Do you have an Autistic Classmate? Here’s What They Want You to Know

This article is based on an interview with an Autistic 9th grader. It was written and edited collaboratively with the interviewer.

It’s easier to describe one person than to describe 180 million people. Attempting to create a stereotype based on limited knowledge of one person is already a bad idea, but doing the same for 180 million people is wrong.

According to the CDC, Approximately 1 in 44 people have been diagnosed with Autism, and with a world population of 7.918 billion, this means just under 180 million people are Autistic. That’s the equivalent of over half the population of the United States. This group is often misunderstood and underrated. But guess what? We’re still humans. And everyone should be treated like humans, regardless of their condition(s).

Understanding the tips below will help others treat us like humans. I can’t speak for every person diagnosed with Autism, but the points below are most important to me, and my guess is that this advice might be helpful to some peers and teachers of other Autistic students as well.

Include us in conversation naturally and be open to different ways of information processing.

We want to join conversations naturally. This means being invited into conversations and also consistently engaged throughout the conversations. If we walk up to a group you are part of, you can immediately greet us and explain what you are talking about.

I don’t like it when I have to stand outside a group of people and say “Hey, what are you guys talking about?” It feels rude, like I’m interrupting the conversation. But when I’m not invited to join, I feel like interrupting them is what I have to do to be a part of the conversation. I want people to include me in the conversation if they notice that I would like to join in. I want to be invited into a conversation naturally and not have to rudely jump into it.

Once I’m involved in a conversation, I may not show interest the exact same way that everyone else does. For example, just because I’m quiet during a conversation or not making eye contact, doesn’t mean I’m not interested or engaged. This is how I process information in a conversation. I feel like if I’m able to tell someone that I am interested in what they’re saying, that should be enough. I shouldn’t have to keep making eye contact or have a tone of voice that reaches a specific decibel threshold in order to stay active in that conversation. The idea that a lack of eye contact and quieter tones of voice illustrate a lack of interest in a conversation are common neurotypical misunderstandings.

Shift the conversation to an inclusive topic, if necessary.

Conversations work best when everyone is engaged, so it’s helpful to make sure everyone understands the references that you are making.

I don’t like it when I stand around a group of people, I don’t understand the references they are making, and no one makes an effort to explain to me what they are talking about. It’s nice if someone has politely invited an Autistic person into a conversation when they showed interest, but it’s not enough if we are just left on the fringes of the conversation, taking up space in the circle and not engaging. This can sometimes happen when the Autistic person doesn’t understand a reference that is being made or members of the group aren’t interacting specifically with them to gauge interest or understanding.

I want people to ask me if I understand the references to things they are talking about, especially if I look confused or if I’m not saying a lot. If I don’t understand, they can take the time to explain the reference so I can join in the conversation or at least follow the discussion. By checking for my interest or understanding, this demonstrates that my peers care about my participation and opinions. Not everyone is going to know about the latest popular movies or trends, and if someone in your group looks lost and you continue your conversation without making any changes to explain the topic or change to something else, that person will feel isolated, even if you are allowing them to physically stand in your group circle. Physical presence in a shared space doesn’t equal inclusion. I think people sometimes think that allowing Autistic people to take up space near them is enough to make them feel included. This isn’t true.  

Fake inclusion reigns and you may be a facilitator of it.

So many people think that if someone is participating in an activity or event, they are being included. This is not always the case. This has happened to me frequently in school among my peers as well as in activities facilitated by teachers. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not enough to tolerate the presence of someone standing near you while you are talking. That’s not inclusion. You need to engage them in the conversation you are having, show interest, and ask questions.

I don’t like it when I am a pawn of fake inclusion. Fake inclusion also happens in physical activities I participate in. I have a physical disability and wear AFO (leg braces) to support my balance so I can walk and run independently. I have been stereotyped by my peers and overheard them saying things about how I can’t run. This isn’t true. I ran on my middle school’s cross country team for three years. People sometimes incorrectly assume things about me because they have stereotyped ideas about disability.

If I’m playing in a basketball game in gym or at a park, people only rarely pass the ball to me, or they might pass the ball to me and then immediately ask for it back. It’s as if letting me touch the ball was enough to make me feel included. This isn’t real inclusion. I don’t feel like part of a team if I am only allowed to touch a ball and pass it back to someone right away. I want to be a player. I want to make a difference. I want to compete. Real inclusion means you are looking to identify and utilize the talents that I can bring to any activity. It doesn’t mean you are looking for ways to drag my body into the action and plans that everyone else already has in motion.

This type of fake inclusion has also happened with teachers. One time in gym class my teacher was trying to include me in a running game with the other students, but he was so concerned that I was going to trip and fall that he didn’t want me to participate in the same roles as the other students. So I had to either keep score or participate only from a corner of the gym. This made me feel like a baby, and it was embarrassing. This isn’t real inclusion. This is fake inclusion. People think they are being nice, but they are really making me feel worse because of their own misconceptions about disability. This is something society needs to work on individually and stop projecting their incorrect beliefs onto disabled people.

Another thing I thought was discriminatory was the Honors gym class at my school. You had to be hand-picked by the gym teacher to participate. I wasn’t picked. I was confused why a class like that even existed? Why do people need to be separated in that way? I think sometimes people assume that these separations are actually better for everyone involved, but it’s actually exclusive and unnecessary.

We know the difference between fake inclusion and real inclusion.

I want people to know that I’m fully aware of when people are actually including me or fake including me. Sometimes the way people act makes it seem like they think that I’m oblivious to fake inclusion. But I know when people are annoyed by me. I know when people are only adding me to their group because an adult has told them to (either at school or in another activity). I also know when people are “going easy on me” in a game in order to let me win.

A real friend is understanding and listens to people. They include you and have shared interests. I can tell when someone is genuinely interested in what I have to say. I hope that if people know that we are aware of real inclusion and fake inclusion and how fake inclusion makes us feel, then they might change their behavior to be more accepting and inclusive.

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