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The harm in demanding 'normal'

April is a challenging month for autistic people.

April is a challenging month for autistic people.

It’s supposed to be a time of increased awareness about autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but the initiative is dominated by groups like Autism Speaks which don’t do much to support the people they claim to help. In fact, their efforts to “find a cure” or promote therapies like Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) are hurtful and dangerous.

Even those who aren’t exposed to ABA-type therapies are often led to believe their reactions are not “normal” and therefore aren’t real issues. Autistic people are taught their discomfort in situations that don’t bother neurotypical people are an “incorrect” response, and learn to accept that those feelings of unease are something they need to put up with if they want to build successful relationships or have a career – or even leave their homes, some days.

But going through life believing the things that make you feel uncomfortable are “normal” things that don't bother “normal” people means you don't learn to trust your own intuition. You don't pick up on it when people are trying to take advantage of you. You're vulnerable, because whenever something starts to make you feel scared or anxious or unsafe, you remind yourself that you've been wrong about those feelings your entire life – this is a “normal” situation and you're overreacting, as usual.

A study published in 2018 indicated 70 per cent of people with ASD have experienced sexual abuse by the time they are college age, and another small-scale study in 2016 of late-diagnosed autistic women revealed nine out of 14 had been sexually abused, often by their partners. And it’s really not surprising: we’re easy targets.

Gaslighting, a subtle but traumatic form of psychological manipulation, is frequently used by abusers to make their victims doubt their own thoughts, feelings and experiences – the same kind of brainwashing autistic people suffer when the well-meaning people in our lives dismiss our discomfort by telling us we're being too sensitive, too dramatic. It leaves us wide open for some less-well-meaning person to slide in and manipulate our overstimulated brains to their advantage.

In smaller ways, even, it never ends. If I feel panicky because my routine is disturbed – the chair I usually sit in is already taken, the store I typically buy groceries at is closed for renovations, the interview I had scheduled for the afternoon calls unexpectedly first thing in the morning – someone will always remind me that “it's not that big of a deal.” And maybe, to them, it wouldn't be. But it is for me, and I'm not willing to let anyone tell me how I should feel, anymore.

Autistic people don't need to act “normal” just to fit in. We are valid as we are. And someday, I hope the rest of the world sees that.

Jessi Gowan

About the Author: Jessi Gowan

Assistant Editor
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