So your friend just told you they are autistic, what now?
Chances are they told you because they trust you or because they need you to know. Why would they need you to know? Well there are many many reasons why an autistic person could want somebody to know. It could be that autism is a big part of who they are, that they need accommodations, or that they want you to understand if they act “different” or “weird.”
There are so many reasons why somebody would tell you, even just that they want to, but a lot of the time it is a scary thing to bring up. This is not because autism is bad, but because there is a good amount of fear about how the other person may react. Here’s an article designed to help you respond in a way that lets this person know you care, and to help you to avoid the pitfalls that happen just from not knowing.
A few personal faves of mine (some of which I’ve gotten myself) are relatively common reactions, and can easily come across as condescending, rude, or unaccepting.
In no particular order, here are some responses people have actually gotten/given:
1. But you don’t look autistic!!
What does an autistic person look like? You may think this is a compliment, but I can assure you they Do look autistic, because they Are autistic.
2. Don’t let labels define you!
Labels aren’t bad if you choose to embrace them yourself. They help you make sense of yourself and those around you. If everybody was the same we wouldn’t need labels. They are telling you this because Autistic is a label they have and accept and use to make sense of themselves. Autistic is a label that Does define you, as in autistic people process and experience the world differently. If we weren’t different there wouldn’t be a need to label in first place, which means that, literally speaking anyway, labels do in fact define you.
3. You’re a person with autism, not autistic!
A majority of the Autistic community prefer identity first language, or autistic. If a person tells you how to refer to them, then please be respectful and do that. See my other article here: Identity-First Language and Autism Acceptance
4. Oh, but you’re not like Those autistic people.
Like what autistic people? We are both autistic so I must be like them in some ways? But also, of course I’m not, because everybody is different. No two autistic people are the same just like no two non-autistic people are the same.
5. But you can talk?
Sure. A good amount of autistic people can talk. Some talk a lot, some talk very little, some speak only in echos and scripts. Sometimes autistic people that normally speak to communicate can’t speak anymore and need time to recover. Being able to communicate verbally doesn’t make a person any more or less autistic.
6. What kind of autism to you have?
I have chipotle ranch autism. You see how funny that sounds? In the past, autism was separated into different “types” under the DSM. Under the DSM5, autism is just autism. Well, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, but autism.
7. My brother’s friend’s 5 year old cousin is autistic and you’re nothing like them!
Of course I’m not? This cousin is 5. Your friend is probably older than five. No matter what kind of person, a 5 year old is very different from a 20 year old.
8. Oh, so are you like Rainman?
Think about this for a minute. Comparing every autistic person you meet to some stereotyped pop-culture character is demeaning at best. Every autistic person is not Rainman, or whatever other stereotyped character there is. Sure, some autistic people are savants or do have immense amounts of knowledge about a certain interest, but every autistic person is different.
9. You must be so high-functioning!
This isn’t a compliment, and functioning labels are an arbitrary and ableist concept. Calling somebody “high-functioning” ignores a person’s difficulties. It also gives the autistic person this sense of that you won’t see their difficulties or that they will be expected to be able to do more than they healthily can. (There will be another post on functioning labels in the future.)
10. How do you know? Are you sure? I don’t think you are.
Okay, that’s cool. You can not think that I am autistic but that doesn’t make me any less autistic. The person telling you they are autistic Know they are autistic. Autism is highly stigmatized, and even though our community is working to make it less so, it doesn’t change the fact that autism is not widely accepted by the public. People don’t go around announcing they are something unless they are sure.