious questions.  This is something that annoys me personally.  Joking around and whatever is perfectly fine, but sometimes when I can’t figure out if people are being serious or just joking and ask for a quick clarification, they either refuse to answer or actively make my question part of the banter like it wasn’t meant to be serious.  Don’t do this to people, it’s rude.  If someone asks a question about context or how they’re supposed to interpret someone’s tone, just pause for ten seconds and give a straight answer, and everyone will be happier in the end.

#4: Seek out openly autistic people / sources when trying to learn about us.  A lot of the info from big orgs like Autism Speaks is actually by/for neurotypicals rather than actually focusing on our own experiences and what we want needs-wise, so even if you mean well, you can end up being hurtful if you just trust whatever sources you find on the first page of Google and start using that information seriously.  Chris Bonello of Autistic Not Weird, and Matthew The #ActuallyAutistic Coach are two good community sources.
(Note that when I say ask the community, I’m thinking public figures, advocates, online writing by autistic people, etc.  While you can certainly ask about their experiences or whatever if they’re fine with it, don’t put the burden of educating you on all things autism on some random autistic friend who’s just trying to leave their life in peace.)

#5: Be open to other forms of communication besides spoken.  There are multiple ways to get a point across besides using mouth words, so don’t assume someone “can’t communicate” simply because they can’t or don’t want to have a spoken conversation specifically.

#6: Don’t make fun of people for harmless things, regardless of if you know they’re autistic.  Sometimes I’ve heard the argument that “I wouldn’t make fun of someone for being autistic!” but the person on the receiving end was harassed on other grounds like being “weird” or “nerdy” or “socially inept,” etc.  Someone is exactly the same person whether they publicly label themselves autistic or not, so you are in fact making fun of autism if you think the traits are fair game in the absence of a supposed-to-be-legally-protected label.  And also like, if they’re not harming anyone, why should anyone be made to feel like they can’t be their natural self, regardless of neurotype?

#7: If you want to learn more, read the ANW 2022 Autism Survey.  It’s the best collection I’ve found of information on a wide range of things about us, from preferred language to social concerns to intersectionality to opinions on ABA to more, in one, not-all-that-long-to-read place.  (I’m not affiliated with this in any way if this looks like I’m trying to sell you something – I just simply like it that much.)

As a closing, I’ll just point back at #1, and the fact that this is just a beginning list.  Different people may have a lot of more specific or different accommodation requests than I’ve mentioned here; trust that they probably know what they’re talking about and be open to working with them, even if it doesn’t quite make sense to you. 

Happy New Year!

P.S. See also Perfect Number’s response in the comments for more ideas.

2 thoughts on “7 Ways to Be An Ally to Autistic People”

  1. Good list! I have a few suggestions too:

    1. Respect people’s consent about if they don’t want to be touched. When I was a little kid, I didn’t like being tickled, but it was never an option to just tell people “I don’t like to be tickled” and expect them to respect that. When I was taught about how it’s bad if “someone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable”, I understood that they only were referring to touching a child *sexually*- and if I didn’t like *non-sexual* touch, well that was my problem, I was “overreacting.”

    I remember one time I met a child whose mom said we can’t tickle her because “she really doesn’t like it” and I was SO FASCINATED, like what criteria did this child meet that she gets to be recognized as “really doesn’t like” to be tickled and therefore everyone is required to respect her consent? Can *I* also get that status???? I assumed that her feelings about it must be much more negative than mine, because nobody ever gave me the option of just saying I don’t want to be tickled and expecting people to respect that.

    2. If someone doesn’t like some sensory thing, take it seriously and work with them to figure out what would help to make it better. For example, one time we were taking our son to the doctor, and the doctor’s office had a printer that was loud, and my son covered his ears and was distressed by the sound. (I have no idea if he is autistic or not- he’s only preschool age. But I’m autistic.) Anyway he didn’t like the printer sound, and somebody (the nurse? I can’t remember who) told him to be brave or whatever. But I told him, we can step out of the room for a minute while the printer is running. Like, if he doesn’t want to be there when the printer is running, then he doesn’t have to be there. Why would he have to stay there and “be brave” about it- why not just leave and then come back when the printer is finished? Why force someone to endure a sensory situation that they don’t like?

    A lot of times the things that will help autistic people are really small things (ie, let’s step out of the room for 1 minute) which shouldn’t be a big deal. People should totally be allowed to do that without anyone making it into a huge problem. And it really makes a big difference for the autistic person, to not be forced to stay in that situation.

    And I think especially with children, if they have feelings about something, you should take it seriously and talk to them about it, instead of treating them like they’re “overreacting” and just need to get over it.

    1. Yeah, physical touch in general is one of those things I think we as a society need to get better at respecting boundaries for. It’s not just sexual touch – what about all the times kids are told they HAVE to hug their grandparents or visiting relatives or the like when they don’t want to, for example? We’re not setting people up to understand their right to boundaries if we only talk about one specific area and then don’t model it anywhere else.
      Someone asked me the other day what kind of plant I would be if I were one, and I said a cactus because I get stabby when people touch me XD.

      I feel like that’s a contradiction that a lot of people don’t realize as such. “I need this easy accommodation to be able to function well here.” “Get over it, it’s not a big deal.” Well if it’s not a big deal as you say, why not just shrug and do it instead of arguing about whether it matters? The more you’re annoyed by this, the more it would in fact seem to be a big deal actually.

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