Autistic people, adults and children, are infantilized, gaslighted, and manipulated regularly by society– individuals and institutions.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.
I asked some friends messages they receive from society that are gaslighting. In their words, this is what they had to say:
Note: Some of these may overlap, and some may not fit squarely within the definition of gaslighting; however, all contribute to the way in which society functions like a narcissistic parent with regards to how autistic people are perceived and treated.
1. Telling us that our sensory differences are “no big deal” and that we just need to “be resilient” and learn to deal with it. They assume their brains are the same as ours and assume we can habituate when we can’t, so instead force us to be in awful environments to try to “habituate us” to the stimulus. Which is just further traumatizing us. Thinking they get to decide what is loud, bright, painful, or tastes funny.
2. Not acknowledging that many of us grew up in environments that weren’t conducive to fostering our talents ended up as late bloomers, then assuming we’re Ne’er-do-wells or we’re unmotivated or unambitious. We just haven’t bloomed yet, and it’s a profound difference… but when we do bloom, look out.
3. When they claim to have empathy and that we don’t, but then only measure empathy in NT ways like eye contact or understanding NT behavior.
4. When ABA therapists claim that ABA therapy for 40 hours is not exhausting for small children because it’s “just play,” when social play can be beyond-exhausting over extended periods of time for autistic kids.
5. Their version of empathy is, “I accept and appreciate X, but if you become more like us, it won’t be a problem.” That ain’t empathy! And they yet tell us we’re the ones who lack empathy!
6. “You need to stop flapping your arms/rocking/bouncing your leg! People are going to think you’re crazy.”
7. Telling us our special interests are stupid, a waste of time, or not age/gender appropriate.
8. Telling us we don’t meet the neurotypical expectations that are set for us.
9. Not acknowledging the accomplishments we do achieve that are far beyond the neurotypical markers for “high achievement” in those specific areas.
10. NT person says something and autistic person misunderstands it: It’s the autistic person’s fault because they have processing difficulties.
Autistic person says something and NT person misunderstands it: It’s the autistic person’s fault because they have impaired communication skills.
This is in spite of the fact that generally, the autistic person is the one literally stating or carrying out the desired or indicated action, while the NT person is relying on assumption, innuendo, tone of voice, body language or other things that really aren’t communication.
The idea that the NT person could have communicated unclearly or ambiguously is NEVER EVEN CONSIDERED.
11. When they know you’re autistic, they invalidate you by saying that you can’t understand basic things, or they recreate stories using the subtext they inferred and twist the narrative to claim you’re purposefully upsetting, offending, inconveniencing, or provoking them. But, they know you’re autistic, thus they need to take your words literally, and you tell them to take you literally and there is no subtext… and they still insist the subtext is there.
12. Telling autistic kids that they are not playing “properly.” Isn’t the whole point of “play” that it should be enjoyable and free of arbitrary constraints or expectations for what one should do? Isn’t thinking in unique or unusual ways during play considered “creative” and therefore praiseworthy? It is… for neurotypical children.
15. I cannot begin to quantify how much I:
A. Hate manipulation
B. Am constantly accused of being a manipulator because it’s not believed that there is no subtext in my words
16. Telling autistic people that “no one else is interested in _____ except you,” as though this should be a criterion for what is a valid interest.
17. “Everyone is on the spectrum these days.”
18. Assuming that autistic people are less creative when we are really creative differently.
19. Assuming when hearing accounts of an incident from both an autistic and an NT that the NT person has a better understanding of the situation.
20. The assumption that autistic style and communication aren’t sexy; thinking adult autistics don’t want relationships or don’t make good partners.
21. Assuming that we have “black-and-white thinking” while at the same time making giant generalizations about autistic people and their “lack of theory of mind.”
22. Invalidating self-diagnosis while simultaneously claiming absolute knowledge on behalf of parents of autistic kids, or saying things like, “We’re all a little bit autistic,” as mentioned above.
23. Judging the impact of our autism based on how well we are “functioning,” aka masking, and assuming something is wrong when we take breaks to be ourselves.
24. Telling us to “be ourselves,” but when we actually are they basically say, “but not like that.”
25. Feeling sad for us when we decline to participate in social events (when the fact is that we are simply happier not participating).
26. Grieving over the fact that we are not like (their expectations for) “normal” people or mourning an autism diagnosis right in front of the autistic person.
27. Defining the goals of our “therapy” for us based on what they think we should want.
28. Treating medical/neurological issues like sensory processing disorder, dyspraxia, and ADHD like they are personality disorders or mental illnesses.
29. Assuming that we wish we were not autistic.
30. Telling us that they accept us for who we are, but asking us not to put a label on ourselves or to talk about our autism.
31. Being treated like an adult child after disclosing autism and getting the “bless your heart” treatment, or having people tell you “you’re doing great” for being able to perform basic tasks.
32. Judging the depth of our thoughts/feelings by our nonverbal communication– or lack thereof– because this is how they choose to express themselves. If our facial expressions and body language aren’t “expressive” enough, they insist that we are unfeeling.
33. Telling us, as children and even as adults, that we will grow out of our beliefs, style, and behaviors.
34. Not understanding why trying to “cure” us is so offensive.
35. Always being “ Too Much.” Living in a perpetual state of apology for my too-Muchness and being expected to come from a place of gratitude and deference for the rest of the world “tolerating” it.
36. Telling us that they can’t listen to us because we’re “rude” when we are giving our time and energy trying to teach them something about what it means to be autistic.
37. Telling us we need to “agree to disagree” about when they are doing things that are absolutely oppressive. Telling us we are being “rude” when we ask them to stop doing oppressive things, or using the “both sides” narrative and telling us that we should care about the feelings of people actively harming us.
38. Saying that if I just practice my social skills more and get out more, I will be more “normal.”
39. Claiming to support autistic people but only donating to and funding NT-run autism charities.
40. Telling autistic people that they are unqualified to discuss autism because they don’t have doctorates in a social science– whilst they themselves don’t have doctorates in a social science, and often have considerably less (or zero) relevant formal education than the autistic people at whom they are talking. Simultaneously, thinking their three years as being an “autism parent” are more valid than our lifelong lived experiences as autistics.
41. Telling young autistic children that they are smart and full of potential for qualities that 20 years later will deny them success and professional access.
42. Maintaining that we are always in the wrong as a de facto part of the autistic condition when any misunderstandings erupt and pathologizing our logical, reasoned approach to problem-solving as lacking in empathy.
43. Telling us if we don’t fit some narrow and strict criteria that we’re then not autistic and are probably just assholes who need to shape up.
44. When we try talking about its impact, tell us we’re using autism as an excuse.
45. Being regarded as pedantic or difficult by mental health care providers and physicians who have almost no idea about what it means to be autistic.
46. Being misdiagnosed as having a variety of personality disorders, mood disorders, or hypochondria.
47. Being told by diagnosticians that we can’t be autistic because we laugh at jokes, take baths (?!?), make eye contact, or “are not enough like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory,” that we can’t be autistic.
48. Conducting research study after research study based on faulty assumptions and misunderstandings about what it means to be autistic.
49. In professional literature, framing information about autistic people in a way that characterizes them solely according to perceived deficits while neglecting to acknowledge strengths.
50. Being too “gifted” for mainstream, but not gifted with the right and accurate recipe to constitute a “gifted kid,” but rather considered some freak of nature who is neither fish nor fowl in this world. You learn early your contents are somehow inherently Wrong.
It took about ten minutes to collect these responses from autistic adults and teens, and I could have made the list “500 ways” instead of 50 had I waited another hour or so.
This is important to acknowledge and validate. Living while autistic is difficult, traumatic in a complex way, because society does this in blatant and subtle ways, in ways that are plausibly deniable. The mental health field, loved ones, parents, siblings, employers, educators… even sometimes other autistics have internalized these messages so deeply that they become a part of a person’s worldview.
In order for autistic people to gain parity and to live without the extant trauma of constant social messaging that is toxic and destructive– non-autistic people have to take a stand and use their privilege and platforms to educate others about why it’s not okay to continue to maintain the behaviors and thought patterns which cause such unfavorable circumstances for autistic people.