Othering - negative or positive

Written in February 2023

This piece is inspired by something I saw on the BBC documentary Inside Our Autistic Minds. I'm not going to do a full brain-dump of my thoughts on it, save for to say that it's the first time I've watched a show about autistic people and have felt positive afterwards. However, there was one scene with Anton's friends that sparked something in me. In the scene they assured presenter Chris Packham that they didn't see Anton as any different to themselves; that he was just the same as other people.

I could see the pride in their expressions, pride at having this “progressive” viewpoint about autistic people, and able to see us as humans just like them. What they were doing was avoiding “othering”, which is a term used to describe the treatment or viewing of distinct demographic groups as intrinsically, but negatively, different. We can see it happen everywhere, with practically any societal group you care to name. It's happened on large and tragic scales throughout human history, and therefore it's something that (those who like to think of themselves as forward-thinking) people try to avoid.


It's largely an allistic phenomenon. In allistic culture, difference equates to bad, or a potential threat. Homogeniety is valued, while anyone who does not appear to fit “the mold” is viewed negatively. I remember coming out as autistic to two people, and while one person took it quite well, the other would not accept that this meant my brain (and therefore my whole self) was different. They kept saying that I wasn't any different, that I shouldn't say I'm different, and that I am just like everyone else. It may have come from a place of compassion, but it felt as if they were trying to neutralise the threat that my “otherness” presented to their personal sense of social safety. It also upset me a great deal, because I am happy with the fact that I am different and it was invalidating to be told that my identity was wrong, that I don't exist. I like being different, it's a relief, and I have somewhere I do fit, it's just not in allistic society.


It's the same thinking behind the idea that “labels are unhelpful” and “we're all humans”, which, while, positive in intent, legitimise discrimination on the basis that nobody merits different treatment or accommodations in order to participate in society and life to the same extent as others. Imagine if we stopped using the label “pregnant”, and insisted that extra toilet breaks, a reduction in heavy lifting and adaptations to the workplace were unwarranted in pregnancy purely because “we don't use labels”. Labels help us understand ourselves (and others) when used correctly, but of course can be weaponised and used against us.


I'm going to borrow an explanation I saw that relates to racism (I want to be very clear that I'm not comparing racism to discrimination against autistic people, but the explanation is the exact concept I am trying to describe). When people say “I don't see colour” they are avoiding othering, perhaps wishing to be seen as progressive and inclusive. What this actually says is that they do not see (understand or accept) the different experiences of people of colour, and are holding them to the same norms of experience and culture as the group to which the speaker belongs. One must see, understand and accept the different experiences and lives of people belonging to different demographics, and to do so is the real progressive way of thinking. Othering, in this case, is accepting.

As an autistic person I am proud of my otherness and I do not want to be the same as allistic people. I also do not see this is a bad thing, and I would like for allistic people to accept our otherness, rather than try to blanket over our otherness with platitudes about how we're all just people and we're all the same. The answer isn't to refuse to use labels, or to avoid “othering” in the negative sense of the word. The answer lies in acceptance and understanding.



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