There is no excuse for speaking to an Autistic person like they’re a popular breed of puppy.
The patronisation can vary from person to person, and based on what ‘degree’ of Autism a person may live with. For example, I was booked for a public speaking session once and was required to travel interstate. Upon meeting the person who had booked me, I was met with a manically wide grin and a stare that I swear, penetrated my skull with gentle sympathy. Of course, she thanked me for coming-very slowly, nodding very slowly, and I left the conversation- rather quickly. I had skipped nausea on the plane, and found it in the presence of this well-meaning woman.
Another example of patronisation, is using language that you would with a toddler. Like, asking an adult autistic client with an ID “do you need to do wee wees?” or referring to the parents (if parents are in the picture) as their “Mummy” and “Daddy”. Hang on, I just need to use the toilet…I’m about to barf.
Sadly, it often isn’t easy to explain to people why addressing a person with Autism at the rate a YouTube video plays with shitty internet , can be very harmful. In fact, I recognise that most people mean no harm and are simply trying to protect the person. However, this is not what they are doing.
We have to remember that adults with Autism are adults just the same as everyone else. They reach the same milestones. We have aspirations, we have certain biological/sexual needs we wish to fulfil. Heck, one of my immediate goals is to have sex in a spa! I hope to achieve this soon.
Of course, some people might be able to come up with several apparent justifications for why they feel it is okay to address an Autistic person like someone with fairy floss for a brain, and the temperament of a telly tubby. So, I’m going to list what some of those justifications might be and then attempt to de-justify them.
I am aware that in raising my concerns about how some parents, carers, randoms etc. might interact with Autistic people, could spark some level of defensiveness. Perhaps you might feel that I am wrong about thinking it is not okay to address an Autistic person ‘differently’. So what might help is if I list a few examples of some ‘justifications’ for interacting with Autistic people ‘differently’, and then I will attempt to de-justify them.
- But the person has the mental capacity of a child because they have an intellectual disability OR they act in a ‘childlike’ manner.
- If I don’t’ address them that way then they won’t understand what I am saying to them. Note: This experience is especially common for non-verbal individuals.
- Its hard not to talk about them in that way because they’re just so adorable and sweet, I can’t help it.
- He/she/they are very sensitive and act like a four year old when they are upset, so I treat them as such.
- I’ve know this person since they were a child, so its hard for me to change how I talk to them.
Now for the de-justifications:
- Firstly, you can’t accurately measure whether someone has a ‘childlike capacity’ without being massively biased, and unaware of your assumptions. I would even argue that whatever bullshit test there is for measuring a person’s intellectual capacity, is inaccurate and based on the unhelpful idea that a person’s worth should be based on how ‘smart’ they are. Tangent over. Also, suppose a person did behave in what was believed to be a conventionally child-like manner, they are still adults. That doesn’t mean you can’t change how you communicate with them at all, it just means don’t patronise them.
There is a difference between: “You’re a big boy, why don’t I show you how to make a cup of tea and then you can tell Mummy”
“ I think you’re old enough now that you can learn how to make a cup of tea by yourself. I’ll show you how to do it, and then you can tell people what you learnt. I’m sure people will be really proud of you.”
2. You should never make the assumption that someone doesn’t understand you unless you’ve checked with the person themselves. Even if a person is non-verbal it should not be so challenging that you can’t understand what the person wants at all. From my experience, most non-verbal individuals have good receptive communication, so it will just be a matter of helping them to find a useful way to communicate what they want or need successfully. Here’s a tip, if you hand them a sensory toy and they throw it, then they’re probably pissed off or just don’t want the toy!
3. I understand the tendency to feel that someone is ‘cute’ for displaying behaviours that are not typical to most adults. I remember having to remind myself often how the individual might feel about me calling them cute. Maybe the person would care, maybe they wouldn’t. I just think it’s a safer bet to assume that the person would be offended, in case it did and they acted out in response to that assumption. Just a thought. If you hold feelings of endearment towards a client, perhaps opt for words like “buddy” or “mate”. You can even ask the client how they prefer to be addressed, obviously. I personally refrain from “Sweety” “Poopybum” and “Munchkin”.
4. If people are referring to meltdowns in this instance, then that is very unfair. It’s likely that prior to becoming a support worker you had at least some training on Autism, or at least attended a workshop. However, a lot of support workers don’t receive any training and just rely on their stereotyped perceptions of what Autism is. Take it from me though, when an Autistic individual experiences a meltdown it is a very serious matter. It’s essentially a consequence of severe sensory and emotional overload, leading the person to be unable to cope with their surroundings, and manage their emotions. Meltdowns are mostly avoidable. I say mostly because sometimes shit happens. Alas, it is important to remember that a meltdown can be avoided if the triggers are less, and help reducing those triggers are recommended. Meltdowns are stressful, and can be very overwhelming. Some people harm themselves in that frame of mind in a desperate attempt to comfort themselves sensorily e.g. banging head against a wall. A very serious matter.
5. It doesn’t matter how different a person’s developmental capacity is, everyone is susceptible to change, development and growth. Therefore, you should not be treating a person the same as you did when they were five, if they are now 25. They will have changed, and you need to adapt to that.
Autistic people do not like being treated like toddlers, we like being treated the age that we are. We have wants, needs, goals and aspirations just like everyone else. When that isn’t recognised or acknowledged, it can be super frustrating and have a severe impact on our mental health and self-esteem. If you wouldn’t want to be treated that way, then don’t do the same to us. Have a little insight please.