Autistic people often face comments or questions that range from clueless to offensive. Although the folks who say such things may not intend to be insulting, their words can prevent meaningful conversation, and even be hurtful. Here’s a list of ten things not to say to someone with autism, along with suggestions for other things to say.
1. “I bet you’re really good at math/science/computers.”
The truth is that autistic people have the same breadth of interests and talents as the broader population. Nobody likes to be pigeonholed.
What to say instead: “What are your favorite subjects?”
2. “What medication are you on?”
This probing question implies that the autistic person doesn’t want or deserve the same level of privacy as everyone else. If you wouldn’t ask your coworker, neighbor, or other acquaintance about their medical status, don’t ask an autistic person, either.
What to say instead: “How are you feeling today?”
3. “You don’t look autistic.”
First of all, autistic people look and act in lots of different ways, same as anyone. Also, to say an autistic person doesn’t look like it implies that their condition isn’t real or that it doesn’t impact them. Remember that you can’t see all of a person’s challenges just by looking at them.
What to say instead: “You look great.”
4. “You must be high functioning.”
This term is currently receiving a lot of criticism from autistic people and advocates. Its very existence implies that there are also low functioning people, when in fact every human—autistic or not—has areas of strengths and challenges.
What to say instead: “What are your favorite things to do?”
5. “But you have a job/degree/relationship!”
This is a typical remark that betrays the speaker’s assumption that autistic people are limited in their abilities and choices. While not everyone with autism goes to college, works, and gets married, it’s narrow-minded to assume that no autistic person can do those things.
What to say instead: “Tell me more about your job/degree/partner.”
6. “You’re not like my friend/child/sibling with autism.”
Keep in mind the famous saying, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” A shared diagnosis provides only a glimpse at commonality, as people with autism have a vast range of abilities, interests, and challenges.
What to say instead: “My friend/child/sibling has autism, too.”
7. “Stop flapping/rocking/jumping. It’s annoying and embarrassing.”
Many autistic people engage in self-stimulatory behavior or “stimming”, to self-regulate sensory information and emotions. Instead of feeling embarrassed, work on your empathy by noticing the ways you self-soothe, such as biting your nails or tapping your foot.
What to say instead: “We’re both doing what makes us feel better.”
8. “I’m sorry you have autism.”
Autism has its challenges, but a lot of people on the spectrum view their autism not as a tragedy, but as an integral part of who they are. In fact, autistic people often relish the strengths and advantages they have over neurotypical people.
What to say instead: “Can I help with anything?”
9. “What’s it like to have autism?”
This question might be well-intentioned, but it can be off-putting. If you wouldn’t ask someone what it’s like to be a member of a race or other marginalized group, then you shouldn’t put an autistic person on the spot this way, either.
What to say instead: “What are you into?”
Ignoring an autistic person and speaking only to their parent, friend, or aide is insulting and unnecessary. One tip that helps is to remember to be patient. Some autistic people need a little more time to answer or may use a communication device. They might not answer at all, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.
What to say instead: “Hello.”
Caryl Anne Crowne is a contributing writer and media relations specialist for Aveanna Healthcare.