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.
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.”
“… 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.