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.
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.
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.”
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.