Autism Faux Pas

This is not a list of the so-called “faux pas” that neurotypical society deem autistic people to make (we have rather enough of those unfortunately). Rather, this is a list of the very real (and often actually harmful) faux pas that neurotypical society (but occasionally autistic people as well) make about autism. These faux pas pertain to erroneous and often highly damaging misconceptions and misrepresentations about autistic people. They may be intentionally meant to provoke or hurt, but very often they are not. Usually, they are unintentional, often said unthinkingly and unknowingly, or even with “good intentions”. Unfortunately, they are just part of the entrenched and all-too overlooked and invisiblised ableism that circulates within our current society. But this is precisely why, in my view, we need to start to list them. So we can render them visible. So we can start conversations and let it be known that these things are not okay. (Also I just need to get these things off my chest whenever I encounter them; it’s cathartic for me to write them down.)

This post will list very specific words said in specific places by specific people. It is not a list of more generalised problematic language and mal-representations, although of course these specific examples reflect and are embedded within this broader context. You can check out this post for a more generalised discussion of problematic terms and phrases often used in relation to autism (e.g. the use of “disorder”, or the use “you don’t look autistic”, and so on).

The list below is only made up of things I have personally seen or heard in the media surrounding autism, through reading countless books and blogs, watching videos, films and documentaries. Unfortunately, it is a tiny tip of the iceberg, and far from comprehensive. I also started this list relatively late in my post-autism-discovery research/journey (almost 3 years in), so there is a lot which I encountered in the past which I simply did not document (and have since forgotten about – perhaps thankfully). If you have any good (i.e. bad) ones you’d like to share, let me know and I’ll gladly credit you and add them to the list.

None of this is meant as a personal attack on the various authors implicated. I’m simply looking to provoke healthy and productive debate about the ways in which we talk (and hence think) about and represent autism. Also, many of the below sources actually contain plenty of positive and valuable representation. By nit-picking one or two problematic things, I am not saying that the entire source is ableist or invaluable (although sometimes this is the case). This page will be updated as and when I find more faux pas. Also, spoiler alerts for some of the books, films and TV shows.

A list of media mis- and mal-representation of autism

Title
“Tracing Autism” (book, p.45)
Faux Pas – “I think it’s, it’s really an interesting disorder, because it’s kind of everything that’s sort of dysfunctional in autism is kind of what makes us kind of human, if you like… I think it can tell us a lot about, sort of, how we are as humans generally, as well as the actual autistic condition.”
Commentary –
Here the author is relating a quote from an interview he carried out with an (anonymous) autism neuroscience researcher in the UK. The second part of the statement implies that being autistic and being human are somehow two different categories of things. The first part explicitly counter-poses autism and human-ness in a way that is quite shocking. The implication is that to understand autism is to understand what we (nonautistics, i.e. actual humans) are not. I’d like to think, in this day and age, this is not how autism researchers are thinking and talking about autism, but apparently not…

Title
“Just Like You” (YouTube video by Autism Society of America)
Faux Pas – Excessive person-first language. Plus, contradictory message at heart (see commentary)
Commentary –
This wasn’t too bad. I realise and appreciate that the general underlying message is a good one: they want to promote understanding and acceptance of autistic people (or, in their words, “people with autism”, “people living with autism”, and – my very favourite – “people who just happen to have autism”). This is one of the main irritating things I found about this video – they use a lot of person-first language. The other irritating thing is the apparent contradiction underlying their message. They spend the entire video outlining how autistic people are different from the majority (“that’s just autism” the video repeatedly asserts – this in itself sounds a bit odd, as if this thing called “autism” is causing these kids to act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t?). So they establish and outline how autistics are different (with an admiral focus on the sensory aspects). And yet, this is interspersed with commentary from allistics along the lines of “I do something similar too” and “but everyone’s a bit like that”. At one point the video even tells the viewer to treat an autistic kid “just like anyone else” (I understand the sentiment, but taken literally this isn’t going to work well). And, of course, the video is titled, “Just Like You”. So we have a contradiction at hand: autistics are very different because of x, y, z but really they are “just like us” and we should treat everyone the same – great! I also can’t help think that the reason underlying this contradiction is that autism is conceptualised as being separate to, as in simply layered upon, the person (as reflected in all the pfl) and so really, underneath all that autism, the person is “just like us”, as in neurotypical after all.

Title
The Best and Most Beautiful Things (documentary)
Faux Pas –
Michelle, an autistic woman, explains to her (former) (non-disabled) teacher about how non-disabled people tend to treat her (and others with disabilities) as though they aren’t individuals, not seeing their personhood, seeing everything as a “side effect” of their disability, being infantilising and patronising, trying to “fix” her traits, etc. This is what the teacher says in response: “It’s not you. It’s the autism speaking. So I don’t take anything personally”. Then she says to the camera: “Her world is so small… The knowledge she is lacking between the vision loss and the autism… She just doesn’t get it.”
Commentary –
This is a serious fail, especially after what Michelle just said to her!
“It’s just the autism speaking” really gets to me, especially. There is only an autistic person speaking to you, no autism separate from person! This is so dehumanising. Luckily Michelle and her mother appear to see through this teacher, calling her approach very black and white.
Overall –
A wonderful documentary about a young blind autistic woman as she navigates life following graduation. Much recommended.

Title
The Kingdom of Infinite Space, by Raymond Tallis (book)
Faux Pas –
Autism is “a condition in which an individual, who lacks an integrated sense of self, also has a diminished awareness of the self-hood of others”. He repeats a similar refrain a little later on: “…those who are autistic, who have no coordinated or integrated sense of self and no sense of others as being independent, enduring points of view”.
Commentary –
This is book on philosophy and psychology generally (i.e. not autism-specific). The author does, however, see fit to mention autism in a couple of paragraphs – both times purely to highlight how fragmented, if not non-existent, autistic selves are. Even more absurdly, he makes this assumption on the basis that autistics fail to make eye contact – and eye contact, apparently, is a way of acknowledging the humanity of others. I find it very saddening and concerning that highly educated, intelligent and inquisitive people still today can hold such views about autism.

Title
Amy Carson, president of campaign group “Mum’s against Mercury” in this podcast
Faux Pas –
“I do not believe that autism numbers have increased because people are more aware of it. If you’ve ever been around an autistic child you know immediately that they are autistic or that there is something wrong with them. It’s not a guessing game. You either have it or you don’t. It’s very easy to see. We simply did not have children like this two decades ago.”
Commentary –
She believes the increase in autism prevalence is real (i.e. not that we are simply now identifying people who were unrecognised in past decades) and, moreover, that people are developing autism due to mercury poisoning. Also, it’s false that autism is always “obvious” in the way she describes. The fact we have tonnes of late and misdiagnosed teens and adults should make that clear. Also, there’s nothing wrong with being autistic.

Title
From this “Sacred Psychology” podcast episodehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKwsmrrlaUM&app=desktop
Faux Pas –
The (neurotypical) host makes the following analogy when talking about the difference between treating a co-occurring (e.g. mental health) condition versus “treating” autism: “it’s like being given an ibuprofen for a headache (analogy with mental health condition), when the unaddressed and unseen problem is that you have a brain tumour (analogy to autism).
Commentary –
Let’s not make any comparisons between autism and brain tumours or any other form of disease or illness, even if they are indirect and analogical.
Overall – Aside from this hiccup, otherwise a great episode talking about the need for autism understanding and acceptance and social justice more generally.

Title
The Lighthouse of the Orcas (film)
Faux Pas
“He has never felt an emotion before about anything”
Commentary –
Rather, I think that her son’s “problem” is that he feels too much and/or is surrounded by people who do not understand his emotions/expressions. A lot of the film is centred on the fact that the mother’s life has been nothing but “sadness” and “hell” for a long time because of her son. Also, now orcas are another one to add to the autism therapy list.
Overall –
Apart from these things, the film was not bad though. It was lovely how the autistic boy felt connected to the orcas, and overall I felt the film focused on the fact that this made him happy, and not on the “curing” autism route. The male lead had a good attitude I felt, at one point saying how the boy saw the world through wonderful eyes.

Title
Please Stand By (film)
Faux Pas
NT: “Give me 3 seconds of eye contact”. Autistic: “No”. NT: *encourages*. Autistic: *forces self to make eye contact*
Commentary –
There are a few other problematic things about this film, especially the fact the autistic character expresses dissatisfaction at living in her group home, dissatisfaction which is ignored by those around her. The fact her sister doesn’t want her to meet her niece. Also the fact that her daily “studying” consists of responding to facial expressions on prompt cards. She’s a bright and talented twenty-one year old – there are so many more useful things she could be learning, things which are actually age-appropriate, intellectually stimulating and interesting to her (such as her intense interest in script-writing – which appears to be subject to time-limiting by the group home leader).
Overall
In spite of these things, I actually enjoyed watching this film, and can’t help quite liking it in fact, at least in parts. I actually felt I related to the autistic character quite a bit, and it was refreshing to see a representation of an autistic woman.

Title
Autism with Attitude dance performance on the BBC show The Greatest Dancer
Faux Pas
“I’ve never heard of people using dance for autism before”. Also, just the general inspiration porn framework that the whole thing was embedded in.
Commentary –
I only heard about this through watching Purple Ella’s video on this, and she does a passionate critique about the underlying attitudes. You can also watch the performance and reactions here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jskrIjwIxsk. Despite the “good intentions”, it’s a bit cringe.

Title
Atypical (TV series)
Faux Pas
“We don’t use that language (referring to identity-first language here, in this group we use person-first language”
Commentary –
In this scene, the leader of a group for “autism parents” corrects one of the parents for using identity-first language (the precise opposite of what the majority of the autistic community prefer).
Overall
For much much more on the problematic representation contained in Atypical see Autism Sin’s video series especially. Plenty of other autistic people have offered thorough critiques of it as well. On the positive side, though, the second season was quite an improvement on the first.

Title
“Look me in the Eye”, John Elder Robison (autobio)
Faux Pas
The author conflates autism with “turning inwards” and implies that the more “outwards” you turn then the less autistic you are. (This is a paraphrase, not an exact quote).
Commentary –
Technically, this is introversion/extroversion (i.e. social motivation), not autism. Moreover, Robison goes on to suggest a casual link between degree of autism and the degree of “proper (social) stimulation” that was received, especially early in life – as if a lack of social contact (or “satisfying” contact) can be to “blame” for someone turning “inwards” and by (his) implication autistic. This is not how autism works.

Title
Are you Autistic?”, Channel 4 programme
Faux Pas
I watched this a while ago now, so I can’t remember any precise quotes. But things I remember being a bit off include: A comparison between autism and cancer, even if it was indirect. Coverage of a freaky robot intervention designed to “teach” emotional recognition and social skills to autistic children. The inclusion of Simon Baron-Cohen (who was the driver behind the survey that initially prompted this programme to be made). I found it ironic that he is the creator of the “Extreme Male Brain” theory of autism and yet there he was commenting on the large population of overlooked and mis-/un-diagnosed autistic females (his theory plays a role in reinforcing the male stereotypes that make it hard for many autistic females to recognise themselves or get recognised by others).
Commentary –
Apart from these things, it was a pretty good show, and marked a significant step forward in terms of autistic representation and input in mainstream media (it was actually hosted by two autistic women!). The blog Autistic and Cheerful has a post with a more thorough review of the programme.

Title
Extreme Love: Autism, Louis Theroux (documentary)
Faux Pas
“God forgive me for saying this, but I don’t get much joy out of them” – a mother talking about her autistic daughters on camera, and with one of the daughters in earshot 😦
Commentary –
There was so much problematic stuff in this documentary that I did an entire review post on it here.

Title
The Black Balloon (film)
Faux Pas
A mother and brother discussing their autistic family member:
Thomas (brother): He’s not my responsibility.
Maggie (mother): He’s your brother.
Thomas: He is a freak… I don’t want anything to do with him.
Maggie: Your brother will never be able to do the things you can, Thomas. He’ll never get a job or have a family. He’ll never be able to look after himself. He will live with us for the rest of his life.
Commentary
So obviously we have ableist slurs from the brother, whilst the mother is all low expectations and emphasising the “burden” of autism.
Overall
This film isn’t all bad, but there are certainly some problematic things. Whilst the family are ultimately loving, have good intentions and do things like protect the autistic character against bullies, I also find them to be sickeningly patronising in some scenes. Also, unsurprisingly, the story line revolves around the impact of the autistic person on the family, and in an almost entirely negative sense, rather than being focused on the autistic person as a central and active protagonist of the story.

Title
The A word, BBC TV series
Faux Pas
“We’re all a little bit broken”
Commentary
This is what the mother says to her young autistic son when trying to explain his diagnosis to him. Whilst we all have our flaws, and even our brokenness, autism itself is not brokenness.

Title
Life Animated (documentary)
Faux Pas
I watched this a while back, so didn’t note down any direct quotes. However, from what I remember, some of the language and characterisation in the film was a bit troubling, namely when describing Owen’s sudden regression into the “prison” of autism and how the parents felt he’d been “kidnapped” and was in need of “rescue”
Commentary
Overall, though, this documentary was pretty alright, especially as it centered around the family embracing the autistic person’s intense interest, using it as a way to communicate and connect with him and encouraging him to thrive through it.

Title
To Siri with Love (parenting memoir)
Faux Pas
In the book, the mother says she wants medical power of attorney when her son (currently 16) turns 18 so she can get him a vasectomy.
Commentary
This book received a lot of attention and backlash in the autistic community, and rightly so. The above statement, betraying a lack of acknowledgement or respect for her son’s bodily autonomy, is especially bad. But there is plenty more – see the hashtag #BoycottToSiriWithLove. This post by Ryan Boren also provides a good critique.

Title
All in Row (play)
Faux Pas
This play is pretty revolting. I don’t have any quotes from the script, but I’m sure the entire thing could be characterised as one huge faux pas. Not just the fact of using a puppet (which to boot is rather morbid-looking) to represent an autistic character in a context when all the other characters are played by human actors. But also the script itself, along with accessibility issues. I haven’t seen the play, but Shaun May wrote a good review of the various issues with it here. See the hastag #puppetgate for more.

Title
Social, by Matthew Lieberman (book)
Faux Pas
“If empathy is the peak of the social mind, autism is sadly one of its low points”.
Commentary – This single short statement manages to counterpose autism and empathy, employ pitying language, and imply that autistic people reside at the bottom of the pile of humanity (at least socially), all in one swoop.
Overview
I wrote an entire blog post reviewing this book which includes further faux pas.

Title
Michelle Garnett in “Spectrum Women” (book, p.79)
Faux Pas
“In my work I have found… (assuming a good level of independent functioning in each partner), that it is so important to accept the person as they are with dignity and respect”.
Commentary
I agree wholeheartedly, except with what is contained within the brackets. Judging from most of the other stuff she says in the book, I don’t think Garnett meant this in a bad way. But, still, a literal reading of this statement can’t help come across as rather ableist. It was said in relation to relationships in which at least one partner is autistic. It seems to imply that acceptance, dignity and respect are reserved only for those with “good” “functioning”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, or perhaps it was a little slip-up?
Overview
99.9% of this book is rather fantastic (but then it’s largely written by autistic people so yeah).

Title
Somebody Somewhere, Donna Williams (book, p.238)
Faux Pas
“The most important thing I have learned is that AUTISM IS NOT ME… Autism tries to rob me of a life, of friendship, of caring, of sharing, of showing interest, of using my intelligence, of being affected… it tries to bury me alive… I CAN FIGHT AUTISM… I WILL CONTROL IT… IT WILL NOT CONTROL ME”
Commentary
Y.I.K.E.S. These are some pretty troubling statements to say the least. I’m saddened, though, to have to include this book in the faux pas list, because overall it is a very absorbing and insightful read, and one of my favourites books about autism. I learnt quite a bit about autism from it (especially about meaning deafness). To be fair to the author, this was one of the first ever autie-bios, written decades ago, long before the advent of the neurodiversity movement.