In order to provide for people with disabilities, learning difficulties or neurological conditions, sometimes we need to treat them differently.
This can be done well, and it can be done catastrophically.
I could write another whole article about what goes into positive, meaningful provision, but here’s the short version:
If it helps make opportunities accessible, benefits their wellbeing and enables communication and self-advocacy, it’s good.
If it withholds opportunities, is apathetic to their wellbeing and demands compliance, it’s bad.
You’d think this would be obvious, right? But sadly, even in this century, autistic people are often seen as (as a Patreon supporter of mine phrased it) “a special category of people that it’s acceptable to be cruel to”.
Don’t believe me? Allow me to introduce you to a wide range of double-standards.
Oh, and all links to other sites open in new tabs, as always.
Top ten acts of cruelty that would be considered outrageous if we did them to non-autistic children
10. Withdrawing learning opportunities because they’re non-autistic.
As well as my autism advocacy, I’m also a teacher in a school for autistic students (and in a previous life I was a primary school teacher too). And one of the major lessons I’ve learned through professional experience is that you don’t give more opportunities to ‘clever’ kids and fewer opportunities to ‘stupid’ kids. You give all the opportunities to everyone, but you make them more accessible to those with additional support needs.
Otherwise you end up falling into the trap of self-fulfilling prophecies, as demonstrated by this picture which I’ve used a bunch of times before:
This is a painful question for teachers to ask themselves – which is why we must do it – but we should continuously wonder “am I helping this child with learning difficulties to become the best they can be, or am I just vaguely helping them to stay afloat?” (Or in some cases, just getting the child to sit still until the end of the lesson. I don’t know who need to hear this, but that’s not teaching.)
Because the withdrawal of learning opportunities happens all the time, even outside of school – society itself doesn’t like the idea of teaching sex and relationships education to disabled young people, because they prefer to see such people as “cute and innocent” and vulnerable to being “corrupted” if we teach them the truth about sex.
Then, of course, the same people act surprised when a disabled student struggles with appropriateness, boundaries or how to treat private parts as they get older. Because a disabled person’s body will still develop and change, whether the grown-ups prepare them for it or not.
Whether its academic skills, life skills or anything else, the biggest learning barrier for some students doesn’t come from their disability itself; but rather from the grown-ups around them deciding what they’re not worthy of learning.
Related dishonourable mentions:
Defining a neurotypical child by their weaknesses rather than their strengths, and making every interaction with them based around their deficits, until their weaknesses become the biggest part of their self-perception.
Pushing a schoolchild into panic mode, and then (instead of reflecting on your own professional practice) labelling them as “violent” when they respond in the only way a panicked and overwhelmed child is able to do.
9. Commanding a non-autistic child to “just grow out of” needing their wheelchair.
Generally I don’t compare autism to paralysis. However, one thing they have in common is that they both need additional accommodations for the person to achieve at their best.
Another thing they have in common is that neither magically vanishes on their eighteenth birthday (even if funding for their services does).
Autistic people around my region of the spectrum are often treated as if we’ll one day learn so much that we’ll “become non-autistic”: that we’ll just grow out of it, like how toddlers grow out of tantrums or how teenagers grow out of playing video games (in my experience with adults though, neither of those are true). It’s a hugely ableist assumption and honestly quite revealing about what people think autism is.
And fair enough, you’ll often find that someone who’s autistic as a child later grows up to be more capable, more mature, with better understanding of both academic and social topics, develops patience and is able to express themselves more eloquently.
Because that is what humans do. We learn as we grow up.
The fact that we learn and grow and progress doesn’t make us “less autistic”. A neurotypical child does not “overcome” their neurotypicality as they grow up: they learn about their strengths, weaknesses and characteristics and find places where they fit in the world.
Autism is not something a child grows out of. If anything, it’s something a child grows into. The most successful version of myself is the version who learned how to be the best autistic person he could be. The least successful version was the guy in his twenties who tried to become a second-rate non-autistic person who he was never meant to become.
Related dishonourable mentions:
Telling a child they can only have their crutches back once their work is complete. This is comparable to autistic children who need fidget toys or sensory input during lessons in order to focus, but their teachers see such things as “rewards” rather than accommodations.
8. Ignoring a child’s sensory needs, no matter how much pain they’re in.
As a society, we seem to have collectively decided how bright is “too bright”, how loud is “too loud”, and so on.
And this can royally suck if you have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or heightened sensory experiences – as neurodivergent people very often do.
What this means is that primary schools are an onslaught of brightly coloured walls and loud playgrounds and whirring projector fans and buzzing lights and rounds of applause in assembly, and to some children this is terrifying. To add insult to injury, they are told by adults “don’t be silly, it’s not that loud” or “stop being childish” (does anyone else see the irony in instructing a child to not be childish, by the way?)
I’d like you to imagine a school where every child’s eyes and ears are hurting from the sensory onslaught of bright lights and loud noises – and incidentally, they’re not learning anything in lessons for some reason. On top of that, the adults are making them feel ashamed of their own pain.
It would be seen of cruelty of course, but it’s generally seen as fine if the pained child is autistic.
While we’re on the subject, I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce you to a relevant case of badassery. My stepdaughter Eliza – autistic with learning difficulties – used to have severe sensory aversion to her clothes being even slightly wet. When she was nine, she spilled some Coke on her trousers and started shouting in a panic that she needed them changed. The adult she was visiting predictably said “don’t worry, it’s just a bit of Coke”. Eliza, having had enough of grown-ups telling her what she wasn’t allowed to be uncomfortable with, proceeded to stare into the face of the horrified adult and pour the rest of the can over the sofa. “Don’t worry,” she replied, “it’s just a bit of Coke”.
Now that’s self-advocacy!
Related dishonourable mention:
Starving a child as punishment for not eating thistles. (Yes, taste is a sense too, and some autistic people physical cannot stomach some textures. So the uncompromising attitude of “it’s either this or go hungry” is literally forcing them to go hungry.
7. Refusing to help children with their mental health, because “they’re meant to be anxious anyway”.
In the UK, CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) are overwhelmed and underfunded. There are simply too many children with severe mental health difficulties, and too few staff, appointments and resources to provide for their needs.
Unsurprisingly, the parents and young people I know with direct experience of CAMHS have almost uniformly told me their experiences were negative, and usually a case of “deliver a few perfunctory appointments and discharge them regardless of how much/little we’ve helped, just so we can say we’ve tried”. Because how else can they possibly deal with such an insurmountable backlog?
To me it seems the best way is to pre-emptively provide struggling children with the tools and resources they need, rather than waiting until their struggles get serious enough to warrant a CAMHS referral.
But CAMHS have a much more efficient way of getting through the waiting list – they’re smart enough to see that a disproportionate amount of their clients are autistic, and they know that over 80% of us are affected by anxiety. And with that comes their golden ticket: “their anxiety is a natural part of their autism and autism is incurable, so helping them would be pointless.”
Boom. A huge load of the backlog gone.
Not that it solves the enormous anxiety rate for autistic young people (nor the dreadful suicide rate), but at least they get to help the non-autistic children – the people who aren’t “supposed” to be struggling.
It is literally discrimination on the grounds of disability, as well as another case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the government-sanctioned department for young people’s mental health refuse to help struggling autistic children because they’re “meant to struggle with anxiety”, they will end up struggling with anxiety.
Related dishonourable mentions:
Pathologising everything about a child, from their general personality to their genuine passions (or, as they’re mislabelled for autistic children, “autistic obsessions”).
Seeing a child’s entire neurological makeup as inherently bad. (Have you noticed that when an autistic person struggles it’s “because of their autism”, and when they succeed it’s “despite their autism”? I can solve a Rubik’s cube in an average of 21 seconds and remember fine details or memories from when I was six, and trust me, that’s not despite my autism.)
6. Removing a bullied child from school and letting the bully stay.
During my years in special education, I’ve worked with many autistic young people who have zero learning difficulties. The kind who “don’t look like special school students”. But trust me, it’s the best place for them. Most of my students have been forced out of mainstream, largely due to bullying – by students or by staff.
(I will clarify that this is not always the case. One of my former primary schools – a small village school of 81 pupils aged 4-11 – had a staff team full of broken hearts when we had to admit we weren’t the right school for a boy with ADHD who we really valued. Sometimes the warmest and most welcoming schools in the world can’t work out if the resources aren’t there.)
Most of my students who have struggled with emotional regulation will tell you the same story. The bullies in mainstream education would taunt them, silently and repeatedly, until their overwhelmed victim would explode and lash out. The school would then punish the neurodivergent child rather than the bullies, who were generally clever enough to stay silent with a sly grin. (We don’t like to think of bullies as being clever, so we often discount the possibility. But the bullies are often the smartest kids in class.)
Teachers generally punish the loudest child rather than the nastiest, so often the autistic child is forced out of the school while the bully looks around for their next victim. And then they end up in schools like mine where we perform “restorative work” to rebuild the child’s self-esteem. (As I often have to say during the training sessions I deliver to school staff: “please don’t be the kind of teachers that lead students to need people like me. Because those teachers do exist, and it’s schools like mine who have to undo the damage they inflict.“)
Pardon me, but I think the wrong children are being punished here. But again, it’s seen as being acceptable because their behaviour is different.
A ton of related dishonourable mentions:
Society being totally fine with a generation of non-autistic kids having no school to go to. (During the pandemic, the government and parents everywhere were screaming to get children back in school as quickly as possible… despite years of complete silence about the thousands of autistic children going for literally years waiting for the local authority to find them a new school.)
Excluding non-autistic children due to behaviour that can’t be helped. Because trust me, those children with emotional regulation struggles do not want to struggle with emotional regulation.
Blaming children for their own experiences of being bullied. After all, if they didn’t act so different (and therefore “weird”) compared to the other kids, it wouldn’t have happened to them. So obviously it’s their fault and not the bullies’, right?
Telling children to appease their bullies and make friends with them, rather than punishing the bullies. Bonus points if the children are socially vulnerable enough to not realise when the ‘befriended’ bullies start manipulating them in return.
Taking parents to court because their child is too ill to attend school. Yes, this has happened with anxious young people close to me (and yes, I’m comparing anxiety to physical illness). Hilariously, the staff teams were inexplicably trying to persuade the child to put their trust in them, whilst actively dragging their parents through the criminal justice system. School refusal in autistic children is another topic I could write a whole article about, and it should be seen as a mental health issue rather than a truancy issue.
5. Taping children’s mouths shut in lessons.
I know what you’re thinking: “there’s no way this happens, even to autistic children, except in astoundingly rare cases”.
Well, I’ll allow this picture to do the talking, pun intended.
Regardless of whether you think the child has had enough screen time, or whether they’re being annoying with the tool (because verbal children can be annoying with their mouths, remember?), or whether you don’t like what they’re asking for, removing an AAC tool from a nonverbal child is an act of disempowerment and – as a teacher with safeguarding training coming out of my ears I will absolutely use this word – abuse.
Oh, and here’s another related picture I’m sharing because I think this practitioner is awesome.
Related dishonourable mentions:
Talking about a child like they’re not in the room, with the assumption they don’t have the capacity to understand what you’re saying about them.
Denying dignity in sensitive moments. (A friend of mine has a nonverbal disabled autistic son, who wet himself one day at school. Because they didn’t have a spare pair of his trousers that day, they sent him home in girls’ tights. Tell me with confidence that this would have happened to a verbal boy.)
Kind of a macabre extension to point #7, this problem is under-recognised on the basis that people don’t like to talk about it.
That same child who was sent home in tights was also denied chemotherapy for his brain tumours, because “he won’t be able to tell us if he’s experiencing side effects”. It may sound like a careful decision on the surface, but his mum doubts the doctors would have the same attitude towards typically developing children who are too young to speak.
(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, and I’m aware there may be valid reasons beyond my understanding for not going forward with the treatment. What I do know, unsurprisingly, is that those tumours are still in his brain and they don’t care whether he’s autistic.)
And then, of course, there are the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders placed on disabled people without their consent. Yes, really. And not in a backward time in a backward place: this happened in Great Britain in 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic.
I am semi-comforted by the fact that the outrage about this news did happen, although it wasn’t half as widespread as it needed to be (and like I said, some people even met it with denial). I understand that in several cases the DNR orders were reversed with an apology, and the NHS explicitly made a statement about the subject, but an apology from an ableist doctor does not magically make them non-ableist. The problem persists, regardless of forced apologies and claims of “human error”.
Related dishonourable mentions:
Saying a person cannot be disabled because there are no visible problems.
Assuming by default that a child’s perspective a skewed or less reliable, as is often done to autistic children (often resulting in their anxieties being ignored, or not believing the child is being bullied).
Using the above assumption to justify sectioning a struggling non-autistic child under the mental health act (it took until this year for the government to commit to changing the law so that a person can no longer be sectioned “because of their autism”, but let’s be honest and admit that autism will still be a factor in the bias of those making the decisions.)
3. Giving a child ABA.
What can I say about Applied Behavioural Analysis that hasn’t been said a thousand times over, including by autistic adults who were subjected to it?
It increases the likelihood of an autistic child developing PTSD.
It teaches a child that the things they enjoy should only be given as rewards.
It teaches a child that the way they are is ‘not enough’.
And, most horrifically, it teaches a child that they must always do what an adult tells them to do, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them feel. (As in, sets them up for future grooming.)
This article was largely intended to highlight things that would be considered cruel if we did them to neurotypical children. But we’re now entering the territory where they would be considered cruel if done to animals.
Related dishonourable mentions:
Forcing a perfectly wonderful child to hide who they truly are, and then congratulating them for it. Autistic children are socially pressured into masking their autism from an early age, and are often complimented about how “mature” and “responsible” they are when they hide their authenticity… sending the message that authenticity is immature and irresponsible, as well as something you can rightly be judged for.
Encouraging a child to forego their comfort zones in order to accommodate other people, and ignore the instinctive alarm bells given to them by their body.
Prioritising a child’s behaviour over their wellbeing. Yes, I know this really does happen to non-autistic children in strict schools/families, but this is literally what traditional ABA is.
2. Using electric shocks on children as punishment for disobedience.
The FDA banned electric shocks in 2018, and the United Nations itself literally described it as “torture”.
You’d think this would consign the use of shock devices to the history books, but the Judge Rotenberg Center actually appealed the ban – perhaps due to the fact that the shock device was patented by one of their employees. Even worse, the ban was overturned in a cataclysmic miscarriage of justice.
At time of writing (August 2021), the Judge Rotenberg Center is still using electric shocks on its students, and it is one hundred percent legal.
Specifically because the students are disabled.
Are you angry yet?
Deeply dishonourable mention:
Putting any human, under any circumstances, in prone restraint- a technique which has literally killed autistic and disabled people. Restraint should only happen when there is a literal danger to a person (NOT for disobedience or nonviolent anger), and only after all other forms of de-escalation have been attempted or found to be ineffective. And even then, anything that restricts a person’s breathing is utterly unsafe and professionally inappropriate. (I would love to use the word ‘illegal’, but sadly it’s not in most places.) For those wondering, I have received training in how to physically intervene in dangerous scenarios. It was delivered by Team Teach, who openly emphasise the importance of de-escalation through healthy relationships and only ever using restraint as a very last resort.
You may have worked out by now that this article was never intended to be a positive or humorous one. So just to drive the point home, here’s number one.
1. Murdering them.
Once again, how can this not cause outrage? Well in disability circles at least, the murder of a disabled child does cause huge outrage, but it’s not seen as something new. There is even an established Disability Day of Mourning (March 1st) to commemorate disabled people murdered by their caregivers (because if the disability community doesn’t commemorate the victims, who else will?).
This comes with the obvious disclaimer – that any loving parents reading this should know this is in no way directed at parents in general. It is directed at the general public, since such murders are often met with sympathy for the murderer.
During one of the more recent cases where a disabled autistic child was murdered, I took screenshots of Facebook comment threads.
Here is a selection of comments I found on threads relating to a non-disabled neurotypical girl who was murdered by her father.
Meanwhile, here is a selection of comments from the threads about the disabled autistic child being murdered by his mother.
When a disabled child is murdered, all too often the sympathy falls on the murderer, and the anger falls on “the system”. All because of an undeniable truth: that some lives are seen as less valuable than others, and therefore less worthy of preserving.
Imagine being the kind of person who society thinks it’s “understandable” to kill.
There is no happy ending to this article. Not yet, anyway.
So how do we address all of this? We can’t treat autistic and/or disabled people exactly the same as everyone else, or their specific needs will not be met. In order to meaningfully help neurodivergent children, we do need to treat them differently.
But the difference needs to be in a way that makes opportunities more accessible, not less. And the decisions need to be in the hands of those who see the value in autistic people, rather than just the difficulties.
More than anything else, we need to address the subtle (often subconscious) contempt that exists for autistic and disabled people, by helping the general population to recognise that what’s happening right now is unacceptable, not “understandable”. Perhaps, once neurotypical and non-disabled people with no connection to autism start to see the above ten points as morally wrong, things might start to change faster.
That’s it from me. It’s been a while since I wrote an article this negative and pessimistic, but we do the autistic community a disservice whenever we refuse to address the injustices facing us. Anyone reading this is more than welcome to join Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community, and here’s a link to my Patreon page again for those who feel my work is worth supporting (since writing for Autistic Not Weird is literally a job for me these days).
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook