Written in February 2022
There are therapeutic interventions for autistic people that focus on “fixing” our social difficulties, and at stopping what is seen as challenging behaviour. These therapies are usually started in childhood, aimed at making children fit in better at school and not end up being the target of bullies. These interventions also aim to make life easier for the non-autistic people that know the autistic person, such as family members, friends, health and social care professionals and even just people in the street.
There is definitely some value in teaching autistic people some social skills, such as what constitutes appropriate small talk, what personal space is and how we measure it, how to respond to being given a gift, how to interact with shop and transport workers and other people we may need to interact with and so on. When this becomes harmful is when we're told we're wrong about the way we would naturally conduct ourselves in these situations.
In short, we're told how to behave appropriately and taught to suppress our natural instincts. ABA (applied behaviour analysis) is a type of this therapy which is controversial within the autistic community. ABA is controversial because we don't believe we should need fixing, when the problem arises from the inability of non-autistic people to accept that we are different. The onus is on us to pretend to be someone different and act in a different way so that we don't upset people around us. Instead, we bear the upset and are put under even more stress and because this approach is initiated and/or suggested by the people who are supposed to help and support us, we end up believing that the way we are is wrong and that we ought to be upset. Over time we internalise the belief that the feelings and comfort of others is more important than our own.
Being brainwashed like this is one of the things that leads to autistic people being easily manipulated and abused, because we're taught that our feelings and needs don't matter, and we should always put our own needs behind those of the people around us. It's a horrible, dehumanising and invalidating place to be, but we are taught by those in authority that this is the “right” way.
I'm not saying that correcting all autistic behaviour is wrong. Of course, if the behaviour and reactions of an autistic person place them or those around them at risk of injury then this is not OK, but the focus should really be on understanding why the autistic person is acting in that way and fixing the problem that is causing the behaviour rather than stopping the behaviour for the sake of it. If you see someone having a trauma response to a stimulus is it right to increase the trauma and expose the person to more of it? Absolutely not, so it shouldn't be right to treat autistic people in this way.
People often interpret some of our behaviour as attention seeking, difficult and challenging. Yes, some of it can be challenging, but we're not doing any of it as part of some kind of personal vendetta. It's not a case of “letting us get away with it” - EVER. Some behaviour that is classed as challenging can be a legitimate problem. Reactions that involve fleeing a scene (where the autistic person may be at risk of running into traffic or other hazards), physical injury to the autistic person or those around them, or damage to property, do need to be addressed. That's because of the safety aspect of the outcomes of these behaviours and not because they cause embarrassment to a caregiver or family member.
It should be mentioned that behaviour which appears to be self harm, or which is self-harm adjacent such as skin picking and hair pulling/eating can be incredibly difficult to stop as this is often a self-stimulatory action (stimming) which we use to regulate our sensory input. When we are not in control of the external environment and how overwhelming it is, causing ourselves pain (being in control of sensory input) can be the distraction we need to cope in the moment. Finding less injurious stims which still satisfy the requirement for stimming is appropriate here, not banning the activity entirely.
We want you to understand why we react differently and for you to understand that we experience trauma from things that you don't even register. If we meltdown, start to self harm, shout and lose physical control we are not doing it to “get our own way”, “cause trouble” “draw attention to ourselves” or any of the other damaging misinterpretations of our behaviour. We don't want to do this any more than you want us to, but we are acting in this way because we feel threatened and it is traumatic. Just because it's not traumatic or threatening to you, that doesn't mean it's not traumatic to us.
Consider too, the fact that our baseline stress levels are much higher than those of the average person. It really doesn't take much to tip us over the edge and because we're in an almost perpetual state of having to hold it together we can seemingly fly off the handle at the smallest thing. We are like the proverbial camels, continually laden with straws yet no-one hears us saying we are carrying too much already, they just keep loading us up.
So, correcting our behaviour that is the response to something we find traumatic just compounds the idea that we are wrong, that our reactions are wrong, that the way we experience the world is wrong and that if we just tried a bit harder not to be autistic, we'd have a much better time of it. This, in itself, is a traumatic experience for us and a glaring example of the double empathy problem in action.
If you're wondering what can be done to make your autistic child/friend/partner behave differently, take a look at the external stimuli we are experiencing, ask us what's wrong, and believe us. Don't belittle us and don't make us feel that we have caused the problem, instead, change the thing that is causing the trauma, not our response to it.