Updated: May 17
What is Ableism?
Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against disabled people, or those who appear to be disabled. It includes the belief that disabled people are inferior and need ‘fixing’, or that disabled people’s lives are less valuable or less worth living. Ableism can also mean prioritising the needs of non-disabled people, with disabled people as an afterthought.
Ableism and Autism
Whether you believe autism is a disability or not, autistic people are still affected by ableism. A common example of this is the idea that autism is bad and needs to be fixed, cured, or treated. It can also look like using pathologising, deficit-based or patronising language about autism and autistic people such as functioning labels, referring to ‘symptoms’ and discussing the ‘risk’ of autism. In addition, ableism can be expressed as shaming and excluding people, or punishing people for, stimming, expressing distress, needing support, or being different.
These examples are very common within the general population, education, healthcare, social care, and even autism research. We have a long way to go before autistic people are truly accepted.
What is Internalised Ableism?
First, let’s be clear: internalised ableism doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It simply means you have turned negative messages about autism/disability in on yourself. This is not a conscious choice, it is a result of repeatedly experiencing or witnessing mistreatment and oppression of yourself and others over time. It doesn’t mean you are ableist towards others or lack compassion for others. Internalised ableism is the voice in your head that tells you that you are lazy, weak, stupid, or just need to try harder, and the feeling that you don’t deserve to have support. You probably say things to yourself that you wouldn’t dream of saying about someone else.
Internalised ableism is also linked to masking. Autistic masking is a survival strategy that many of us develop to try and appear less autistic because the world around us constantly tells us that being autistic is bad. We often learn to do this in childhood and may have even have been praised or rewarded for hiding our true selves and trying to achieve neuronormative standards. This is very damaging to our mental health and in the long run, leads to autistic burnout.
Overcoming Internalised Ableism
So how can we start to overcome internalised ableism? We need to allow ourselves to live authentically without shame and reclaim our autistic identity. However, this may feel scary or unsafe at first, so just explore it in a way that feels most comfortable. We must also acknowledge that this does require privilege - for certain people and in certain situations it really is not safe to appear autistic. Simply living and existing autistically is a radical act.
We can start by following other openly autistic adults on social media, reading their blogs and books, listening to their podcasts, and watching their YouTube videos (searching for the hashtag #actuallyautistic on your favourite platforms can be a great way to get started). Seeing other people who are comfortable with their autistic identity and expressing themselves authentically will help to reprogram your thoughts.
We can also begin to examine our own masks and think about who we really are underneath. We can stop forcing ourselves to do things because we think we should, or because everyone else is. We can tune in to our own inner voice and instincts. We can ask for support and accommodations when we need them, or put them in place for ourselves. We can also be more compassionate with ourselves and learn to talk to ourselves with kindness when we are struggling. It can also mean allowing ourselves to explore the joys of being autistic, such as sensory euphoria, diving into our passions and interests, and connecting with others through these shared experiences.
This is a process that takes time. It is challenging and needs to be addressed with gentleness. A lifetime of conditioning cannot be undone overnight. It can also bring up difficult feelings from the past and a stark realisation of the extent of self suppression.
In our online community, we aim to provide a neurodiversity-affirming safe space to discuss these ideas and share experiences, support and advice. If you are an autistic parent in the UK, you are very welcome to join us on Facebook.
Identity, Confidence and Self-Esteem with Ann Memmott (Recording) (free for autistic parents in the UK)
Zoe is a late identified autistic parent to 2 unschooling neurodivergent children, writing about autistic identity and culture. Find her on Medium https://medium.com/@zoewilliams_2443 and Mastodon https://cupoftea.social/@rekindled.