What I’d Like Neurotypical People to Know About Autism
Personal perspective: Telling me “You don’t look autistic” is dismissive.
Posted November 1, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- It can be hard for neurotypical people to understand what autistic people are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.
- Judging your loved one on their effort, rather than their results, can help strengthen your relationship.
- Telling an autistic person that they “don’t look autistic” is dismissive and displays a lack of empathy.
I recently participated in a podcast with Dr. Jennifer Ghahari of Seattle Anxiety Specialists to discuss the experiences of autistic people, specifically autistic women. During the interview, Dr. Ghahari asked me what I’d most like people without autism to be aware of when it came to their relationships with autistic people.
My reply was that it would be helpful if neurotypical people recognised how difficult it was for autistic people to do certain things. “Don’t judge somebody," I said, "because you don’t know how much effort they’re putting into something.”
In the context of the interview, I was discussing how people with level 1 autism (sometimes referred to as "high-functioning autism") may not appear to have any noticeable needs but could still be severely struggling beneath the surface. If your partner, child, student, or friend is autistic, it’s important to recognise and value the effort they’ve put in, even if the outcome might be different than what you expected. By taking the time to meet that person halfway, you can help make their life more manageable and satisfying.
My other answer to this question was: "Please don’t tell an autistic person that they 'don’t look autistic.'” Whether they’re clinically or self-diagnosed, it’s incredibly frustrating to have their experience dismissed in this way. You might think you’re doing them a favour or offering a compliment—but in fact, you’re effectively silencing them from talking about their experience.
Being on the receiving end of this statement feels as if the other person doesn’t understand you; it conveys a lack of empathy. Unless you’re very close to that person—and even then, you don’t know as much about them as they know about themselves—you don’t know what they experience on a daily basis.
Many people who meet me in a professional or social context don’t believe I’m autistic. That’s partly because I learned to mask my symptoms from a very early age, and partly because many of my autistic behaviours—like obsessive actions, stimming, and meltdowns, to name just a few—take place in the privacy of my own home.
The most important thing you can offer an autistic person is acceptance. Accept that their condition is real, no matter how well they disguise it. Accept that they're doing their best and that their starting point may be very different from yours. Explore what changes you can make in your interactions with them to help them feel safe and supported.
With all of this in place, it's likely that you and the autistic person in your life will experience a vastly improved relationship.