What is Ableism and How Can You Be Anti-Ableist?

Published April 2, 2021

Ableism is perhaps the single most important disability-related keyword that exists besides the term "disability" itself. It represents one of the biggest obstacles that people with disabilities face, and yet the word is not very well-known outside the disability community. If you don’t know this word already, it is a must-have in your vocabulary.

What is ableism?

Ableism refers to the various forms of negative biases and discrimination that people can face because of their disability. According to the brilliant autistic activist Lydia X. Z. Brown, ableism describes the "oppression, prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against disabled people on the basis of actual or presumed disability." Ableism is everywhere, and nearly everyone with a disability has experienced it.

What does anti-autism ableism look like?

Ableism can be perpetrated by individuals, institutions, and systems alike. It comes in all shapes and forms, and people with different disabilities can experience it in different ways. The autism community is no exception. In order to understand anti-autism ableism, we have to understand the process of how ableism occurs.

In this section, I will often remark that non-autistic people can perpetuate ableism. It’s important to note that I am not saying that you, the reader, personally perpetuate ableism. I do not intend to say that non-autistic individuals are bad, at all. I’m saying that non-autistic people, as a group, can inflict ableism on autistic people.

  1. Determining that autistic characteristics are undesirable traits: Non-autistic society determines whether they approve of various human traits based on whether they are useful in society or not. Due to the fact that autistic characteristics are perceived to have little economic, intellectual, communicational, or other value towards society, they are deemed as undesirable and disposable.
  2. Pathologizing undesirable autistic characteristics: Next, society labels undesirable autistic characteristics as a disorder. The objective-sounding label, "disorder," justifies subjective opinions that autism is abnormal. After all, a disorder is called a disorder because it’s divergent from the norm.
  3. Making autism an issue that only non-autistic people can control: Disorders are considered a public health problem. Thus, autism is perceived to be part of the public domain. It’s everyone’s problem; everyone’s business. Everyone owns autism. Non- autistic institutions and individuals are given the privilege to control autistic people and the concept of autism itself. Autism, and autistic people, becomes a blank slate that non-autistic people can use to project onto their own negative assumptions about disability. For example, if non-autistic people feel that autistic people do not portray empathy in a visible manner, they can decide that lacking empathy is part of the overall autism diagnosis. The assumption that autistic people lack empathy is a big assumption based solely on how autistic people appear on the outside. Because non-autistic people with power and authority make this assumption, it is treated as gospel. Everything non-autistic people assume and feel about autism is treated as fact.
  4. Pathologizing human beings: When human beings are assigned a stigmatized diagnosis, they personify their labels to others. They are their autism. Nothing more, nothing less. This association dehumanizes people with autism diagnoses or characteristics. It further cements the status of autistic people as the "dregs of society." This gives non-autistic people even more of a perceived license to use and abuse autistic people as they see fit.
  5. Controlling autistic people: Now that autism is a free-for-all issue, non-autistics feel that they have free reign to do just about anything to the autism community. They can create laws and policies that will affect autistic people. They can institutionalize and mistreat autistic people. They can make themselves and their feelings the focus of anything autism-related. In essence, everything you know about autism was generated by and for non-autistic people.

How to be anti-ableist

In order to be anti-ableist, it’s crucial to keep the following things in mind:

  1. As a non-autistic person, you do not own autism: As the above section detailed, non-autistic society often feels entitled to control and be at the center of every aspect of autism. You can help break this trend by recognizing the authority autistic people have over the topic of autism and over themselves. A good rule of thumb to remember is that, if you are not an autistic person yourself, it’s best not to be the spokesman for an identity group to which you do not belong. Instead, you should promote autistic voices. If you absolutely must speak in autism-related discussions, you shouldn’t focus on your own feelings about dealing with autistic people. Instead, you should focus on the person with autism you’re discussing and their experiences and emotions. Similarly, if you have an opportunity to profit or gain status from your proximity to autism, you should pass on that opportunity to an actual autistic person if at all possible.
  2. Think critically about what you think and see about autism: Nearly everything you come across related to autism is created by and for non-autistic people. Think about which biases and ideas about autism the content you view represents. Try to put yourself in an autistic person’s shoes and imagine how you would feel when viewing such content. For example, if an article says people "suffer from" autism or that they "lack social skills," and you were autistic, would you find that offensive? Such pitying and patronizing ideas about autism are rampant in the media. When you notice that, you can prevent yourself from internalizing such biases.
  3. Autistic opinions are the only right opinions: Only autistic people can understand what it’s like to be an autistic person. Only autistic people can understand first-hand the nuances and emotions and experiences that come with being autistic. Thus, when an autistic person has an opinion on something autism-related, you should assume it’s the definitive one. For example, if someone in the autism community feels that a celebrity said something ableist, as a non-autistic person it’s not your place to judge whether that remark was ableist or not. Actually autistic people are always the best experts on autism.
  4. Confront your biases: A hard truth that needs to be said is that most non-autistic people have biases against autistic people. This is nothing personal. Ableist ideas about autism are the dominant ideas about autism in our society. These ideas are everywhere. They’re so prevalent that it’s nearly impossible for people not to internalize them at some point. However, just because people develop these biases doesn’t mean they have to keep them. It’s not about the biases you pick up — it’s how you handle them. Thus, when you think something about autism, you should question that belief. You should ask yourself why you think what you’re thinking and whether that is the right thing to be thinking.
  5. Stand up for autistic people: If you see someone say or do something negative about autistic people, you should say something about it. If you see that autistic people aren’t represented enough in your workplace or elsewhere, include them. If fellow non-autistic people try to dominate autism-related discussions or decisions, try to get more autistic people on board.

You can help make a real difference in the lives of autistic people.