Trigger warning – although this post doesn’t mention any detail of abuse, it is about the dangers of teaching someone not to trust in their right to say no
From a young age I was taught three things:-
- The messages I get from my body are wrong
- Not wanting to be touched is wrong
- That I must override these feelings to be accepted
From encouraging an autistic child to give up a harmless stim (which may be helping them to cope with negative sensory information), to telling them that eye-contact doesn’t hurt (when it does translate to pain for some), or that hugs are pleasant physical contact (when they may be too much sensory information all at once) or that labels aren’t painful (when the feeling of being clawed at may be very real), navigating what will be believed as real, and what will be dismissed as silly or attention-seeking, can be incredibly difficult for an autistic child.
When you tell the people who love you that you want them to stop doing something that hurts you, and the response is, “No it doesn’t hurt you, I will not stop”, what are we teaching our children?
We are teaching an enormously dangerous message that will follow them into their future relationships.
This is why autism awareness needs expanding into autism understanding.
Awareness says “I know you have autism.”
Understanding and acceptance says, “I understand how your autism affects you and I respect that.”
It took me a very long time to understand that my pains were real. It took even longer to understand that I had been taught to be compliant to people who wished to hurt me.
I do not physically distinguish between the pains that are specific to my brain-type, and the pains that everyone else feels too. The pain I get when hearing pound coins touch is as real as when I stub my toe. When recognised pain happens (the type that everyone would accept as painful) it has all already been normalised for autistic people. We have already been taught that no one wants to hear us, no one wants to help. Why would we ask again?
This is why treatments like ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) can be so very dangerous for autistic people. If you teach a child to behave in a certain way, regardless of the messages their bodies are giving them, you are teaching that child to ignore their own wishes and needs and to comply. You cannot later add, “Oh, but don’t comply with everyone, some of the messages your body gives you are true, it’s only the ones I don’t share that I mean for you to suffer.” You cannot make a list of real and imaginary needs, present them to someone for whom all those needs are real, and expect them to easily distinguish between the two.
It’s all very well teaching a verbal message of “No means no” and “No one should ever touch you without permission”, but when you also teach, “What you need and feel is wrong” and “I know better than you about what you need to do”, you have handed the right-to-refuse to someone else. You have taken away bodily autonomy.
Autistic people, more than anyone, will learn the rules and follow them. Which means the rules that they need to learn are:-
- You, and only you, can say what is pleasant and what is painful for you
- No one has a right to tell you what you feel
- No one has a right to invade your personal space without your express permission
- You are the ruler of you
These lessons needs to be taught in every interaction. They need to be the bedrock of social skills, the first and most important lesson. Otherwise we are failing with the most basic of our responsibilities. The responsibility to teach someone their human rights.
We must bear it in mind in every interaction. We must consider it in every lesson. Teach social skills by all means, but not in such a way as to create a vulnerability. For people who may miss the signals that someone does not have their best interests at heart, for people who when frightened may find it more difficult to speak or reach out for help, we must teach the skills, the social skills, that will protect them from harm.
We must teach them to believe themselves first and foremost. We must listen.
I am not weak or foolish for learning the lessons I was taught – that my body is a liar and other people know best. The people who taught me those things weren’t cruel, they were loving, they just lacked autism awareness and autism understanding. Had they known then they would not have. We can do better. We must.