Hello folks. I thought for today’s post we would take a look at some examples of how to treat autistic people when you yourself are a non-autistic person. These are all taken from my past experiences in the world, and they really represent a broad range of reactions. In the cases of poor handling of my ASD, I will not name and shame and so will instead change the people’s identities to give them some form of anonymity. I don’t believe in calling people out so publicly, but I feel they illustrate some excellent examples of how not to treat autistic people.
I thought the best way to approach this is to get some of the bad experiences out of the way first before looking at some of the wonderful ones I have also had. To start, I want to talk briefly about my time with the school counselor. The reasons I were there are not actually relevant to the post, however it should be noted that I was not having an easy time and she was the first experience I had with actual mental health support. I had previously been sent to a random teacher in Year 7 because I was having trouble making friends. I do not count him though as he taught English and was so disinterested in helping me that he never bothered to learn my name in the few weeks I saw him. After he told me that he didn’t feel I needed to come back following an increase of 0% in friends, I tried to avoid him as best I could: something which was easy considering he didn’t recognize me. By the time I was in 6th form where he was playing a more major role in leadership, I had successfully managed to get over all my inner resentment at how he had been so cold towards me when I was struggling with the social changes expected of me. Just kidding! I was still bitter but held it all inside and artfully dodged him at all costs. When I saw the school counselor, I really struggled to voice what was going on inside. By this I don’t mean my inner organ workings. The ‘Journey of a Cheese Sandwich’ work I had completed in biology gave me a good understanding of the basics. Instead, I am talking about trying to express my feelings – something I had been desperately trying to avoid. The sessions I had were filled mostly with me stuttering my way through a crudely told version of the most surface level issues. I couldn’t understand what was going on, let alone how to communicate with someone in a clear way. Her response was something I do not recommend for any councilor or therapist. She just told me to look her in the eyes and think before I spoke so that I didn’t confuse myself. I must give her credit where credit is due however: after a few sessions I had learnt a new skill! I learnt how to more effectively lie in order to convince people I was okay and that they no longer needed to support me. I later understood that this was not a win for my social development.
If we fast forward a few years to my final year in sixth form, I am now diagnosed, and the school has been informed that I am autistic. I was studying A-level Physics, Maths, Further Maths and Food Tech. I prefer to gloss over my FT experiences and instead focus on the other subjects which I found far more enjoyable. Maths and Further Maths were providing me with such joy and focus, and Physics was also being studied. (Physics was interesting but was too applied for my taste. The two teachers I had were absolutely phenomenal though, so shout out to Ms E and Ms L!) I had 4 different teachers across Maths and Further Maths and 3 of them were really good. Ms H especially was such a wonderful teacher and gave me immense confidence in my mathematical ability. She was one of the reasons I opted to do maths at Uni – Dr Hannah Fry’s talks being the other main contributor! The 4th teacher (Ms S) is, however, the focus of the particular instance I have in mind. For some brief background information: she was so awful at her job that she would often ask me to explain the concepts to her before standing up and teaching them to the class. A couple of times we cut out the middleman and I just explained it on the whiteboard. This ineptitude for teaching her material was one of the reasons the entire class decided to get together and write a letter to the senior leadership team asking for help, after our trip to the Head of Mathematics had proved fruitless. This was not only ineffectual but did not go down well when she found out what we had done. She spent a lesson shouting at us before telling us that we would now have to work in complete silence and that all tests would be surprise tests. I vaguely remember threats of homework books as well, but as that would require her to actually do some marking it never really took off. The mixture of shouting and disciplinary threats had upset me a lot and I had been quietly crying to myself throughout the lesson. When the surprise tests were mentioned, I realised that I had to speak to her about this and appeal to her sense of innate human kindness. The mistake here was assuming she had any.
During lunch I went to the maths office and asked to speak to her in another room. I explained that surprise tests cause me so much anxiety that every time I had one I may as well have not been present for all that I could answer. I described the fear that it put into me as well as my concern about how it would affect my running average of 97% and would not contribute in any way to my learning the material. She was completely unfazed by this, opting instead to tell me that our actions had consequences, a smug look of triumph on her face. I was getting more and more panicked by the second and began to spiral into a state of complete overwhelm and helplessness at the situation. I could not make her understand that I was not able to do surprise tests and that it would fill me with fear every time I stepped into a class. Before her eyes I became less verbal until I couldn’t speak or understand what was happening. I lost control and ended up on the floor, crying and rocking in place. She stood over me for a few seconds before announcing that I had already taken up her break time and that she was going to eat lunch. She left me alone in the classroom, apparently unperturbed by the fact I was completely incapable of doing anything.
That was one of the worst experiences I have ever had due to my ASD and I think I will switch to some of the better ones now for the sake of happiness. I was going to tell you about the time someone stroked my cheek and repeatedly said “good girl” to me but I think that will have to wait. I did have some really good teachers at school who were so kind and helpful when I was having a difficult time. The first was Ms G, a history teacher, who was one of the only people to take the time to talk to me about what was going on and wait patiently, offering suggestions when I was struggling to find the words. She always had time for me to visit her and would talk to me like I was an adult and make jokes when she realised I was getting overwhelmed. Unfortunately, she left for a different school when I was in year 10 but then I started getting some support from Ms R, my English teacher. I have since found out that it was her who first suggested to the school that I might have ASD, on account of my complete inability to spot a metaphor, and my deep hatred of poetry because it was “so vague.” She helped me throughout the rest of my time there and I owe a great deal to her. Not only did she make English lessons fun and teach me about non-literal language, she would let me stay in her office for some peace and quiet and would take what I said seriously, whilst making it feel more like a conversation than an interview. Both those teachers were a tremendous source of support, even if I was hesitant to rely on them too much. Knowing that they cared and that I could talk to them if I needed to was hugely comforting. They would also talk to me in a very straightforward way which I always appreciated. Something about having a Scottish / Northern woman tell you that what you just said is concerning and definitely a problem, but that they would help me work it out and didn’t think less of me, was exactly what I needed.
Something fairly small that, to this day, makes me feel warm inside is what both my best friend and my girlfriend did when they found out I have ASD. It might not seem all that monumental, but it turns out that they both went away and researched autism so that they understood the condition more. I am perfectly aware that this is a reasonable thing for a person to do, especially as I also researched things about them that I didn’t know much about upon meeting them. However, it was such a lovely idea that they cared enough to do independent research, and it makes me feel very respected and valid that they did that. Since then, they have both asked me questions about it as well as what they can do to help. Both of them have been with me when I am having a meltdown and both of them respected what I said about giving me space but keeping an eye on me and trying to get rid of any extra stimuli. Not too long ago I had a bad episode at Boots while trying to collect my medication from the pharmacy. When I got home to my best friend, I was immediately helped and brought food, water, and my toy dinosaur while I calmed down. When I was recovering from sensory overload with my girlfriend in her flat, she burritoed me and read me jokes from Scottish twitter in a poor but adorable attempt at a Scottish accent while cuddling me. It was just what I needed and soon had to be un-burritoed because I was laughing so hard. (Side note: being burritoed is when you are wrapped up in a blanket with your head sticking out and is a wonderful experience which I highly recommend!)
Another really nice experience was when I met my girlfriend’s friends for the first time in person. We went over to the flat that two of them shared for a game night and upon arrival I was shown a room that I could go into if I needed to take some time out. It was so thoughtful, especially as I had only met these people online a couple of times before. They were all so nice about my ASD and made small adjustments such as turning the volume down or checking if I was okay with having background music on. They were incredibly welcoming and curious, asking me questions that they had once they knew me more and realised that I am happy to talk about it. One of them commented that he had never noticed how loud everything is until he saw me flinch at noises, something I found oddly sweet that he had thought about. I was invited along to different activities and they were all really kind to me. I knew that they truly weren’t bothered by my autism during a game of Cards Against Humanity when I had 2 ASD-related cards played upon my turn as Czar. Perhaps it sounds odd, but the use of those cards showed me that they didn’t consider my disability a taboo or off-limits subject and would happily use it to try and win in a game. That was something I had deep respect for. Considering the range of awful topics covered by cards in the game, it would have been weirder if they had specifically withheld playing those cards in favour of a very specific sexual fetish or something that didn’t quite fit as well. If we could have rounds with themes not appropriate to write on this post, we can certainly play some offensive autism cards, especially as it relates to me personally.
NOTE: these jokes are not acceptable to make towards people you do not know or people who are uncomfortable with them. This was a dark humour game and we had talked enough that everyone knew that it was not meant seriously and what topics were allowed. (i.e. pretty much everything) I do not condone using those cards as an opener in a conversation with an autistic person as it is likely you will get yelled at or possibly reported to HR.
I have other situations, both good and bad, where people have reacted to my ASD but as this post is already erring on the long side, I will save them for a later date. I just wanted to point out that while there is a lot of work needed in educating people about ASD and what is or isn’t appropriate, there are also many people who care and will take the time to understand and help. Sometimes you have to have a few bad experiences before you meet those people, but they are definitely knocking about! Unfortunately, I am aware that I am going to have lots more negative situations resulting from other people because that is how society is at the moment. One of the reasons I started this blog is because I wanted to give a realistic account of what it is like being an autistic woman. Some people are ignorant, and some are just plain nasty. There are lots of people though who are neither of those things and you can have very nice interactions with non-autistic people. Sometimes it is a matter of educating people and being visible, so they understand that autism is not restricted to boys who are obsessed with trains. If you have people in your life who are lacking on the whole knowing-actual-autistic-people-and-therefore-understanding-that-they-deserve-to-be-treated-in-a-kind-and-accomodating-way-almost-as-though-they-are-also-humans-who-deserve-the-same-level-of-respect-as-anyone-else-and-they-have-a-right-to-be-here-as-much-as-you, then please feel free to pass along the blog if you think it would be helpful.
As ever, please be kind to each other and wear your bloody mask!