Hey all, this is a bit more of an informal post – meant for our dear allies. People say this phrase a lot, and they may genuinely mean it as a compliment. But we don’t view it this way. Here’s why.
You Don’t Look Autistic!
When we are told that we don’t “look autistic,” there is a lot implied with that phrase that you probably don’t recognize. And that’s okay. I’m not judging you. I just think this is an important thing to understand and I want to cover it here.
Telling someone that you never thought they were different from other people is not the same as telling them they don’t look autistic. They may sound quite similar, but they convey very different things.
When you say the former, you aren’t conveying that being autistic is bad, you’re just telling them that you never noticed they were different.
Telling someone they don’t look autistic can convey that autism is a bad thing and you would never want to “look” autistic.
Generally what is said is that we “aren’t as bad as some people.” You might think or say, “Well you don’t flap!” “You don’t make noises!” “You can talk!” “You’re so high-functioning!”
And I really do believe you mean these things in a nice way, you’re trying to make me feel better. But it doesn’t. Let’s look at the reasons why and what this expression means.
I’m writing this mainly from my own experiences, no one has used this phrase to insult me. It’s been used by well-meaning people that just don’t understand the connotations.
I know this phrase has been used as an insult and to purposely devalue, and I’ll try to include that perspective as well.
1. By saying I’m not as bad as some people, you’re putting those people down
Even if it’s unintentional, you end up pushing other people down to put me up.
Many autistics, including myself, have a very strong sense of social justice and we hate to hear people spoken badly of.
So if someone else is put down for their visibly autistic traits, this makes me feel awful. I hate to see other people made fun of.
And just because you don’t see those autistic traits in me, that doesn’t mean I don’t have them.
I make noises at home, I stim at home. I rock, I shake, I hide under blankets, I stuff myself in small dark spaces. I bawl my eyes out and scream into my pillow because I’m exhausted from trying to “look proper.”
So the effort that it takes for me to not fit the stereotyped image of autism is tremendous. Masking takes a lot of energy and I suffer when I’m at home.
So hearing people make fun of people with visibly autistic traits and then tell me I’m not that bad hurts me for two reasons:
- I feel hurt on their behalf
- And I do these things! I do the things you’re making light of, I just don’t do them around you.
It really hurts my self-confidence to hear people made fun of for the things that I do. Just because I don’t tell you about my very personal and private struggles doesn’t mean they’re not there.
2. It makes me question how you would feel about me if I “looked autistic”
When you tell me that I don’t look autistic as a compliment, I wonder if you would respect me if I did look like what you’re thinking.
If you’re making light of someone’s traits or laughing about their challenges, you’re not respecting them. I understand that this is probably not your intention, but that’s what is happening.
I have days when I am “low functioning”. So I empathize with people given this label and I hate to hear them spoken badly of.
I struggle to get to the bathroom if I’m doing something else. Sometimes I feel like screaming when I’m at a store, or someone touches me at the wrong moment.
Tears will start rolling down my face, I sweat, my arms and legs hurt because they’re so tense. It’s all I can do to not scream at the top of my lungs. I feel like I need to flap. I don’t feel able to talk.
Some twist of genetics made me not present as visually as other people. But I have immense struggles inside of me. You just don’t see it.
So when you put down people who you think “look autistic,” I feel hurt. It makes me feel like crying because I deal with things that you mention. I rock, I do echolalia (“making noises”).
I’ve had public meltdowns – and not just when I was five. They may be infrequent, but they happen.
I cry so hard (in a public place) that I can hardly breathe, I can’t talk, I can’t see. It feels so desperate and horrible. I can barely follow my mother out of the store.
3. Autism doesn’t have a look
This is an important point. Autism doesn’t look like anything. Unless you’re a trained professional and you’re ready to scan some brains, we look like everyone else.
Autism is a different neurotype. So, aside from being offensive, “you don’t look autistic” is just plain inaccurate.
I think that people think autism looks like a five-year-old boy that can’t make eye contact, rocks, doesn’t talk, flaps, and can’t use the washroom on his own yet.
And you know what? Some autistic boys do look like that. And that’s okay, that’s nothing that should be judged. That’s them, they shouldn’t have to feel bad because of that.
But that is not what all autistic people look like. Autism isn’t partial; autistics come from either gender, any race, and are autistic for life.
4. This is actually ableism
Ableism is “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people,” according to Google. Don’t worry, I know you don’t mean to do this. I know it’s not what you want. That’s why you’re reading this, you don’t want to hurt anyone.
It’s kind of like how some people are unintentionally racist. It’s the way they were raised and they just never really thought about it. But we need to think about these things.
Let me explain it this way: If someone says “You don’t look like other *insert race here,* you’re so smart and put together! You don’t look like a thief or anything!,” that’s racism, right?
A blanket statement has been made that reduces all other members of that race to unintelligent, disheveled thieves. This person is the only respectable member of their race.
Yikes! It’s so cringy just to write that!
The person who received this comment wouldn’t thank the person who offered it, would they? They would say, “How dare you disrespect my entire race! You know nothing about us!”
This is very similar to how I, and I assume other autistics, feel when we hear this. It feels like we are being judged without any reason.
5. It kind of makes you look bad
I’m sure you can see how this is the case from the previous point. We know you don’t want to be offensive, and we appreciate that you care enough to read this article.
But if someone says this, it can make them look bigoted. It also shows a lack of knowledge. As King Solomon said, “Only a fool responds to a matter before he hears it.” 😂
Basically, my point is that if you say that I don’t look autistic, but you don’t actually know hardly anything about autism… well…
6. It invalidates my struggles
By telling me I don’t look autistic, it implies that because you can’t see me struggling, I must not struggle that much. Again, I know you don’t mean to say that, but that’s what it conveys.
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Of course, I’m not saying that I have it worse than anyone else. But I struggle. A lot.
I’ve touched on it earlier, but I have horrible days. No one except my family and my best friend have seen me at my worst. This is because I trust them, I know they don’t judge me.
They are the only people I have the energy for some days. The only people I don’t cancel on or make leave my house.
I spend days asleep on the couch wishing more than anything that I could work, or shower, or get food for myself, or even just read a book. I can barely function on those days. I cannot care for myself on those days.
I have horrible anxiety that makes it hard to leave my house and I can barely handle being touched by anyone except my inner circle.
When you tell me I don’t look autistic, I feel like all my problems, all my struggles, don’t mean anything.
You might not see my struggles. But they’re very much here. Please, don’t tell me I’m not as bad as someone else.
There is always someone who has it worse than you. But why do we feel the need to point this out? How is it supposed to help? Especially if the person isn’t even complaining.
You say: you’re not as bad as so-and-so.
I hear: Oh suck it up! Other people have it sooo much worse than you. Why are you even complaining? Your struggles are not valid, since they’re not as bad as this other person I know.
If you tell me you have a bad migraine, I’m not going to say “Hey, at least you don’t have xyz!”
If you had your leg amputated, I’m not going to tell you to “look on the bright side,” at least you still have one leg!
If you feel the need to help an autistic person to “look on the bright side,” you can. But don’t do it by telling them that other people have it worse than them (as this is actually discouraging).
Help them by telling them that you appreciate and value them. Help them to look on the bright side by telling them that if they need help, you’re there for them. They have people they can rely on.
Bring them a flowering plant (but text – don’t call, text – before you visit!). Send them a funny meme or cat video.
You can help to uplift people in ways other than telling them that other people have it way worse.
7. It sounds like you’re doubting me
When someone says that I don’t look autistic, it makes me wonder if they’re doubting me.
I mean, I just told them I’m autistic, and now they’re saying I don’t look autistic. Are they doubting that this is the correct diagnosis?
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Since I don’t look like other autistic people they know, do they think I was misdiagnosed? Do they think I’m exaggerating?
WAIT!! I Never Meant Any of This!
I know. I know you don’t mean to hurt us. And I can understand that, without knowing all the above, you might think this is a compliment. But it’s just not.
I’m not angry with you. In fact, if you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed. I’m thankful that you care enough about autistic people to learn why we don’t like hearing this.
So thank you. I hope this has helped you. Please, comment below with any questions. And if I’ve got any autsies here, leave a kind comment and/or suggestions below for our allies.
If you feel anyone in your life could benefit from this article, please share it with them!
Love from the autsiverse!