The concept of “passing” is not just a concept that relates to autistic people. Throughout history, many different groups of people have had to pretend that they are something they are not in order to be accepted in society, or, to simply survive. Jews having to pass for Christians, gay people having to pass for straight, trans* people having to pass for cisgendered, among a multitude of other example. I can’t possibly name every example, but I think you get my drift. A majority of people have, at least, a precursory awareness of the examples of “passing” I have stated above. However, that it not the case when it comes to autistics. Most are not aware of the amount of time and effort many people with autism put into “passing” for neurotypical.
From a young age, often times, between the ages of 18 months and three years old, children who a labelled as autistic are placed into behavioral intervention programs. These programs teach these individuals acceptable behavior and how to act in certain social situations. Although it is the case that all children are taught proper manners and behavior when they are young, they are generally not expected to act in ways that are unnatural for them. They will only be punished for behaving badly. On the other hand, autistic children are punished not only for behaving badly, but also for behaving in benign, yet atypical ways. If a person flaps their hands, they are punished for it. Sometimes, the person gets their hands held down in tacky glue for flapping their hands. If an autistic person doesn’t make eye contact, a teacher grabs their chin and makes them make eye contact. The fact that eye contact makes many people with autism uncomfortable (Dalton, et al., 2005) doesn’t matter. Making eye contact makes a person look “normal”, and that is all that matters. The person ends up spending their entire life trying to remember all of the rules for looking and acting “normal”, going through painstaking processes daily in order to keep up appearances. There is no other option. In this day and age, people are required to do this if they want to get anything substantial out of their lives: To go to school. To go to a store and buy something without stares. To go to college. To get a degree. To get a job (and by job, I don’t mean a minimum wage job stacking boxes).
Autistic people are, generally, not free to express their emotions in a way they see fit. They are expected to conform and make changes that most others are not expected to do. This isn’t because their behaviors are detrimental to themselves or other people, it is because the behaviors simply “look weird.”
What occurs isn’t fair. There is no distinction between bad behaviors and atypical ones in most people’s minds, and that had to be changed. My general point to therapists, parents, and others who care about autistic children is this: replace bad behavior, not atypical behavior. Learn the difference between the two. Yes, at times, these terms are not mutually exclusive, but there are times when they are. If you make this distinction, you will be doing more to affirm to your child that it is ok to be them, and that’s a good thing. To others, I’m asking you to acknowledge the amount of work autistics have to do every day in order to fit into the world. Practice tolerance. Be affirming. Understand that there is no one correct neurology and no one correct way to behave. Be an ally. Be a friend.
That’s all for now. Until next time, “If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”