How Can I Teach My Autistic Students to Love Their Disability?
Autistic Advice #1: A New Column by a Neurodiverse Psychologist
Welcome to Autistic Advice, a new, semi-regular column where I respond to questions about neurodiversity, Autism acceptance, and disability rights from Autistic people and their allies. For the past month or so, I’ve had a Curious Cat question box open, and have accepted questions from educators, parents, and Autistic people themselves. You can anonymously send me questions there as well.
Before we dive in, a bit about me: I am a 32-year-old Autistic person who didn’t realize they were on the spectrum until their mid-20’s. My whole family is full of people with Autism-spectrum traits of one kind or another, and at this point in my life I socialize with fellow neurodiverse people almost exclusively. On Medium, I’ve written extensively about my experiences, and the experiences of other adult Autistics whom I’ve interviewed. Though I am a research psychologist, I am not a therapist, and this column should not be treated as therapy.
My first question comes from an educator who works with Autistic children and adults. They wanted to know how they could teach their Autistic students to take pride in their own disabilities. They wrote:
When did you start to see your neurodiversity as an asset rather than a deficit?
I work with some really amazing kids that I’m convinced are going to be the next CEOS, leaders and game changers of this world. Right now though, their peers can’t see how amazing they are, and this is (partly) the lens through which they see themselves. Also, sometimes their parents aren’t much better.
So when did you start to see yourself differently in a positive way? (I’m assuming you didn’t always see yourself as positively as you do now- disregard if I’m incorrect).
And also, was there something that someone said or did that helped you develop this positive perspective of yourself? Was there anything you did that really felt like it helped facilitate this shift?
Thank you so much for your question. It’s wonderful that you want to bolster your students’ confidence, help them overcome the low opinion that so many peers (and parents!) have of them, and empower them to live their best Autistic lives. It’s also so great to see you are approaching this question with the built-in assumption that Autism isn’t a shameful disability or something to be hidden away or overcome; every Autistic person deserves to exist in an environment where they are accepted as they truly are in this way.
So, it’s clear to me you’re an awesome, supportive educator who is going out of their way to do research on their students’ experiences and wants to help them succeed on their own terms as best you possibly can. But I’m going to be annoying and challenge (delicately!) basically every completely well-intentioned assumption you’ve made in your letter.
First: When did I start to see my neurodiversity as an asset? Is Autism an asset?
I don’t see being Autistic as an asset more than a deficit actually! Autism is just a way of being that is different, and less accommodated, than some other ways of being. It can be positive, or negative, but on balance I think neutrality or ambivalence feels like the right approach.
I have written about the positives of Autism, a lot, especially when I was early into being “out.” In some ways I think that was a mistake.
I’m an especially lucky and privileged Autistic person. I run in social circles where being quirky and obsessive is cool, and not a huge social detriment. I have an easy time sticking to a schedule and getting work done. Most of the features of Autism that suck for me (like sensory overload) are relatively easy to hide.
I kinda hate that my success as an Autistic person has required I hide aspects of myself, and play up the side that is witty, hard-working, and respectable. It leaves me constantly at war with myself, in a way. I’m thankful for the positives of my Autism, but also resentful that my social acceptance is so conditional.
Which brings me to the next part of your letter: How can you help your Autistic students become the CEOs and world leaders they seem destined to be?
To that, I’d counter: Do Autistic people have to be “successful”?
When we focus on the “positives” of Autism, we run the risk of giving the wrong implication. Yes, there are Autistic inventors, comedians, CEOs, revolutionary thinkers and more, but Autistic people matter and should feel good about themselves no matter what they do or don’t accomplish.
All Autistic people have equal worth, including the ones with intellectual disabilities, nonverbal Autistics, Autistics with zero social skills or interest in socializing, ones who won’t ever become CEOs or game changers. A lot of Autistic people don’t have the skills necessary to become big movers and shakers; some Autistic people who do have those skills will elect not to use them (read: they’ll choose to not have their talents exploited by an employer).
There is this danger sometimes to playing up the advantages of Autism. I’m guilty of this sometimes. When we talk too much about the brilliance of Autistic people, it kinda implies that they need and deserve acceptance because they are an asset to the world. That is a very othering, objectifying message to send (intentionally or not). It suggests that embracing Autism is merely a means to an end.
I have to reject that. Making the world comfortable for Autistic people is a good in and of itself. The Autistic people who are severely impaired or won’t accomplish “big” things in life are just as valuable as me and they deserve accommodations just as much as me. And all Autistic people deserve to have complex feelings about their disability, including a mix of pride and sadness, no matter what their disability looks like.
And that brings me to the next question in your letter: Do I feel positively about having Autism? Is Autism positivity the goal?
I like some aspect of being Autistic. Many of my Autistic traits have been socially rewarded. I can focus on tasks for a long time. I can read a lot, write a lot, ask pointed questions that help people see and understand problems. I sound smart when I speak. I’ve been rewarded for all that.
But being Autistic also sucks. I truly hate it, often. I hate how much loud noises bother me. I hate having meltdowns. I get sick on public transit. Bright lights make me angry. I am easily made irritable and I have a short temper. I have hurt people by saying flippant, dismissive things. I’ve missed social cues. I’ve spent years being lonely and not knowing how to make friends.
Autism is a mixed bag, and me feeling more positive about it isn’t really the answer. What I need, and what more debilitated Autistics need, is acceptance and accommodation. I’m taking a play out of Your Fat Friend’s playbook here. She often says that fat people don’t need to feel more “body positive” in order to thrive; what they really need is fat liberation, an end to the oppression of fat people on a society-wide scale.
I think a flavor of the same thing is true for Autistics. We don’t all need to see our disability as an asset. Indeed, for some of us it is not an asset. What we need is to stop being oppressed, excluded, dehumanized, and robbed of agency.
I think for the Autistic students in your life, it’s important they know how diverse their neurotype is. They should know about the Dan Aykroyds and Chris Rocks and Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Cliffes of the world. It can be encouraging for them to recognize that there are successful people who are like them. If parents and non-Autistic peers get acquainted with these figures (or successful Autistic adults in your area), it might help bust open some of their stereotypes of what the disability is.
However, your students should also get to know nonverbal, intellectually disabled, and multiply disabled adult Autistics, and have some of those people in their real lives. They should meet Autistic women, Autistic trans people, Black Autistics, Autistic people who use wheelchairs, Autistic people who only communicate via typing. Your non-Autistic students and their parents should meet all of these people too. They should learn to embrace all types of disabled individuals, especially those who haven’t “overcome” disability or done huge impressive things.
Shifting the attitudes of your non-Autistic students and their parents will pay huge dividends. The less people tie accomplishment to a person’s worth, the less ableist our world is. The more accepting neurotypical people are of difference, the easier and more comfortable Autistic lives become.
Furthermore, your Autistic students should know that when they are suffering or struggling, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of a society that doesn’t accept them, and was built to be hostile to them. They don’t have to “try harder” or succeed in order to prove they are full, complex humans. They are important people no matter what their lives look like — they don’t need to achieve a thing, or be good at *anything*, to be an important and loveable person. And again, it’s just as important that the non-Autistic students learn this too.
So, that’s where I’d start. Work on accommodating your students & accepting them as they are. Surround all your students with a diverse array of disabled adults and role models. Teach all your students to see themselves (and other people) as innately lovable and deserving of accommodation, no matter what they do or don’t accomplish in this life.
Thanks for your question! And keep up the amazing work advocating for your students!
Want to submit a question to Autistic Advice? Just use the Curious Cat box here.