Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

From Stigma to Acceptance: Insights from a Concerned Autistic Self-Advocate

Sam Farmer

Sam Farmer

My imagination often transports me into the thick of relatively grandiose situations. These episodes provide needed opportunities for release. In my mind, I sometimes have it out with my opponent during a presidential debate and winning, giving my acceptance speech after having won some prestigious award, or performing a few of my best songs in front of an audience of thousands. It’s fun to do unless I imagine a less than joyous scenario.

As of this writing, the autistic self-advocate in me has been ruminating on a different kind of fantasy, one that is borne of stigma, of feeling marginalized, of frustration stemming from what I see happening to my community, and of wanting to set things right. I can envision being handed a megaphone of limitless range and being granted the power to command everybody’s attention such that they would not only listen to but genuinely take to heart all that I have to say in response.

A grandiose imagining if there ever was one, though if it were to come to life, and if the message needed to fit within the space of one article, I would deliver an impassioned appeal to the greater society as follows:

We Are Not Disordered

We do not need to be fixed or cured. What we need instead is acceptance and, more importantly, a sense of belonging. The prevailing narrative around autism, which focuses disproportionately on pathology and deficit, has, in doing so, rendered us ineligible for greater acceptance.

Contrary to what the prevailing narrative has been saying for quite some time, autism is not a medical condition, disease, or disorder. It is a naturally occurring neurotype (the way one’s brain and nervous system are wired) among a multitude of neurotypes which have existed for as long as humanity has existed. Just as biodiversity refers to the variety inherent in life on Earth, neurodiversity refers to the variety of neurotypes the human population embodies.

We have been wrongly labeled as disordered, broken, and in need of repair because society has decided that the way autistic individuals function, by virtue of our minority neurotype, is undesirable. This outlook on autism fails to sufficiently acknowledge our unique attributes, abilities, and talents.

For many autistic individuals, our neurotype is core to self-identity. It shapes how we sense, process, and interact with the world. And yet, too many of us cannot be true to ourselves without consequence because we are not accepted for who we are.

The prevailing narrative continues to feed the stigma we are up against, one which has compromised us in ways we do not deserve. Autistic women are two to three times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-autistic women. Suicide risk is several times higher for autistic individuals. Our life expectancy is significantly reduced. In the US, at least 85% of college-educated autistic adults are unemployed, resulting in all kinds of untapped potential waiting to be realized at the workplace.

A society is often judged based on how it treats its most vulnerable. Ongoing discrimination against those segments of society that have always been vulnerable, including the autism community, is morally reprehensible, divisive, and toxic to physical and mental health. Conversely, kindness, understanding, and acceptance bring us together and cultivate greater societal well-being, challenging the stigma associated with autism.

Society’s Expectations Around Socialization, Communication, and Behavior Are Very Disabling to Us

This is because these expectations were not established with autism in mind. Many of us feel as though we are living in a world that was not built for us. And so we are made to feel like outsiders, masking our genuine, authentic selves to “fit in.” Masking, in this context, is in response to trauma. It has often resulted in burnout when done continually over a long period of time. Some autistics admit to having forgotten who they are.

Because of how our neurotype is at odds with existing systems, norms, and expectations, we become targets of ableism (discrimination against the disabled). Ableism, when internalized, is highly toxic to self-esteem. When our sense of self is damaged to the extent that internalized ableism commonly inflicts, attaining true happiness in life becomes impossible.

Punishment Is Not the Way to Go about Helping Us

Aversive interventions, including electric shock, continue to be leveled on many of us to reverse those behaviors of ours that society has deemed unacceptable. Such methods try to force us into behaving in ways that are typical of the non-autistic majority, essentially erasing our autism. These practices are not helpful. Rather, they are torturous, traumatizing, and dehumanizing. Arguably, they constitute human rights violations.

Skill-building is an important and worthwhile endeavor, but only if done in ways that sufficiently respect our neurodivergence. We would prefer that the counselors, teachers, and clinicians with whom we work meet us where we are, not based on where they feel we should be, and that they hold realistic expectations of us. Otherwise, adverse outcomes arise. It all comes down to being treated with kindness and decency.

Stop Perpetuating Harmful Stereotypes About Us

The autism community is not monolithic. Rather, we exist on a highly diversified spectrum. As such, any stereotype that is perpetuated about us is an unjust oversimplification.

The stereotypes we are up against stem from misunderstandings about us. Differences between autistic and non-autistic individuals with respect to sensory processing, behavior, thinking, learning, communication, and socialization account for many of these misunderstandings, perpetuating stigma.

To name but a few:

  • “But you don’t look autistic.” Autism does not have an associated appearance, so many of us construe this statement as hurtful. In fact, some autistic individuals are models, Julian Scott and Nina Marker, for example.
  • “There are no autistic adults, only autistic children.” No, it doesn’t work that way. Autism is for life because it is a neurotype, a way of being. It is often inherited and genetically passed on.
  • “Autistic individuals are only good at STEM-related pursuits.” Don’t say this to the autistic actors starring on Broadway or to an autistic Rock ‘n Roll singer, teacher, or lawyer.
  • “Autistics cannot feel empathy.” Not true. In fact, many of us feel what others feel very deeply. Because empathy does not manifest itself in autistics the way it does in non-autistic individuals, it is often assumed, wrongly, that we are incapable of it.
  • Contrary to what most people believe, when some of us do not make eye contact, it does not mean that we are not paying attention or are uninterested in what others are saying. It is because we are trying to self-regulate to avoid sensory overload so that we can listen better than we otherwise would, with our ears and hearts.
  • “Nonverbal autistics have limited thinking and learning abilities.” Not everything is as it seems on the surface. Elizabeth Bonker, valedictorian of the Rollins College Class of 2022, and Philip Reyes are two cases in point. Both are non-speaking and are more than capable of thinking, learning, and using words to communicate. In this instance, “nonverbal” is the wrong descriptor, implying an inability to use words – a repeatedly misused term in this context. “Non-speaking” is more appropriate.

Many of Us Do Not Want to Be Viewed as “Inspiring” Whenever We Rise Above Our Challenges

We simply want to be viewed as everyday human beings, regardless of our achievements. We would rather hear “great job” than something akin to “You inspired me by doing what you did despite your autism.” The latter, in our view, suggests disrespect.

We do not exist to inspire others. We exist in our own right.

Please Listen to Our Lived Experiences

If we share our experiences, we are not putting on an act or pursuing a hidden agenda. We do so truthfully because we want to be better understood and accepted for who we are.

All too often, non-autistic individuals are making decisions that directly affect us but without our input. Trauma frequently results when we are silenced in this fashion. This is why our lived experiences need to be heard. Nothing about us without us!

Where Should Society Go From Here?

Society benefits when autistic and other neurodivergent individuals are granted the accommodations on which we depend to be at our best. The more this happens and the more the stigma is challenged, the more we move from feeling disabled and otherized to feeling empowered, accepted, and valued, and the better equipped we become at doing right by the people with whom we associate. In this regard, accommodation is a win-win.

Some accommodations address our heightened sensory sensitivities to light and noise as well as our tactile sensitivities (clothing textures, for example) etc. Others relate to our self-care needs (remote work often helps in this regard), how we learn and work best (in team settings vs. individually, for instance), and how we best communicate (in writing vs. speaking, face-to-face vs. at a distance), to name a few.

Autistics have lots to contribute when allowed to do so and when accommodated accordingly. We tend to be exceptionally detail-oriented, creative, thoughtful, analytical, adept at pattern recognition, able to focus intensely for long periods of time, and loyal to those who matter to us.

Companies that hire us benefit from our unique perspectives and problem-solving abilities. Our strong sense of right and wrong accounts for our capacity for whistleblowing when we witness workplace misconduct. A collaboration involving neurotypical and neurodivergent co-workers results in greater interpersonal intelligence, considering the neurological, learning, and thinking differences associated with this dynamic.

The best way forward? In my view of a rightly ordered world, it’s all about kindness and acceptance of others. Accommodation follows from these, whether at the workplace or society. Looking back on my life as an autistic and learning-disabled individual, the accommodations I received over the years proved invaluable. They were granted by good people who accepted me for who I was, looked past my social quirks and idiosyncrasies and saw the good in me, wanted more for me, and valued being associated with me. In return, I have worked hard, exercised kindness, been a good friend, accommodated others, and remained loyal. It’s a win-win. That’s the way forward!

Sam Farmer is a neurodiversity community self-advocate, author, and public speaker. Diagnosed later in life as autistic, Sam shares stories of lived experiences as well as ideas and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in the face of challenge and adversity. A Long Walk Down a Winding Road – Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens is his first book. Visit to learn more.

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