Neurodivergent autistic woman questions ableist attitude
Autism and neurodiversity

What is ableism and how can we tackle it?

Have you heard of the term ableism? Ableism is becoming less and less acceptable in modern times. Nowadays disabled people are speaking out more about how prejudice affects them.  Ableism, or disablism, is an important issue to be aware of. Not just for disabled people themselves, but also for those who care for and have disabled people as friends or in their family.  

What is ableism? 

Ableism is discrimination in favour of people who do not have a disability. Individual people can have an ableist attitude, an organisation or a society can have an ableist culture, or a country can have ableist laws. Ableism can take many forms like assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes or practices.  

The obvious types of ableism, like a disabled child being bullied by other kids. Or shops not providing ramps for customers who use wheelchairs, are easy to spot. But it is important to recognise that there are other types of ableism which can be just as harmful, even if more subtle.  

Ableism and neurodivergence 

How does ableism apply to neurodivergent people (people with conditions like autism, ADHD or dyspraxia)? Is it really a problem? And why is it important for us, as parents and carers of autistic children and young people, to be aware of ableism and to do all we can to tackle it when we come across it? 

It can be harder to spot ableism against autistic people, but it does exist. One of the most prominent autistic people in the public eye at the moment, Greta Thunberg, receives a barrage of public insults and mocking comments all over the press and social media. Many of these have been aimed at her diagnosis of autism and the traits that can bring with it. 

As a parent carer of an autistic child I have seen ableism in action plenty of times, from the school head who insisted on punishing my son for bad behaviour when he had a meltdown, telling me it wouldn’t be fair on other pupils if they treated him differently, to the high profile organisations telling me as his parent I should be trying to force him to modify his autistic traits. 

I am sure that if you are taking the time to read this you think that ableism is cruel and inexcusable. But this is where it gets complicated. We can be ableist and not even realise it, even as parent carers. In fact, most of us hold ableist beliefs and views, even if we believe we don’t, even if we consider ourselves to have a disability as well. Years of being told disabled people have certain traits, certain personalities or aren’t capable of certain things can take a long time to unpack. Ableism can often be unintentional; we may not even realise we are being ableist because it is so ingrained so it just seems harmless to us. 

Ableism in action

Here are just a few examples of common types of ableism that affect autistics.  

Use of functioning labels – You are probably very familiar with the term ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’, or ‘they are low/high on the spectrum’ when talking about how autism affects someone. We are beginning to realise now that this can be damaging for autistic people.  

‘High functioning’ autistics often appear to be able to function in society easier, seeming more ‘normal’. But if an autistic person is labelled as high functioning their very real struggles can be dismissed. On the other hand if they are labelled ‘low functioning’ people often dismiss their abilities. A non verbal autistic person may be seen as low functioning because they communicate differently, but this is no reflection on their intelligence, value as a person or the rich diversity of their lived experience.  

 Confusing other comorbid disabilities with autism. Around four in ten autistic people have a learning disability. It is a common misconception that all autistic people have some kind of learning disability and some people treat all autistic people like they do.  

Use of ableist language. Language is constantly evolving, including the language used around disability. It is about choosing words carefully when talking about or to autistic people. Every time we talk about someone’s ‘weird behaviour’ or say we want our children to play with ‘more normal’ children, we are also using ableist language.  

Viewing autistic people as needing to be fixed or changed To frame autistic people’s worldview, behaviours or ways of interacting as less desirable is ableist. For many years society has told us that the behaviours and traits of autistic people need to be hidden away or trained out of them so they fit into society and act and look more like neurotypical (non-autistic) people.  This leaves autistic people feeling ashamed of the way they are.  

 What can we do to tackle ableism? 

It takes a long time to dismantle long standing beliefs held by society and institutions, but as parents and advocates, it starts with us, and we can make a big difference.  

  • Ditch the low functioning and high functioning labels when talking about your child, just ‘autistic’ will do.  
  • Don’t make presumptions about individual disabled people based on how they appear to function in comparison to non-disabled or less disabled people.   
  • Call out ableism when you see it or hear it.  
  • Be willing to listen to and follow the lead from disabled people. They are living with their disability, we aren’t, so their view is most important, no matter how much we think we understand it. Don’t try and talk over disabled people or presume you know best. 
  • Be mindful of the language and words you use. Would what you are about to say cause offense or shame to someone who has a disability or mental ill health?  
  • Don’t wish your autistic child’s autism away or try to change your child. Parenting is tough, parenting autistic children can be really hard at times. It’s okay to acknowledge that parenting an autistic child brings its own unique challenges. We all want our children to be healthy and happy, but celebrate them and love them as they are.  
  • Keep learning and keep open minded. You are your child’s best ally, and this is just the start of yours and their journey. 

Further reading