June 8th, 2019
Autistic adults willing to discuss autism in public or work on autism issues get many requests for help and advice. There is nothing inherently wrong with asking people for help, but the type and amount of these requests can get grating over time. Neurotypicals who want respectful, mutually agreeable, productive relationships with Autistic advocates and activists, and want to maximize the number of their requests that are granted, need to learn to make them in the right way. Most of the conflicts that come out of these requests could be avoided if neurotypicals could apply the Golden Rule to Autistic adults, extend a little empathy, and refrain from treating Autistic adults in ways they, themselves, would likely find obnoxious. That plus a very basic level of cultural competency would prevent almost all such problems. Since a number of neurotypicals are finding it challenging to do those things, here are some guidelines:
The most basic way to avoid annoying or offending someone with a request for help or advice is to presume Autistic adults’ personhood and act according to the Golden Rule. Assume that people have full, rich lives and that their time is valuable. Don’t assume that a disabled person doesn’t work or that a person who doesn’t work a traditional, full-time job isn’t busy and active in various pursuits. Understand that fulfilling your request, should the Autistic adult choose to do it, will take time. This is a real cost. If you can answer a question through Google, it might be more respectful to do that than ask for someone’s time, especially if that person is someone you don’t know well. Never ask an Autistic or other disabled person to work for free when you would expect to pay a neurotypical to get the job done. This insults the disabled person by devaluing their work and perpetuates poverty in the disability community. People will probably, understandably, respond to requests of this kind with outrage. Asking people with disabilities to volunteer when anyone in the role in question would be a volunteer is fine.
Consider, too, whether your request is costly or offensive by nature. If you are considering asking a question, first ask yourself whether you would be comfortable answering it given the surrounding context and degree of relationship. Asking an Autistic stranger about the details of their medical or sexual history is no more likely to go over well than asking those sorts of questions of a neurotypical you don’t know well. Be careful about how you ask about the painful moments of people’s personal histories, too. Consider the cost of having to repeat the story of the worst moments of your life over and over. Is the reason for your request worth asking another person to do that? Navigating these situations will be easier to get this right if you recognize Autistic adults as people who are fundamentally like yourself in many ways.
Cultural competence and research on individuals will also help you avoid offending the people you hope will help you. Do you want something from someone who identifies with the Neurodiversity Movement? Approaching them with the phrase “person with autism” and asking for help with an autism awareness month event will probably not go over well. Learning the Autistic community’s majority consensus on basic issues, and something about the preferences and values of the individual you plan to ask for help, will usually give you an understanding of which requests are likely to be accepted and which ones just invite anger. People will not help you if your requests don’t align with their interests, knowledge, or priorities. Asking someone to help with a project that is diametrically opposed to their values will usually be considered annoying at best, deeply offensive at worst. If you know so little about the person you are asking that you have no idea how your request will land, you may want to do more research before you pose the question.
For all their supposed empathy and good social skills, too many neurotypicals have difficulty applying those things to their interactions with Autistic people. Remembering that Autistics are people, with all the complexity that entails, will go a long way toward solving the problem. Insulting the Autistic adults with whom you interact is an inherently obnoxious thing to do, and it isn’t productive. It will never help you get what you want. If this is seems confusing or too hard to do, there may be work you need to do on yourself before you can interact with the Autistic community successfully.