Toxic Positivity, Gaslighting, and Tone Policing Autistic People

It is often expected that autistic people should “watch their tone” when communicating with non-autistic people in order to be listened to and heard. There are several problems with this.

Mixed Signals

Autistic people are often accused of an “aggressive tone” where there is not necessarily any intended aggression. Sometimes, we are just giving information, sometimes we are just energetic about talking about a topic that we are passionate about, sometimes we are naming the outrage that a specific situation produces in us, sometimes we are relating something that has caused us deep pain or trauma. 

From the neuro-normative perspective, this difference in passion level, tone, or intensity is interpreted defensively as aggression, attack, or disrespect, even if it is not.

Tone Policing

On the other hand there is “tone policing.”  This is a strategy (conscious or not) of silencing those who express discomfort or discontent in the face of social injustice by focusing on the tone or emotion of the conversation and ignoring the content. 

Valid claims of people who suffer discrimination are no longer heard when the audience focuses how something is said rather than on what is said.

I doubt that this is a coincidence when it comes to autistic people. Non-autistics also do this with “person first language,” criticizing that we identify ourselves as autistic instead of “person with autism.” 

Gaslighting and Toxic Positivity

People with this attitude towards autistics accuse us of being dramatic, exaggerated, combative, rude, negative people. There even are some “loving” commentators who consider our difficulties to be from not focusing on the positive or even on love, as if the discrimination against us should be processed by spiritual bypass*!

*Spiritual bypass, according to Robert Augustus Masters, is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.

“Perpetual Victims” or “Victim Mindset”

One more example of this trend to invalidate autistic people is the frequent complaint that we victimize ourselves, that we blame the world for our problems instead of assuming them.

I do not believe that we are making ourselves into victims; rather, it’s that people in the neuro-normative society get upset to hear that some of their attitudes are harmful even though their intentions are good, or that they consider the effort to provide access or reasonable accommodation too much when they have become accustomed to the fact that the onus for making the effort must be made by autistic or otherwise oppressed people.

All our lives, in one way or another, we have been adapting to a society that functions in ways that are not natural to us. Therapies often emphasize that we extinguish or at least mask our autistic traits, including not expressing our discomfort. 

“Use Your Words”

In therapy and education, so many times children are told to “use your words,” which has a problematic background. The message that sends is, “Adults won’t listen to you if you show your most overwhelming emotions.”

This is even more problematic for autistic people, as we do not always have access to spoken language, we have no choice but to give up in our difficult moments. In times of stress, we can lose the ability to speak, or what comes out may not be what we intended.

Autistic people have historically been silenced. It is common that as soon as we are able to communicate, we are no longer considered valid interlocutors to talk about autism.  And the consequence, only families and professionals are valid representatives to talk about “real autism.” If you communicate with spoken language, you are no longer “truly autistic.”

How convenient!

Amplify

We need to change this. We are trying to amplify the voices of autistic people with greater support needs. We are trying to build communities and support networks where autistic voices are not silenced. We are trying to model raising our voices against injustice so that more autistic people, including your children, have more space to do so.

Will you join us in doing this?

This article was originally written in Spanish by me for the page Autismo: Mi cerebro Atípico.

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11 Comments

  1. Woooohoooo first comment. This really means the world to me simply because in the past I’ve been accused of being reactionary or aggressive just for being brutally honest and it’s made me turn down the very Spirit of who I am. Reading this lets me know that so many other autistic people go through the same thing. I really loved how you explained everything in detail and this is a very well written article.

  2. This so well put, and so well explained.

    I have lost count of the number of times I have been to presentations by “communication professionals” who emphasise that “83% of communication is through non-verbal prompts, and only 17% is through the actual words used” (or whatever the currently fashionable percentages are) … and as an autistic person (and yes, I most definitely AM an “autistic person” rather than a person with autism … it doesn’t mean I am any less of a person, but my autism is central to who and what I am, not an add-on extra: unlike a “person with epilepsy”, for example, I do not only experience periodic episodes of autism … it is there the whole time and is one of the defining features of my being)

    Now … where was I?

    Oh yes … as an autistic person, I communicate with words. I don’t communicate with non-verbal prompts. I don’t use them myself, and I cannot read them in others. 100% of my communication is through the actual words I use, and if you want me to get the message you want me to communicate you need to make sure that it is there in the actual words you use.

    But I lose count of the number of times it is evident that people don’t actually listen to the words I use, or discount them for some reason or other.

    They interrupt me to say “don’t shout” (I didn’t think I was … but even if actually I was, well, thank you for telling me that you care more about WHETHER I was shouting than WHAT I was shouting … that makes me feel really valued. Not.)

    Or they say “Don’t use that tone of voice with me” …

    Or a particularly distressing one. I was in a part of London I didn’t know, travelling by bus to a place I didn’t know. I asked the bus driver to tell me when we got to my stop, but he didn’t. I ended up not knowing where I was or how to recognise the place I needed to be (I think some people would call this being lost … ) and I was trying to explain this to the next bus driver, to make sure he understood that I really really REALLY was relying on him to tell me when we reached the stop where I needed to alight … and yes, I daresay I was getting a bit passionate, due to the intensity of the emotions I was feeling at the time … frustration, bewilderment, desperation … and another passenger on the bus interrupted me mid-flow and said “Oh just grow up!”

    Grow up???

    How does “growing up” help anyone magically to recognise where they need to get off a bus when they’ve been taken to a part of London they don’t know by a driver who didn’t tell them when they’d reached their stop, and they’re feeling lost, confused and bewildered? And … what business was it of this other passenger anyway? But … he wasn’t listening to the message I was trying to communicate, was he? If he’d listened to my actual words he’d have KNOWN what the problem was, and understood that I was asking the driver for help, and WHY. But he wasn’t!

    I find this all most bewildering.

    Language is a wonderful tool, honed and perfected over 10,000 years to enable us to communicate accurately and clearly just about any message that we want to communicate. But neurotypicals choose not to use it in that way … and then also insult us by assuming that we don’t either, and just ignore the messages that we are trying to communicate to them using the only communication tool that we have in common with them!

  3. Interesting article. I read the link to Spiritual bypass, according to Robert Augustus Masters. Thank Heavens i follow an over 3,000 year-old spiritual tradition so I think I do not have a problem with spiritual by-passing but i see how that and all the other issues in this article are problems in our modern Western culture. I did not find a date for that link. Could you tell me when it was written?

    1. Author

      I’m not really sure when the article was written. The author has a book on the same subject written in 2010.
      The expression “spiritual bypass” seems to be coined in the 1980s by John Welwood.

      1. Thank you for the reply. Our modern western culture has had problems since at least the 1980s (I was born in 1946 so my memory goes back that far and i lived in the eastern U.S. until 1996). Modern western culture in my opinion has only gotten worse which may be one reason my son with nonspeaking autism asked to leave the U.S. in 1994 at age 22 (joined by my wife and me in 1996) and live within the ultraorthodox Jewish community in Israel based on an over 3,000 year-old spiritual tradition so I think I do not have a problem with spiritual by-passing. I pray that modern western culture will improve, which it might with the shock of the pandemic.

  4. yes, this, all my life , “stop feeling sorry for yourself” telling me my struggles are actually a gift (since my autism diagnosis at age 68) I want to wish my life before diagnosis onto those people to show them what a “gift” unknowing neurological struggles have been all my life. Oh, I am starting a rant… thank you for this post ! I identify strongly with it!

  5. This is so important and it applies to so many different situations regarding mental health. I love the term toxic positivity, it describes it so well.

  6. Mother of an different ability son here. Do you ahve any advice on where I can better learn medical terms in Spanish? I am an apriing advocate for acceptance and awareness. I would love to be able to help explain in Spanish to help others and to help my sons other side of the family vetter understand him.

    1. I apologize for my spelling mistakes. I’m sure you understand what I am implying. Lol.
      I am really sleepy, so mistakes were made 😬🤦‍♀️

    2. Hello, Spanish-speaking commenter here!
      What sort of medical terms do you look for? Being specific about it would help, as medical terms encompass a vast group of many other areas. Do you mean “terms that are used whenever your son has to go to the doctor”, or “terms associated with autism”, or something else?

      A word of caution, though: some of these terms have a history rooted in anti-disabled practices and inaccurate assumptions, i’d be happy to help with that in mind.

      (By the way, it’s ok to say “disabled”!)

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