How to ‘really’ be an autistic ally.
Last week, I encountered an extremely uncomfortable workplace situation where I, as an autistic person, felt discriminated against and alone. This was the first time I experienced prejudice with employees who knew about my autism. Now, I know the discrimination was not coming from a bad place; just ignorance (this is the version I am going with), but this doesn’t discount the fact that I felt under attack.
What disappointed me the most was that two of my colleagues who claimed to be autistic allies did not call out the prejudiced views expressed by another colleague. I waited…..and instead received a barrage of invalidating arguments as to why I needed to be kinder and more accommodating of the prejudiced colleague! While all this was happening, I was experiencing a meltdown, which they mistook for me ‘acting out’. These two so-called ‘autistic allies’ not once stood up to the other colleague or called her out and instead decided to a) stay silent and b) bombard me with lots of suggestions for me to train colleagues about autism.
Here’s the problem I have with the term ‘ally’ — not just for autistic people but for any oppressed minority. What does it mean to be an effective one? Anyone can like an Instagram post about how ‘amazing’ or ‘inspirational’ autistic people are, or Google ‘autism’ and read any old information on a website. I’m certainly not discrediting these acts as they are often the very first places people turn to for resources, but doing these things does not automatically make you an ally.
Here’s how you can become an autistic ally:
Listen to our authentic experiences without offering help.
Often when people want to proudly show off their allyship, they offer advice. However, there is such a thing as ‘too much help’ or the wrong kind of help which can often overwhelm autistic people instead of helping us. By this, I mean that allies start spouting off suggestions for autistic people to do, such as creating a workshop about autism that might ‘solve the problem’. The thing is, they don’t know what the problem is because they haven’t listened to us in the first place. If an autistic person is feeling invalidated by a colleague’s off the cuff comment, then how is sitting down to strategise an autism training workshop going to help that autistic person in the moment? Instead what an ally can do is listen to us. Then perhaps ask “what do you need from me?”. This is a nice direct question for us to answer because it does not put the onus on us to make that first step to reach out.
Call out discrimination when you witness it
Turning a blind eye to a colleague or a friend’s comment about autistic peoples’ ‘levels of functioning’ or questioning our intelligence sends the message that you agree with these views. I understand that there could be some reluctance to call out prejudiced behaviour because you might not know what to say, but at the same time, if you are a self-proclaimed ally, then surely you can identify a discriminatory remark? I can also empathise that allies might be worried about showing their activism at work, especially if their workplace is not clued-up on diversity and inclusion issues. But, there are ways of calling out discrimination that won’t jeopardise your employment or ’cause a scene’ (a euphemism that neurotypicals use when an autistic person calls out discrimination). For instance, if there is a colleague who is ignorant of autistic issues and seems to be triggering an autistic colleague with their comments, then you could set up a casual meeting with them to identify some of the unwanted comments they have made and direct them to autism resources.
Educate yourself with the autistic-affirming materials
When you type ‘autism’ into Google, there is an overwhelming amount of information to look through. Some websites are useful, while others….not so much. Firstly, there’s a lot of medical information that crops up about preventing autism and how to cure it. Then there are autism charities (including the infamous Autism Speaks charity which does more harm than good). Unfortunately, allies won’t find the appropriate information from a quick Google search, which says more about Google’s algorithm than the lack of information available. A good way to start is to reach out to your autistic colleague/friend/family member to ask what autism resources they use. We’ll be happy to direct you to autistic affirming Instagram accounts or blogs. If you’re an ally reading this, I’ve posted some great resources below.
Do not gaslight us
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse which leads us to question our own reality. An ally may not even know that they are doing it, which makes it difficult to identify. An example of gaslighting is when an autistic person says that they feel attacked or discriminated against and a non-autistic person denies any signs of discrimination, therefore invalidating our own reality. It could also come in the form of an autistic person saying that they heard an discriminatory remark and a non-autistic person then claiming that they didn’t say it or “didn’t mean to discriminate”. This is harmful and a form of bullying.
Do not rely on your one autistic friend/colleague/family member to teach you everything about autism.
Advocating for ourselves and the autistic community is exhausting. Not to mention how just existing in this world can deplete our energy. Advocating for ourselves is empowering and can be an effective way to educate people about autism. The majority of autistic advocates are not paid for our activism. We write content, produce podcasts, facilitate training sessions and attend speaking events for free. While we can be a great starting point to begin your autism education, we cannot do it all. As an aspiring ally, you can look through our Instagram page and follow the autistic accounts that we follow and digest the information yourself. Read the blogs and write down your own notes. Listen to podcasts about autism by yourself, then ask us questions once you’ve built up some knowledge.
Lastly, if an autistic person thinks that you are not being an ally, then do not get defensive. I understand that it’s natural to get defensive as you think you’re doing enough already. But it invalidates our experience when you try to convince us that you are doing a great job by listing all the great work you do for the autism community or how accepting you are of us. What do you want — an award? We do not exist for you to feel good about yourself or to soothe an unmet desire to ‘help people’. Swallow your pride and your neurotypical fragility and do the work. We are grateful for the allies who put in the work and continue to educate themselves. We appreciate the allies who ask us thoughtful questions and reflect on their own behaviour. We appreciate the non-autistic diversity and inclusion leaders in workplaces who make the workplace more accommodating for us and the researchers conducting research into autism which dispel the stereotypes. We know that it’s a lot of work but please understand that we are thankful that you want to be an ally and fight discrimination with us.
The Autistic Life podcast (Spotify)
The Squarepeg podcast (Spotify)
Mind Your Autistic Brain (Spotify)