Attacking Ableists: Why it Fails, and How to Change Their Minds

This has been adapted from a post I made a year ago.

Last year, some of my followers on Wattpad had a habit of attacking people who said ignorant things about autism. The situation often rapidly escalated into insults and bitterness. I found it greatly upsetting. I talked with them about it, and they showed a remarkable capacity to learn from their mistakes and build more effective habits.

Unfortunately, it’s a pattern I still see in the broader Autistic community, from Twitter to Tumblr to other sites. Maybe it’s a sign of our collective trauma. When you have been attacked again and again for years or decades, then you might launch a preemptive strike when you see what looks like an upcoming attack.

Unfortunately, this aggression is often counterproductive.

For my Wattpad followers, I explained it in terms of my characters from Silent Voice. In the story, there’s a terrible organization called Autism Rescue that says awful things about autism. Some people (e.g. Angel Rainnen and Mr. White) fully believed in that message. But other people came to the group because they were confused about autism, or they wanted to help their kids but didn’t know how. Those people weren’t bad people. They were just confused and misinformed.

Many people who are wrong about autism aren’t wrong because they are evil. They are wrong because they don’t know any better. Their hearts are often in the right place. They just lack information.

There is a huge, huge difference between unwitting ignorance and intentional, malicious ignorance.

If you treat people who don’t mean to be ignorant like they are malicious, you are causing harm.

Being rude or mean to clueless people is counterproductive. They’ll just get defensive and upset, and stop listening because they feel attacked. Whereas if they had been gently, politely told that their words were more hurtful than helpful, it would give them an opportunity to change without feeling like they were under fire. Being rude right off the bat will only make more enemies.

Remember when you were younger, and you didn’t know things about autism. You might have said and thought ignorant things about autism too. I know I did, and I still may sometimes. (I’m not perfect.) Had I talked to an autistic person back then, I might have said some incredibly awkward, embarrassing, or upsetting things. Because I didn’t know better.

Remember how you used to be, and ask “How would I have wanted people to talk to me if I acted inappropriately?”

This has a real impact.

You may not know this, but when I see well-meaning-but-ignorant people being attacked, it seriously stresses me out. I agonize over how to de-escalate the situation. I worry that this will only cause more divisions.

What do I mean by that? I mean that it turns people away from positive action. If a non-autistic person’s only experience with autistic people is getting attacked online, then they’re less likely to listen.

This doesn’t mean that your feelings aren’t valid. You’re allowed to be upset about injustice. But taking it out on people who don’t know any better is only going to make things worse.

How to do better

If you’ve engaged in attacking behavior before, you might be feeling very uncomfortable right now. This is a normal feeling when you realize that you did something wrong. The bad feeling doesn’t mean that you are a bad person: it’s a sign of being a good person, because you care about the consequences of your actions, and you have a functioning conscience.

I know that the “I did a bad thing” feeling is very uncomfortable and upsetting. I have had that feeling several times before. I recommend you use that bad feeling to:

  • Apologize to anyone you believe you’ve hurt
  • Learn to do better next time

I know that envisioning how to act in difficult situations can be tough for some people, autistics especially, so I’ve included a little guide for anyone who would like advice on what to do.

A good apology

An effective apology is a sincere expression of regret over wrongdoing. I’d like to re-emphasize that wrongdoing doesn’t make you a bad person, and that you can do something wrong while still being right in some ways. For example, if somebody makes a racist joke and you kick them, you were wrong to be violent, but you were also right to be angry about it and to make yourself heard. You just need to, you know, stop kicking.

An apology doesn’t negate the fact that you were right about some things. It just acknowledges the ways in which you should have behaved better.

Here’s a template that may be handy to follow:

  1. Acknowledging wrongdoing, and specifying what was wrong,
  2. (Optional) Offering an explanation for the mistake (e.g. I was thoughtless, I felt hurt and let the anger get the best of me, I didn’t realize the impact of my words, etc.),
  3. Accepting responsibility for any harm done
  4. Reiterating the wrongdoing and promising to work on doing better.

Here are a few examples using that template:

  • “(1) I am sorry that I called Donald Trump an evil bipolar shrunken cheeto on Twitter. While many people would call him evil, and have good reason to do so, it was unfair of me to call him bipolar. (2) I didn’t think about the consequences of my words. (3) I recognize that this is deeply insulting to the many good, kind people with bipolar disorder. They don’t deserve to be compared to Donald Trump. (4) I’m deeply sorry, and I will be more mindful of my words going forward.”
  • “I’m sorry that I called you ugly. I was mad after a difficult day at school, and I was upset to see your makeup things strewn all over the bathroom when I wanted to use it. But I crossed a line by insulting you. I should have asked you to clean up instead. I think you’re beautiful and your eyeshadow is always gorgeous, and I’ll work on watching my words better in the future.”

And here’s an example of a bad apology:

  • “Yeah, I’m sorry that I called you a jerk. But you kind of are. And you’re still wrong. Leave me alone already. I apologized. What more do you want from me?”

Even if the other person was also wrong about things, it’s usually considered bad form to point it out during an apology. (Just say it in your head.) Ideally, they will read the apology, reflect, then apologize for anything they did wrong… though you may just have to cut your losses.

If you feel that your behavior was out of line recently, here is an example apology in case it’s helpful:

  • “I’m sorry that I jumped down your throat about the comments you made. Ableism is a deeply personal issue to me that causes me a lot of pain, and sometimes I’m too quick to react when I see something that upsets me. I should have kept in mind that you most likely meant well, and I should have been more polite. I’m sorry for being rude to you, and I’ll work harder on responding more mindfully when I see something that upsets me.”

Words that change minds

aka “How to be really good at being right”

I’d like to reiterate that pointing out ableism is a good thing. I love how the Autistic community has grown into a self-aware, self-affirming community based on the radical principle that all people are created equal. That is something to be proud of, and something to stand for.

And… I’ve got a little secret for you.

I bet that a lot of those cluelessly ignorant people would like to stand for those values too.

Are you ready for some rad schemes? I’m ready for some rad schemes! Let’s take a look at the skill of persuasion and how we can use it to rule the world make the world a better place.

I have picked up a few handy social skills in life, partially by watching people and partially by researching on the internet. In fact, if I may be so bold as to say so, a few of my social skills may be sharper than average. While I say this, I want to emphasize that I have my own way of doing things, that may not match your style. If you think you have a better way of doing things, go right on ahead.

When I see someone saying an ignorant thing about autism, I make the assumption that they don’t know any better (which is usually but not always the case). And I invite them to learn and do better. And most of the time? It works out really nicely!

Let’s do a compare/contrast with an autistic person called Amy and an ignorant dad called Dan. We’ll pretend that Dan says something rather horrifying on the internet, and Amy stumbles across it.

In our first example, Amy expresses righteous anger right away, not holding back.

Dan: If you see your child flapping their hands, you can scold them or slap them on the wrist.
Amy: Did you seriously just advocate hitting children? Have you ever heard of the word “abuse?”
Dan: Abuse? Are you serious? This is the way experts handle children with autism. I would never abuse my child!
Amy: Oh, yeah, because if an ABA therapist says it, it must be true. Y’know, despite all those stories of how ABA can be EXTREMELY ABUSIVE.
Dan: My daughter has been in ABA for five months now and she is not being abused!
Et cetera, et cetera…

Maybe fighting back felt good at first, but the good feeling doesn’t last. Amy ends up feeling stressed and helpless, which may interfere with her ability to eat, fall asleep, avoid meltdowns, and do other skills that can become shaky when an autistic person is under stress.

Dan continues believing that it is okay to punish autistic children for stimming, and leaves with the impression that autistic people are unreasonable harpies who cry “abuse” for no reason. He may become an even worse listener. He doesn’t realize that Amy has a point.

Now let’s tell a different story. In this story, Amy is still taken aback by Dan’s comment. She opens with the assumption that Dan is a well-meaning guy that doesn’t know better, and tries gently but firmly pointing out his mistake. Let’s see how this goes:

Dan: If you see your child flapping their hands, you can scold them or slap them on the wrist.
Amy: Hi, you may not realize this, but punishing kids for stimming can be counterproductive. Usually, it just upsets them and makes them more likely to melt down or start doing self-injurious stims instead. It usually does more harm than good.
Dan: Oh, I didn’t know that. That was just what my child’s therapist said.
Amy: No problem, I know it’s hard to find accurate information on stimming. A lot of parents have no idea where to look.
Dan: Do you have any ideas? I’m not sure how to handle my daughter’s hand-flapping.
Amy: Well, it’s probably something she does to keep a handle on her emotions, and it can be good for her. As long as she’s not hurting herself or others, it’s OK. Here’s a wikiHow article on it.
Dan: Thanks so much. I’ll definitely look into it. Some of the stuff the therapist is telling me just doesn’t feel right, and I’m considering finding a new therapist. It’s just so confusing sometimes.
Amy: No problem! Happy to help.

Amy validates Dan’s feelings of confusion about autism, while offering him a better outlook and some positive sources of information. It’s a little tough to be patient with the ableism at first, but she leaves feeling good about herself and her ability to change the world for the better. Dan benefits from more accurate information, and he’ll start treating his daughter better and looking into therapists who treat his daughter well. He may even go on to correct other parents who have the wrong idea about autism.

It takes some maturity, grace, and maybe more than a little patience for Amy to grit her teeth and look past the obvious ableism to see a confused man who doesn’t know how to help his daughter. I definitely don’t want to minimize that, and Amy has no obligation to educate Dan. (She could just block him or ignore him if she preferred.)

Assertively, politely correcting Dan gives Amy the best outcome. Being aggressive gives her the worst outcome. Ignoring it means no change, which she is allowed to do too.

This scenario is based on my own personal experiences being gracious with people who are wrong. Dan’s responses are basically an amalgamation of what parents said in a few recent discussions.

So far, only one person has doubled down and gotten mean when I reacted assertively. One person, in years of experience. If you come across someone who is determined to be a jerk, I recommend blocking, reporting if it’s prudent, and blowing raspberries at the screen all you want. And if that person is in a position to do lots of harm, like running for public office, publicly shame them on social media all you want.

“You are ableist and wrong,” even if it’s true, doesn’t change minds. “You may not realize this, but your words are hurtful” opens up an opportunity for honest learning. And your average person is willing to learn, if you are kind.

Final thoughts

My goal here is not to tone-police, or tell you that you aren’t allowed to be angry about oppression, or tell you that you shouldn’t express that anger. You have a right to your feelings. And you do not have to do things my way. You don’t have to listen to me at all if you don’t want to.

I’m trying to express my personal feelings and the things I have learned in my 2-ish decades of life. I am a flawed human being doing my best to communicate with other flawed human beings.

My goal here is to help you become more effective at teaching people to be kind to autistic people. I think it’s a worthy goal, and I want to prevent people from engaging in self-defeating behavior that only hurts the community.

It can take a lot of courage to reach out after you’ve been hurt so many times.

And if you manage to show that courage, even just for a little bit, you may be able to make a new friend and ally.

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5 thoughts on “Attacking Ableists: Why it Fails, and How to Change Their Minds

  1. MissLunaRose, your “Sweet Autism Things” Tumblr blog is currently included on our Actually Autistic Blogs List (anautismobserver.wordpress.com). Unless you request otherwise, that listing will be updated to show this as your primary blog, with an added link to “Sweet Autism Things”.
    Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)

    Liked by 1 person

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