When someone you don’t know very well has autism, it can be hard to know what to say. This is especially true for teachers and parents who regularly interact with autistic people.
Autism is surrounded by a lot of ignorance. Someone might say to an autistic person, “I wouldn’t trust people who act like that.”. That’s why a person on the spectrum might need empathy and understanding, but it can be hard for people who have never experienced autism themselves to do so.
If you want to be an ally of someone on the spectrum, here is a list of things not to say to an autistic person.
1. “You’re not really autistic.”
By telling an autistic person that their experiences are not real, you reinforce harmful and damaging stereotypes about autism. Autism is a spectrum condition, and there is no single way to be autistic. So when you offer unsolicited advice or tell someone that they don’t “really” have autism, you’re essentially telling them that their experiences and perspectives don’t matter.
2. “You’re just pretending to be autistic.”
According to the comment, the person is faking their symptoms to get attention. In saying this phrase, you are judging that person’s current situation and implying that they are not really autistic. Such statements are considered hate speech. Also, people on the spectrum aren’t generally comfortable talking about themselves, so there may not be much of a reason to pretend to be autistic.
3. “You’re doing that on purpose.”
Autism often causes people to over- or under-react to social cues and situations, leading some people to believe that they are deliberately sending out the wrong signals. When you’re speaking to someone who is grappling with their diagnosis, your comment may hurt. The symptoms of autism can be challenging to deal with, since so many things in life demand effort that comes naturally to others.
4. “You’re just trying to get attention.”
Attention can be a trigger for many people with autism, and they may react in one of several ways just to stop the social interaction. Telling an autistic person that they are trying to get attention invalidates their feelings and needs. Autistic people may have temper tantrums or nervous habits as a way of communicating, and it isn’t fair to deny them well-being just because they’re different.
5. “You’re so high-functioning, you can’t be autistic.”
First of all, being autistic is not bad. This phrase implies that the person is not autistic if they can function in society, which is not true. As a spectrum disorder, autism encompasses a broad range of abilities and disabilities. You can never really know a person’s capability or disability until you meet them.
6. “You’re unlike other autistics”
The media often portray people with autism spectrum disorder inaccurately. Oftentimes, shows and movies depict those with autism as non-verbal or very low-functioning when in reality, most of these individuals are able to communicate and have typical intelligence. Also, these portrayals often portray neurotypical children as “perfect,” which can be detrimental to those struggling with their unique differences. No matter where they fall on the spectrum, they deserve kindness, respect, and compassion.
7. “You are so much better than most people.”
You should never say this to an autistic person for a couple of reasons. One, it’s inaccurate. Autistic people are just as varied as neurotypical people. Two, it is demoralizing. Autistic people have worked hard to be where they are, and they don’t need someone telling them that they are better than other people. Finally, it can be isolating. Autistic people often feel that they don’t fit in, so hearing comments like these can be a second blow.
8. “Why can’t you just be like everyone else?”
Autistic people can be like everyone else. Many don’t choose to be. Instead, they’re usually forced to be. Autism isn’t something you can choose or change. Growing knowledge of autism and greater acceptance will reflect a true understanding of it.
9. “I wouldn’t be like that if I were you.”
By saying this, you’re making it seem as though the person’s current situation is difficult. You’re also giving cues that neurotypicals should be the ones in charge. Autistic people already face a lot of judgments, and this just adds to that.
10. “Why don’t you want to be seen?”
People may not want to be seen for many reasons. Maybe they’re shy, or maybe they’re not feeling their best that day. Maybe they’re worried about how they’ll look, or maybe they’re just not in the mood to talk to anyone. Whatever the reason is, there’s no need to feel bad about it. Everyone has different preferences, and sometimes a little privacy is fine.
11. “What do you mean, you can’t do that?”
Don’t ask autistic people why they can’t do things. People with autism may find many tasks impossible, but that doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish them. Just like anyone else, they have different skills and abilities. Rather than asking why they can’t do something, ask how they can.
12. “I am sorry for your disability”
When talking to someone who is autistic, it is important to be aware of the different ways that they experience the world. For example, saying things like “I am sorry for your disability” can be very hurtful, as it implies that there is something wrong with them. Instead, respect their sensitivities and take into account the way they perceive the world.
13. “Don’t you wish you were normal?”
The person who says this to an autistic person is essentially telling them that autism is a bad thing. In turn, this can increase their sensory overload and feeling of isolation. Autistic people often face misinterpretations and discrimination, and remarks like this make matters worse. We should all strive to be more accepting and understanding of autism and other neurological differences.
14. “Why don’t you try eating this?”
You should never suggest someone with autism try a new food or diet since many autistic people have difficulty with food texture and may be averse to certain foods. Trying to convince them to eat something can be frustrating and unhelpful. Find out what food they prefer and offer it to them instead.
15. “Why don’t you talk?”
Often, autistic people have a lot to say but feel uncomfortable or unsafe saying it in certain situations. Most often, they can’t find the words, or they don’t know what to say. Asking an autistic person why they are not talking can be interpreted as a challenge to their abilities, and can lead to mental health problems. If you’re curious, ask them what they’re thinking or feeling instead.
16. “Stop being autistic”
People on the autism spectrum should never be told, “stop being autistic.”. First, it’s not their fault that they are autistic, and they can’t just “stop being autistic.” Second, this sends the message that there’s something wrong with them and that they should be ashamed of who they are. Everyone should accept and love autistic people just as they are.
17. “What’s it like living with autism?”
Autism affects how people perceive and interact with the world around them. So asking an autistic person what it’s like living with autism can be akin to asking someone with a physical disability what it’s like living with their condition. There is no good answer to this question, and it is frequently asked by people who are not autistic. In a way, it’s like asking someone who has diabetes how life is with their illness.
18. “You must be smart because you can talk.”
The intelligence of autistic people is just one of their many strengths. By telling an autistic person that they are smart because they can talk, they devalue the individual’s intelligence. Autism is a neurological disorder, not a measure of intelligence.
19. “The Rain Man”
Don’t say things like “you’re just like the character in ‘The Rain Man’!” to autistic people because that is a movie about a character who is autistic and not representative of all autistic people. Autistic people are individuals with their own personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and should not be generalized based on a Hollywood movie.
20. “I know exactly how you feel”
A person with autism may find this offensive and disrespectful, as it dismisses their experiences and denies their individuality. Autism affects people differently than non-autistic people, and to presume one knows how an autistic person feels is unfair.
21. “But you’re so smart/pretty/normal-looking!”
Autistic people are not supposed to look a certain way, and the person in question does not conform to that stereotype. The behavior reflects the idea that autistics are somehow “less than” non-autistics. As autistic people come in all shapes and sizes, there is no one “right” way to look autistic.
22. “You don’t act autistic”
People around people with autism spectrum disorder often judge and misunderstand them. When this phrase is used with a person with autism, it implies there is a right or wrong way to act, and that they are not acting according to society’s expectations. Instead of criticizing autistic people for not conforming to social norms, we should praise their abilities and unique strengths.
23. “Don’t be so serious”
There’s no point in telling autistic people to “lighten up” or “stop being so serious.” They often view the world differently, and they might take things more seriously than other people. To tell them to “lighten up” can be insulting and dismissive.
24. “You’re too sensitive”
Often, auties are viewed as too sensitive or emotional. Hearing something so untrue is hurtful. By telling them that they are too sensitive, you are effectively telling them that there is something wrong with them. This can make a person feel as though they aren’t good enough and can damage their self-confidence.
25. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing”
Everyday experiences can be overwhelming for autistic people. Telling them that their feelings are not valid only makes them feel more isolated and makes them feel like they’re not allowed to feel upset or frustrated about things, or like they’re not allowed to have any feelings at all.
26. “Calm down”
This is a ridiculous demand, as autism is not a choice and cannot be turned off at will. Being told to “calm down” only adds to the pressure on autistic people to conform to neurotypical standards. Moreover, it is condescending and dismissive.
27. “You just have to get over your fear of social interactions!”
Those on the spectrum have a hard time navigating social situations. For some, social interaction can be daunting. Moreover, many people with autism still struggle to gain acceptance from others. The advice to get over a person’s fear is both unhelpful and damaging.
28. “You must be good at math.”
Math is a strength for many people with autism spectrum disorders. Despite this, they do not enjoy being told they are good at math or that they should do something else instead. The statement implies that they have an intellectual disability, when in fact they may just have different skills and abilities.
29. “You aren’t focusing”
Autistic individuals may have difficulty focusing on tasks or conversing. Telling an autistic person they aren’t focusing is really telling them that their stimming and sensory information are bothersome. Instead of telling an autistic person, they aren’t focused, ask them how they can focus.
30. “Are you an Aspie?”
Using the term “Asperger” no longer applies to autistic people. Instead, use terms like “autistic person” or “person with autism.” Autistic people are just like everyone else and deserve respect. Moreover, when you ask if someone is autistic, you infer their current situation and autism journey. What’s more, misdiagnosed autistic people or people who don’t want to reveal their autism may find this embarrassing.
31. “Don’t worry, everyone has some autistic traits.”
Autism is not a personality trait. Autism is a legitimate medical condition with a high prevalence rate, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has the condition. This statement is insensitive, as it blurs the very important distinction between autistic traits and an autism spectrum disorder.
32. “Why don’t you look me in the eye?”
You may not be aware of their sensory sensitivities. Maintaining eye contact can be uncomfortable for many autistics. Asking them to do something that is already difficult can be frustrating. Instead of asking this question, try to understand why the person might be avoiding eye contact and work from there.
33. “Why don’t you try ___?”
People with ASD often have difficulty with change and routine and inviting them to do something new can be overwhelming. For example, instead of asking “Why can’t you type faster?” or “How do you like to learn languages?” ask them how they learn a language, what strategies work for them, and how you can help them successfully learn. Make sure you’re specific.
34. “Autism isn’t that bad.”
There are many things not to say to an autistic person, but “Autism isn’t that bad” ranks near the top of the list. It’s a serious disability that can make everyday tasks very difficult. Autistic people already feel like they are a burden to their families and society, so don’t add to that by telling them that their autism isn’t a big deal. Instead, try to learn more about autism and how to best support someone who has it.
35. “I bet it’s hard to make friends.”
Don’t say that autism makes it hard to make friends – everyone is different, and autistic people have just as much potential to form meaningful relationships as anyone else. Saying this can make autistic people feel like they’re not worth befriending, which is definitely not the message you want to send.
There are many things not to say to an autistic person. When you ask “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why are you so different?” you make them feel even more insecure about their differences.
Despite the best of intentions, there can be things said that will hurt, offend, or cause upset to an autistic person. You can show an autistic individual you support them by avoiding these phrases as much as possible.
Whether it’s your friend, lover, co-worker, or kid, be mindful of how you speak with them by taking time to consider your words before speaking to them so they know exactly what’s being said.