The Rampant Dehumanization of Autistic People5 min read

Marginalized groups are dehumanized—portrayed as nonhuman—by their oppres­sors, as with Black people being shot by cops in the US, or Jews being com­pared to rats during the Holocaust. It’s a way for people to over­ride their morality and values in order to jus­tify harming others.

In a sense, autis­tics are lucky: we don’t face the level of vio­lence many groups do, and are more likely to receive pity or be dis­re­garded. But I believe dehu­man­iza­tion plays a part in the deci­sions of par­ents who kill or admin­ister bleach enemas their autistic chil­dren and con­tributes to ongoing efforts to erad­i­cate us through eugenics.

Let me show you how remark­ably brazen and open pro­fes­sionals are in their belief that autistic people are sub­human.

Here’s a classic by Ivar Lovaas, an early pio­neer most asso­ci­ated with the cur­rent therapy most aggres­sively rec­om­mended for autistic kids, Applied Behavioral Analysis:

You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the phys­ical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psy­cho­log­ical sense […] One way to look at the job of helping an autistic kid is to see it as a matter of con­structing a person. You have the raw mate­rials, but you have to build the person.

This is in-line with the phi­los­ophy of ABA, which looks only at behav­iors and not at the under­lying mental or med­ical states that cause them. The recip­ient of ABA might as well be a robot, or one of the rats on which operant con­di­tioning was prac­ticed.

Or this descrip­tion of how an autistic person expe­ri­ences a dinner party, from psy­chology pro­fes­sors Alison Gopnik and Simon Baron-Cohen, prob­ably the world’s most promi­nent autism researcher:

At the top of my field of vision is the blurry edge of a nose, in front are waving hands… Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and pro­trude in unex­pected ways… Imagine that these noisy skin bags sud­denly moved towards you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or pre­dicting what they would do next.

When I see this, I wonder: where on earth are they get­ting these ideas of life as an autistic person? Professionals see an autistic person show little interest in inter­acting with same-age peers, say, and from that they spin descrip­tions like the above out of thin air.

The only thing that rings true in that descrip­tion is the inability to pre­dict what people will do next—the idea that autistic people are unable to under­stand that other people exist and see them as ‘noisy skin bags’ is made up.

It is ironic that an inability to under­stand others is sup­posed to be an autistic trait.

People seem to run with false descrip­tions of autism and then write about the moral prop­er­ties of these imag­i­nary people, like in this quote from psy­chi­a­trist Peter Hobson:

The autistic person is out­side the moral com­mu­nity, bio­log­i­cally human but not a person in the moral sense.

He appar­ently believes this because he thinks autistic people cannot have rela­tion­ships with other people. Where does he get that? The view does not seem uncommon, and goes back at least to Lovaas, who said that “people are no more than objects to [autistic chil­dren].”

It’s so common, in fact, that this line was in a paper pub­lished in 2019: 

The fact that this finding rein­forces other work which shows that autistic people can have, main­tain, and value close romantic rela­tion­ships and friend­ships is supremely impor­tant.

Just imagine replacing ‘autistic’ with another demo­graphic and read that sen­tence again:

 

“… which shows that [boomers] can have, main­tain, and value close romantic rela­tion­ships.”

 

Or,

“… which shows that [bisex­uals] can have, main­tain, and value close romantic rela­tion­ships.”

The pon­tif­i­ca­tions of autism pro­fes­sionals are echoed by public per­cep­tion. Research by Cage et al. (2018) found that people tend to dehu­manize autis­tics, rating them lower on traits seen as uniquely human. 

What does it mean to be human? Nothing in par­tic­ular, in my view, other than to be a member of this species of ape, genet­i­cally more sim­ilar to this species than to any other. Yes, the devel­op­ment of lan­guage and sociality have been impor­tant forces in the evo­lu­tion of humans, but so has the ability to cook—and we don’t say people who can’t cook are sub­human. 

I think the dehu­man­iza­tion of autistic people comes down to two things. First, people’s per­cep­tions of us are not based in reality. And second, people under­stand per­son­hood too nar­rowly. If an autistic person can’t do some­thing people con­sider quin­tes­sen­tially human, like speaking, that doesn’t mean the autistic person isn’t human—it means our assump­tions of the abil­i­ties nec­es­sary to be a morally-relevant person are wrong.

What are the effects of dehu­man­izing autis­tics?

In some ways, the same as the effects of dehu­man­izing any other group. It puts us at risk of vio­lence per­pe­trated against us and makes us seem unde­serving of human rights, and forces us to hide who we are and fear “coming out.” It’s bad for research, making researchers dis­count our knowl­edge, and bad for diag­nosis, because someone you know and love can’t pos­sibly be autistic if that means they’re not a person.

And I think it dam­ages autism accep­tance. For people to put in the effort to learn to under­stand autistic people, they have to believe we’re people—that there’s a person there to under­stand. 

What can be done?

The obvious place to look for where people are get­ting these dehu­man­izing views of autism is the diag­nostic cri­teria, since those are gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to define autism. But the diag­nostic cri­teria say nothing like that—they talk only of dif­fi­cul­ties with social com­mu­ni­ca­tion and restricted or repet­i­tive behav­iors.

There’s a vicious circle, in which researchers keep putting for­ward these guesswork-filled con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of what it means to be autistic, ideas which could be dra­mat­i­cally improved by simply talking to autistic people about their life experiences—but aren’t, because these ideas present autis­tics as non-people and so not worthy of being con­sulted. 

Autism researchers and pro­fes­sionals are where many mem­bers of the public get their under­standing of autism. If they claim autistic people are sub­human, the public will believe it. Autistic people are dif­ferent, and may be hard to under­stand, but under­standing dif­fi­cult sub­jects is researchers’ job. 

Autistic people are people. Autistic rights are human rights. 

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7 Comments

  1. Fascinating article. Quotes are jaw drop­ping in their bla­tant prej­u­dice. No wonder we fran­ti­cally mask.

  2. I had no idea that people who started ABA had that opinion !! I was always under the impres­sion ‑before I started reading this blog- that it was a means of teaching someone cer­tain skills so they could learn how to do other skills that they had dif­fi­culty doing.

  3. 2019 was the year I became aware of the mas­sive smoke­screens on social media, that are nothing, absolutely nothing other than caused by simple agen­da’s. The huge amount of waffle and over­com­pli­cating of simple cliché’s in the field of autism rep­re­sen­ta­tion, seems to be some­thing no one ques­tions.

    Agenda’s like ABA is EVERYTHING. My child was brain dam­aged by a vac­cine so ALL AUTISTICS are just the same. All autism is ONLY disorder/disability.

    One thing that emerges from your article is this mon­tropic, single minded atti­tude many in the field seem to have. Instead of autis­tics being define by the great cliché’s together with per­son­ality, char­acter, matu­rity and all the dif­ferent sorts of intel­li­gence… you just get the cliché’s. We really are that shallow! I mean, how are we sup­posed to mature and grow up when we are afflicted with the evil dis­order?

    Very well written Ellie. A lovely con­cise piece that high­lights how much I think the field of med­i­cine and rep­re­sen­ta­tion is often nothing more than very biased atti­tudes. Re inforced due to either veiled agen­da’s or.…well…these people just aint autistic, are they? 😉




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