Ableism and Autism: a desperately incompatible mix

*Please note that throughout this article I have used the term “disabled person” rather than “person with a disability”, just as I use “Autistic person” on this website. I use identity-first language because – contrary to what some people would have you believe – you cannot separate a person from their disability.

Ableism is hands down one of the most insidious aspects of society.

Until recently, it wasn’t even a word (one of many recent words and terms that I have learnt) I had ever used in my life. I’m not even sure that I knew what ableism meant. Which I suppose says a lot about me and just how not disabled I believed that I was, and, to a certain extent (the whole point of this article in fact), still do.

But getting an Autism diagnosis introduced me to the word and what it means. And that, dear reader, is the problem: Ableism isn’t only something that others can turn on you – you can turn it on yourself. And that, I now realise, is one of the most damaging things anyone can do to themselves.

So what is ableism (and ‘internalised ableism’)?

Merriam-Webster describes ableism, a noun (thanks Merriam-Webster!), as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities”.

But that definition doesn’t even come close to explaining it.

For starters, most of us don’t really know what a disability is unless it’s staring us in the face – something else I’ve realised since my diagnosis. But I’ll try and help you with what I now know.

What’s a disability then?

First, there are physical disabilities, typically more easily detectible because the person is in a wheelchair, or they use a white cane, or wear a hearing aid.

But then there are other, hidden disabilities. These can include fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and neurological conditions like ADHD and Autism. (Yes, like many others – including the NDIS – I agree that Autism is a disability. More on that later.)

Each of these conditions, and so many more that I haven’t mentioned, are covered by the definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act here in Australia, and by comparable legislation in many countries throughout the world – usually by a phrase that includes the words: ‘any physical or mental health condition or impairment’.

Disabilities then don’t only affect a person’s ability to stand or walk, see or hear. They can also affect our ability to, and the way that we, communicate and interact with others, learn and remember information, handle work responsibilities, leave the house (or not), manage our basic needs, and even breathe.

So a disability isn’t one specific thing or another. And a disability can even alter its symptoms and effects so that on any given day it appears one way, and then can present, or feel, completely different on another.

What’s important is to remember that a disability, be it physical or mental, always significantly impairs – at least by the definition of what is generally considered “normal” – some aspect of a person’s daily life, or their ability to interact with the world and people around them.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that every condition that disables is supported by, for example, an organisation like the NDIS here in Australia. But that’s another story.

How does internalised ableism differ from ableism?

If ‘ableism’ describes prejudice, bias, and discrimination directed toward people living with disabilities by non-disabled people, ‘internalised ableism’ is, as the phrase might suggest, when a disabled person turns this in on themselves.

This will typically include a lot of very negative self-talk, and may even include a person going to lengths to hide their disability, or generally refusing and denying any and all support.

The thing is: Why would any disabled person do that?

Well, the big answer here is shame – most likely caused by the non-stop messages from society that Autism, or whatever your disability, is a very negative thing indeed.

So not only are you different from everyone else because of your disability; you receive strong messages that you are in fact less, you are incapable, you don’t belong and you never will.

Of course, none of that is true. And none of this internalised ableism on the part of the disabled person is a conscious choice. It’s survival, pure and simple.

Because surprise, surprise: always being told, either overtly or covertly, that you’re second best, makes you believe you’re ‘second best’.

Some disabled people (including more than a few Autistic and other neurodivergent people that I’ve come across online) find the entire situation so confronting that they even convince themselves (and try and convince others) that Autism, for example, shouldn’t actually be viewed as a disability because of the supposed high incidence of brilliant, gifted, geniuses on the spectrum (my own paraphrasing of the reasons against the ‘disability label’ that I have lately read).

They seem to essentially be saying that we (I think the “we” means Autistic people here, not the rest of society, which to me only makes their assertions worse) need to stop considering neurodivergence as a “disability” and instead consider that being neurodivergent means that we are “differently able.”

They generally go on to cite the aforementioned brilliance and giftedness which, by the way, spans the neurosphere (did I just coin a word, or am I using an existing word incorrectly – anyway, I think you know what I mean?), just like theory of mind does.

But Autistic people don’t possess some unique stockpile of intelligence only reserved for us. (Check out some of the conversations on social media if you doubt me!) And denying that you’re disabled, that you need assistance, or that you need to live your life with certain accommodations, doesn’t do anyone any good.

Sensory processing disorders, for example, a typical feature of Autism and ADHD, are often actively disabling, in every sense of the word. Many cause migraines, food sensitivities, and other aversions and physical responses that genuinely incapacitate and require the person suffering from them to make actual changes to their life.

Telling yourself you don’t have a sensory processing disorder, or that you don’t experience the debilitating effects, doesn’t change it. It only makes meal times and going for a swim at the local pool a complete nightmare. (More on my “pool issue” in an upcoming piece soon!)

If you can therefore reconcile that disability, apart from its traditional meaning, also means difference (not “differently able” – it’s implied here that we all have our own inherent strengths and weaknesses), and, further, that your specific difference – your disability – might mean that you need care and support, it will, hopefully, help end the perpetual cycle of denial and self-denial. But of course, it isn’t that simple.

As I’ve noted previously, society isn’t constructed in such a way that it welcomes differences and, if like me, you’re Autistic and afflicted by internalised ableism, there’s a pretty strong case for my suggesting that you judge yourself harshly, practise a decent amount of ‘self-loathing’, react strongly to criticism, and perceived criticism, and hold yourself, and others, to standards you can’t possibly live up to. (Geez, and it’s all so exhausting!)

I could of course make those same assumptions about an awful lot of other types of disabled people, and non-disabled people, as well.

After all, if something is as pervasive in our culture as ableism, and it’s in your immediate workplace or friend or family circle as well, it’s almost impossible to avoid becoming “infected” by it, too.

What does ableism, and internalised ableism, look like?

Just as physical disabilities are more outwardly obvious when compared to hidden disabilities, so too is deliberately mocking or dismissing a disabled person more transparent than unintentional ableism in its many forms, which, as I alluded to in the paragraph above, even the best intentioned of us aren’t immune to.

Perhaps, like me, you never realised that mental health conditions, or neurological differences like Autism and ADHD, or chronic illnesses, are disabilities.

Maybe you use certain language because you hear others using it, without realising how damaging or hurtful it can be.

Ableism on an individual level might include wearing perfume around someone who has previously told you that the scent makes them sick because they have a chemical sensitivity (also known these days as ‘idiopathic environmental intolerances’). Or, in a workplace, refusing to record online meetings for someone who needs to watch it back later to fully grasp what took place.

These two brief examples of microaggression highlight the need to consider difference. They might seem like nothing to the non-disabled individual, but to the disabled person, actions (or non-actions) like these can have a significant impact on their health and well-being because they feel unheard and that their needs have been completely dismissed.

What’s more, next time the disabled person will be less inclined to speak up. They might start avoiding the perfume-wearing woman, without any explanation, causing friction between themselves and others who consider the perfume-wearing woman a friend. And the colleague who needs the meeting recorded might never show up for an online meeting again.

However, it’s institutionalised ableism (the ableist policies and practices present in most sectors of life that reinforce, and even promote, disability prejudice), an all-encompassing societal menace that causes us to believe in one “true” or “normal” way of being and behaving that makes it difficult for many to recognise when they’re committing or perpetuating ableism. And yet that can be some of the most damaging and impactful ableism of all.

Separating students with physical and cognitive disabilities from their peers, unequal access to healthcare, inaccessible workplaces, public transport, university campuses, websites etc., and sick leave policies that don’t include mental health conditions and subsequent accommodations, are all examples of institutional, or systemic, ableism.

And then there is the issue of ableism among “professionals” who work with disabled people. In a recent study, disability professionals completed a test that demonstrated that more than 77 percent explicitly and 80 percent implicitly preferred non-disabled people. (I know! I wish I was making that up!)

As I mentioned earlier, as a consequence of living in a culture dominated by ableist beliefs and moral judgements (institutionalised ableism) almost all disabled people will turn this messaging on themselves – something I only realise now I do as much as anyone, and something I am working hard to undo.

I catch myself thinking: I should be able to do that, or I’m missing out on much-needed money by not working – why don’t I just go back to work? or If I push on I can finish this damn article – just another few hours and it’s done!

Each of these are examples of internalised ableism. Because, most likely, I can’t do whatever it is that I’m questioning, if I went back to work now, I would simply crash again (or more than I am now, again), and I have to stop writing this second because I’ve been reading and writing to try and complete this piece on ableism for three hours already and I can feel that I’m at my limit for today. (At least I have that awareness now – I didn’t a few months ago.)

None of this means that I’m not capable, worthy, or, dare I say it, brilliant. (Right, honey? 😉) It just means that I’m different to most, and so I should live my life accordingly.

A black and white bingo card that has the name ‘Internalized Ableism Bingo’ as a heading and 25 "grids" filled with internalized ableism thoughts and phrases.
‘Internalized Ableism Bingo’ gives an excellent representation of the type of self-talk and behaviours many Autistic, and other disabled people, go through not just daily, but on a constant, minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour, basis

I have read from a lot of Autistic people, especially late-diagnosed Autistic people like me, that they struggle with the idea that they are suddenly considered disabled. (It does make your head spin.) Especially if, again like me, you had a narrow view of what being disabled actually means.

But the truth is, as confronting as it might be for me to admit when I’m capable of knocking out thousands of words a week, or updating my website, or maintaining my expansive yard, I do actually need help and support to do many things. I do need accommodations in some matters. I don’t have the same capacity for ‘going out’, for example, or for tolerating noise, or for stickiness (oh, the ever-loving-sticky humanity of it all!) as most people do.

This one is also tough to write down, but Autistic masking – while absolutely necessary in our non-neurodivergent, difference-judging world – is internalised ableism.

Hiding ones stimming behaviours because you know that others won’t understand why your fingers are always in your mouth (my nail biting) or incessant repetition is shame is painful is ableism.

Shame and embarrassment itself, something I excel in by the way, is internalised ableism. Because you don’t want to show some aspect of your true self, because you’re likely terrified people will think that you’re weird or different – something us neurodivergent types learn very early on, usually the moment people start calling us names and laughing at us.

What’s the problem with ableism?

As I’ve already suggested, regardless of the reasons for ableism – fear, uncertainty about how to behave around a disabled person, lack of awareness, learned behaviour, your moral or religious beliefs, or belief in (despicable) practices like eugenics – the impact cuts deep, resulting in internalised ableism in disabled people.

Internalised ableism will, in turn, lead to a disabled person living a more limited life, to keeping quiet, to most likely hating oneself.

If your views are never considered, or worse, if you’re oppressed and told that you don’t belong or that you are “a problem”, you will try and become something you’re not – in my case not Autistic (because I never even knew) – and that in turn will one hundred percent result in chronic stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness and social isolation, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation.

Is the term ‘neurodiversity’ itself a form of ableism?

I touched on this earlier, but I believe it’s so important an area that it deserves a small section all of its own.

Unfortunately, simply posing the question: Is neurodiversity itself a form of ableism? demonstrates how insidious and pervasive ableism is in our various cultures and societies. And, again, many Autistic and other neurodivergent people buy into this, many likely without even recognising they’re doing it.

I can’t put it any more simply – and I have written about this in other (and similar) ways in other pieces on this website – than to say, despite what it may have looked like to you, dear onlooker, be you friend, family, or even foe, I have always struggled and I have always felt bad. Even when I smiled and told you that my day went well.

This is because it is impossible for me to truly thrive in a world that wasn’t made with me in mind. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know that I was Autistic. I am Autistic. And I always knew that I was different than almost everyone else.

That doesn’t mean that throughout my life I haven’t had my moments. I have. And honestly, when I look back on the past 52 years, through my new Autistic lenses, I almost can’t believe what I’ve achieved – Autistic or not.

But my goodness it has felt like I’ve been flapping about in the water without any water wings for so very long now. Churning up that water so much that I’m exhausted, utterly spent, from all that kicking and thrashing.

So, NO is the answer to the question. Neurodiversity isn’t ableism – it is what it is: Differences in the way some people’s brains work. Which, in turn, leads to different types of behaviour.

It’s nothing to ever be ashamed of. It doesn’t make you a bad person or mean that you’re less able to display empathy, or any other complete and utter garbage that’s floating around out there, in people’s heads or on the internet.

What’s more, if awareness of neurological differences, like Autism, continues to increase, I’ve no doubt our numbers will continue to grow as well.

How can I stop being an ableist person or overcome my own internalised ableism?

Let me start with the part where I believe we have a little more actual control – internalised ableism.

We can begin to overcome this, and dramatically reduce our ‘shame quotient’, by allowing ourselves to live our specific life as authentically as we can.

For me, that began when I admitted, at the beginning of 2022, that something was amiss, that I was struggling, and I began down the path of medical intervention that led to my eventual diagnosis and the revelation that I was in extreme Autistic burnout after years of unknowingly masking.

I then told a few close friends and relatives about my Autism diagnosis – that I am Autistic, always have been and always will be, and that eventually led to my full-scale unmasking via this blog and my (short-lived) use of social media.

Now I’m not suggesting everyone follow my path. It’s sometimes dark and creepy with far too many spiders (ew spiders) and sharks and other biting critters.

But you can find your own way by reading blogs like this that you might find helpful, perhaps even validating, by listening to podcasts, or by watching YouTube videos (avenues I’ll be developing and adding to this website in 2024) about other Autistic or otherwise disabled people. Whatever feels right for you, do it – whatever your environment and current support systems allow.

If you are Autistic, then unmasking is surely a scary, but ultimately rewarding avenue to pursue. I have touched on this topic on this website [What is Autistic masking and why do we do it?], but I’ll be writing more about how you can safely unmask and what that looks like in the coming weeks and months as well.

It’s important to remember that masking is something we Autistic people have intuitively learned to do because of the disapproving world around us. It’s a huge undertaking to attempt to undo it, it’s confusing to know how to do it after years and years of hiding your true self, and it takes time and a lot of care and understanding from the people around you when you do decide to embark on removing the mask.

As to the wider issue of systemic ableism in our society, disappointingly for me (and maybe for you for the next couple of minutes if you read on), I’m not in the camp that believes in real, actual, change on a societal-wide scale.

Defeatist! I hear some of you cry. Well, maybe. But in our lifetime can you name anything that has actually changed. I mean to the point where the people asking for change – a minority group perhaps – can feel it and live it. Feel true ‘equality’ in every sense of the word.

If so, I’m keen for you to (politely please) school me via the comments section below. In fact, I’d love you to.

But, I’m sorry to say, our dominant culture’s unwavering habit of performing cosmetic surgery (or no surgery at all, or the type of surgery where the doctor purposely leaves the scalpel in!) on enormous issues of paramount importance to all manner of minorities throughout every corner of the globe has left me jaded.

And remember, I’ve worked with minority groups here in Australia, spoken to people at the coalface, all of them fighting furiously for the very ‘cosmetic’ changes I’m talking about.

Those changes, if they do happen, are often held up as victories beyond their worth, such is the desperation for any change at all.

But we all know, deep down, that the status quo is, ultimately, being maintained by those who would take down their nearest and dearest to ensure there is no actual change – only window dressing, only appeasement that keeps the majority right where they already are: on top.

I fear I’ve gotten a tad political, so let me finish this piece about ableism at the only place where I believe any real change has a chance of taking place at all: at the individual level, between people.

If you do want to be someone who avoids ableism in your own behaviour, you have to first recognise that we’re all equal and all deserving of the same amount of respect – regardless of our differences, socioeconomic status, or hierarchical position in our workplaces and families.

It means treating everyone the same – disabled and non-disabled alike, and even standing up and saying something when you recognise someone else’s behaviour, or a particular system you encounter, isn’t right.

And don’t assume that even if you know someone incredibly well that you can take over for them and advocate on their behalf. Speak to them and ask them what they need, if you believe they need anything, and check whether or not they want your help at all.

It’s about empowering and including, rather than usurping. And considering the needs of the individual, whether they’re disabled or not.

As for me, I’ll continue working on reducing my current rampant level of internalised ableism with my psychologist (and with my incredibly supportive wife 😊). Just one of several issues I’m working through since my Autism diagnosis almost 12 months ago.

It’s hard work, for sure, and at my age some people might wonder if it’s even worth dragging all of this stuff up. Well, that’s ableism for you right there.

If you don’t want to, or can’t, recognise it – then perhaps it’s time you did a little self-reflection and examination, too.

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One comment

  1. I am 48 years old and just encountering Autism as anything broader than the stereotype — thanks to my wonderful daughter, 20 yo, who is most likely autistic. As am I, probably, and my husband and at least a couple of my other children. Thank you for your article; it is helpful as I am trying to understand this new world and, maybe, myself a bit better.

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