How “The Golden Rule” Harms Autistic People

Woman sitting down distressed with her hands on her ears, looking down, while five people sit around her in a circle looking at her. One woman has a hand on her back.

Miscommunication and misinterpretation of autistic people happens very early in life.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Or in modern language, “Treat other people as you would like to be treated.”

Everyone knows about The Golden Rule. Most people learn about it from a young age, either in school, or in church, or from their parents. But this rule is part of the reason why unintentional harm of autistic people starts so early in life and is so pervasive in our society.

When I’m having a shutdown, I’d prefer non-autistics to:

  1. not look me directly in the eyes
  2. not ask me what is wrong
  3. not expect me to answer them
  4. not tell me they know how I am feeling
  5. not hug me (hugging me makes it worse. Much worse.)

However, we’ve taught neurotypicals incorrectly. We’ve been telling them their entire lives to treat other people as they would like to be treated.

Question: What if other people don’t like to be treated this way?

Do you know what neurotypical people often think would help when someone is having a shutdown? All of the above! Because it would help them when they are upset. But just because it would help them, it doesn’t mean it would help me.

Do you know how many interactions cause autistic people harm and could be easily mitigated if non-autistics stopped assuming other people were exactly like them? If instead of projecting our own needs and emotions onto others, we actually learned about each other’s differences, listened to other people, and respected their own different needs and way of being?

If we treated people how they would like to be treated, rather than how our own selves would like to be treated – this would make such a large difference in so many neurodivergent lives.

The assumption that everyone in the world has brains that work the exact same way actively harms minority neurotypes– and disabled people in general. This is why we need the idea of neurodiversity, so that people understand that not everyone has a brain that works the same way as their own. And that doesn’t make anyone “wrong” or “bad” or “weird”– it’s just different ways of processing stimuli.

All of those different ways of being should be respected and heard– not just one.

Unintentional Harm: The Fallacy of “We’re All The Same”

We autistic people have spent years, sometimes decades, hiding our sensory pain and overwhelm. When I told people that the TV was too loud as a kid, or that someone was talking too loudly, they didn’t experience it that way, so they ignored my requests.

They said not to worry about it. I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them that the sound was physically hurting my ears. You see, I, and other autistic people, thought that everyone had our same experiences– that everyone had pain with noise, so we hid it.

I tried not to flinch when the school bell went off. I tried not to grimace when I walked next to a lawnmower. I thought everyone else just figured out how to easily hide their sensory pain, and that I was required to do the same. And this hiding of my pain, for over a decade, was partially because of The Golden Rule– that somehow we’re all the same, that we must all have the same sensory experiences.

That really harmed me.

I want to tell my childhood self that we don’t have the same experiences– that she was brave for putting up with as much as she did. That she didn’t have to do that. That she should’ve been allowed to wear headphones, to be accommodated, to be herself, to feel okay.

“Treat other people as you would like to be treated.” The Golden Rule is a backwards way to treat other people, and it harms us. It harmed me. I don’t want another autistic child or adult to be harmed because of this ridiculous rule on how to treat others. Treat others with compassion. Do not treat them as an extension of yourself.

Neurotypical Comfort is an Autistic Person’s Kryptonite

In an anecdotal facebook experiment by Terra Vance, both neurotypical people and autistic people viewed the image below and provided their own interpretation of the situation:

Woman sitting down distressed with her hands on her ears, looking down, while five people sit around her in a circle looking at her. One woman has a hand on her back.

Unsurprisingly, most of the neurotypical people commented on this picture assuming that the blonde woman in the center, who seems upset, is being supported and comforted by all of the other people sitting around her because she needs emotional support. Here is what some non-autistic people had to say:

This is an intervention.  She is struggling with addiction, and the others are trying to let her know that she’s supported.

A young lady is having a hard time and the people around here are supporting her, helping her through it.

A teen girl is struggling.  Her parents are on one side and her peers are on the other side showing her support.

The lady in the middle is having a hard time making a decision, or is upset about the results or outcome of something. The others are trying to comforting, helping, guiding her.

However, most autistic people had a different read on the situation.  Here’s what some said:

On first glance, I thought Sensory overload of the woman in the center because multiple individuals are talking at once, she seems to be overwhelmed and possibly on the verge of a meltdown or shutdown with no place to go. -Andrew Wolfheart Sanchez

How not to comfort me when I’m upset. (group of people looking at me and about close enough to sit in my lap eeeeeek) -Eve Reiland

She’s overwhelmed. She needs everyone to just leave and give her space- probably for the rest of the day at the very least. The crowd is trying to help her and make things better for her but the reverse is actually what they are inadvertently doing. -Brandi Peyton

Honestly, this is triggering to me. It seems like someone has invited all of these people over to watch this person freak out… The people on the right disturb me.  Especially that asshole with the clipboard and their hand up. That hand is saying WAY too much. -friend


What neurotypical people may think of as comforting, autistic people may experience as intrusive and painful.

The New Golden Rule

Treat other people as they would like to be treated. Listen to other people’s experiences without projecting your own. Respect their needs even when they are different from your own. You do not have to understand someone to respect them or help them. You merely have to listen to how they want to be treated.

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24 Responses

  1. Yes! This! Such a helpful article. I’m definitely sharing this on my page!

  2. Well… the “treat others as you’d like to be treated” is a fundamental step towards empathy. Don’t lightheartedly dismiss it.
    I’d happily give people the benefit of the doubt if they at least obeyed that one rule. Which, unfortunately, isn’t always the case…

  3. I’m neurotypical. But also pretty introverted and private. Many of these things apply to me too. I DON’T want to talk about it – at least not with very many people. I DON’T want to look anyone in the eye. And I really, really don’t want a hug. And the more upset I am, the more I feel this way. And I know a lot of people who are neurotypical and feel this way.

    My husband and I process things very differently, even though we’re both neurotypical. It took a while before we could articulate what we needed when we’re upset. It’s still hard for both of us to respond to each other the way we need, instead of how we would like to be responded to. But we’re working on it, and it’s better. What really helped was figuring out our son, who has ADHD and a very hard time regulating his emotions. He was like a puzzle, but very early on we knew we had to respond to him differently than we did to our other kids, especially in high stress situations. Normal parenting seemed to make everything much worse, and he would get so angry! After much trial and error and advice, it’s gotten better. And it helped us be able to treat all our kids, not just him, as individuals. We really need to figure out what each one needs, in each situation, because everyone is different and needs different things.

  4. Autistic people (myself included) are fully aware of their surroundings. So I feel that the Golden Rule doesn’t apply to us because we are already thinking of “the other” to the point of exhaustion or anxiety/shutdown. And that is what I feel the golden rule is more about.

    That picture though—my gut feeling is she was being started at ans criticized. I didn’t even notice the hand on her shoulder which is making ME cringe.

  5. + 1 to “that picture made me cringe”.

    (*probably* autistic, diagnosed bipolar ii so i’m for sure neurodivergent). i don’t like eye contact, i’m good with hugs from people i KNOW or at least don’t get bad vibes off when it’s an appropriate situation (i’m a seasonal tax preparer so mutually consensual hugs are sometimes a post-return thing), and i definitely do not like “lots of people/noise/lights” situations the vast majority of the time.

  6. Yeah great point. I think the golden rule shouldn’t be dismissed entirely, but it’s important to remember to qualify it to say, for autistics and non-autistics alike, not everyone likes to be treated the same, and we should really prioritize respecting individuals’ own preferences

    1. I think we are misinterpreting the golden rule – if we took it a step further than “I don’t like to be beaten so I don’t beat others/I like to be hugged when sad, so I hug others when they are sad”, and interpret it as “I like to be treated in a way that comforts me in my individual way, so therefore I will take time and effort to find out how others want to be comforted and then comfort them in their unique, individual way” then we could easily include everybody on the neurotypical/neuro diversity spectrum. After all, the golden rule was not presented alone – it was mentioned along with love thy neighbour (and God, but that is another topic). And when you add love to the golden rule, I think it is fairly easy to see that you have to go to step two.

      1. Unfortunately lots of well-intentioned people (who love you!) can still do harmful things without realizing it. And whether or not we’re misinterpreting it – that is in fact how many neurotypical people interpret the golden rule (and many autistic people). We learn it at a young age. So it’s not really much of a leap to assume that kids may take something like that quite literally.

  7. Can definitely relate to the part about wanting to go back and hug your past self. It’s damaging to keep every pain suppressed, but back then there was no other option. There was zero understanding.

    I too thought everyone was the same, that they had just figured things out better. People should realise that not everyone fits into the same box, we adapt to the rest of the world all the time, I’m sure they can figure out ways to adapt to us too.

  8. Isn’t this also one reason why autistic folks are seen as not having empathy? We see someone who is upset or overwhelmed and we give them space, don’t ask them what’s wrong, and don’t hug them. If they’re neurotypical, they think we don’t care, when we’re just trying to be considerate.

    1. See, this is why Rabbi Hillel’s version of this rule is much better – don’t treat others the way you wouldn’t like to be treated. That’s how I try to live my life!

  9. AutisticScienceLady and everybody:

    Probably one of the people in the picture is an Upstander.

    The others may well be Bullies; Assistants and/or Defenders.

    At least one might be resolutely uninvolved/doesn’t care/neutral.

    Think about the five different ways you may be treated by these people – even if they are the same people at different times in your life or different interactive situations.

    Think about the ways you want to be treated and why you would want to be treated that way.

    And the whole “treatment” word/paradigm is at best problematic.

    That central point about intrusion and pain where comfort could and should be found – and where it is found – is the one which will stick with me.

    When the Golden Rule makes people you love hide their pain …

  10. “Treat others how they want to be treated” is actually known as the Platinum Rule! It’s far superior to the Golden Rule in most cases. 🙂

    (Not in all cases, since sometimes the things people want are unhealthy for them. But in general, the Platinum Rule is amazing.)

    Thank you for your insights. This is a worthwhile read.

    I’m putting this on Pinterest, a community full of parents of autistic kids, so they can see it. Has The Aspergian ever considered making a Pinterest? It might be worth trying.

  11. Here’s my biggest problem with this article:

    There’s a saying in the ASD community that “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Unfortunately, this article paints those of us on the spectrum as though we are all the same. That our reactions will always be the same. That we have the same emotional, psychological, and even physical reactions.

    I have High Functioning Autism (until recently referred more commonly to as Asperger Syndrome). Some sounds I do want to just crank up and hear nice and loud. It’s intrusive noises I can’s stand. The people who play their bass to where you can hear it from a half mile away and don’t care if it bothers anyone else. The high pitched whine of cicada’s in the summer. But I’ll blast my favorite movies, music, comedy, and so on. So for me, and a number of others I know, it’s not the amount of sound or sensory stimulation, it’s what it is. (I can’t handle bright colors for long, and if I go to the local clinic, I know that I need to put my sunglasses on if I’m being put in room 6 because it’s painted bright yellow and I can’t stand it. The sunglasses make it more bearable.)

    While I might not look someone in the eyes… and sometimes I just want to be left alone… just as many times I WANT to be asked what’s wrong. I NEED to talk about what’s bothering me. Because that way I feel like someone is listening and cares and it allows me to begin grounding and re-centering myself in the spiral of a meltdown. And yeah… sometimes I WANT someone to hug me, to hold me, and to tell me they understand that I’m frustrated and hurting but that it’ll be all right.

    Just because the author and a few others don’t react the same way, and just because of some cherry picked ASD responses to an anecdotal study say something is perceived in a given way… doesn’t mean it’s that way for all of us.

    Heck, I’m on a few FB pages for the ASD community, and have a blog about my life on the spectrum on FB… and we all spend time talking about our frustrations, our victories, what’s stressing us out, our meltdowns… and we do it because we need to talk and it’s a place where we know we can talk with those who have shared similar experiences.

    But the thing is, just like every person who’s not on the spectrum has different ways of reacting to things, of coping with life, of dealing with stress and frustration… how the rest of humanity has a wide variety of personalities and responses….

    It’s not really so different for those of us on the spectrum. Don’t expect us all to act or react the same. Feel free to ask what we need, if we need help, someone to talk to, or just to be left alone for a while… and listen to us. But don’t just react to all of us as though we come out of the same mold. You wouldn’t want it done to you, so please don’t do it to us.

    And when someone writes an article like this… understand that they’re speaking from their OWN perspectives and experiences. They don’t speak for ALL of us on the ASD spectrum.

    1. “But don’t just react to all of us as though we come out of the same mold.”

      Ironically this is exactly what I’m arguing for in the article. No, we are not all the same. I agree! But what I’m seeing is neurotypical people (with similar sensory experiences) unintentionally harming autistic people who are overloaded or have sensory sensitivities. I’m not saying all autistic people have sensory sensitivities, or should be treated the same way! I’m saying we need to get away from the assumption that what someone else wants is the same thing as what you want, and how you want to be treated.

      When I say “some other autistic people” in the article, that’s what I mean. Some other autistic people. Not all! And of course we don’t have the exact same experiences, but at least three people have said that they experience the same gaslighting with their auditory sensitivity and pain with loud sounds. And I needed to give an example to show that what neurotypical people assume other people need is not actually helpful oftentimes. And this likely extends between neurotypical people as well and why there are so many miscommunications when someone is upset. Humans are good at making assumptions. Neurotypical people grow up getting reinforcement that their assumptions -are almost always right.- And this is simply not true. So that’s what I was trying to get at, not that all autistic people (or all neurotypical people) are all the same.

  12. I really enjoyed this article.
    You made me question my own assumptions about different approaches to people and situations.
    I am autistic and I am often misunderstood.
    I also misunderstand other people.
    It is always good to check in with people.

  13. My family wasn’t religious but the Golden Rule felt like their gospel because of the importance they placed on it! I included excerpts in my most recent post since I connected so much to this. Not sure if I am brave enough to share the article with them yet 😀

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