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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

Autism and Internalized Ableism

Updated: May 15

By Patty Laushman

Despite several decades of autism awareness campaigns and pockets of progress, societal understanding and acceptance still has a long way to go. Negative stereotypes, misconceptions, and prejudices about autism abound, contributing to a pervasive form of discrimination known as ableism. Ableism is the systemic, often unconscious, devaluation of individuals with disabilities based on a societal preference for typical abilities.

One of the most insidious impacts of ableism is when negative beliefs and stereotypes become internalized by individuals with disabilities themselves, leading to what we refer to as "internalized ableism." For autistic individuals, internalized ableism can manifest as self-doubt, low self-esteem, and a sense of being "less than" their neurotypical peers.

an autistic woman holding paper pieces with an eye and mouth drawn in it

The intersection of autism and internalized ableism is a conversation we need to have, not only within the autism community but in society at large. By shining a light on this issue, we can deepen our understanding, challenge harmful biases, and contribute to a world that truly values neurodiversity.

In this blog post, we'll explore the concept of internalized ableism, its impact on the autism community, and strategies to challenge and overcome it. It's a process of understanding what it's like to be neurodivergent that requires empathy, openness, and a willingness to challenge our own prejudices.

Understanding Ableism

Before we explore the concept of internalized ableism, it's crucial to understand ableism itself. Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities, those who do not have capabilities that are in sync with the majority of others around them. It's rooted in the belief that being able-bodied and neurotypical -not having a physical, mental, or developmental disability– is the norm and, consequently, superior.

Ableism permeates our society in ways that many of us, particularly those who are able-bodied and neurotypical, might not even notice. It manifests in physical barriers, such as buildings without wheelchair ramps or public transportation that isn't accessible. It's present in communication barriers, where information isn't provided in accessible formats like braille or sign language.

a blue sign with an icon of a person in a wheelchairity

But ableism also shows up in subtler, more insidious ways – in the assumptions we make about people with disabilities, in the language we use, and in the representation (or lack thereof) of people with disabilities in media and popular culture.

For the autistic community, ableism can take on specific forms. It might be an educator who insists that an autistic student must "fit in" and behave "normally," thereby discouraging unique, autistic ways of learning and communicating. It might be a potential employer who dismisses an autistic job candidate due to misguided stereotypes about what autistic people can and cannot do. Or it might be a well-meaning family member who views their loved one's autism as something to "overcome" rather than a fundamental part of their identity.

Ableism, in all its forms, sends a damaging message to people with disabilities: that they are less valuable, less capable, and less deserving of respect and opportunity. For autistic individuals, it can impose a harmful narrative that their unique ways of experiencing the world are somehow "wrong." This, in turn, can lead to the development of internalized ableism, a topic we'll explore more in the next section.

To effectively combat ableism, we must first recognize it – in our institutions, in our attitudes, and in ourselves. It's a difficult but necessary process of self-examination and societal critique. By challenging ableism, we take an essential step toward a more inclusive, accepting society that values all individuals – in their full diversity of abilities and experiences. And when this happens, we will all win!

The Concept of Internalized Ableism

Now that we've unpacked the concept of ableism, we can dive into a more specific, deeply personal manifestation of it: internalized ableism. This is what happens when people with disabilities, in this case, individuals with autism, absorb and believe the negative stereotypes and prejudices society holds about them. They may come to view themselves as inferior, less capable, or less valuable because of their disability.

Internalized ableism is a psychological and emotional process, often unconscious, that can have profound impacts on an individual's self-esteem, sense of self-worth, and mental health. It's the internal voice that whispers, "You're not good enough because you're not 'normal'."

a chess piece being separated to other ones representing ableism

For autistic individuals, internalized ableism might manifest in various ways. They might feel a sense of shame or discomfort about their autism-related traits, such as stimming (self-stimulatory behavior), non-standard ways of communicating, or unique sensory experiences. They might try to “mask” or camouflage their autistic traits to fit into neurotypical society, which can lead to intense emotional and cognitive strain. They may struggle with feelings of worthlessness or the belief that they are a burden to others because of their autism.

It's important to note that internalized ableism is not a personal failing, but a response to systemic ableism. It's the result of living in a society that often fails to understand, accept, and accommodate autistic individuals and their unique experiences and needs. The process of overcoming internalized ableism is often a long and challenging one that involves unlearning harmful beliefs and embracing one's identity as an autistic individual.

In the following sections, we'll examine the impact of internalized ableism on the autistic community and explore strategies for challenging and overcoming it. But remember, it's not the responsibility of autistic individuals alone to challenge internalized ableism. It's a societal issue that requires a societal response.

Impact of Internalized Ableism on the Autistic Community

Internalized ableism can lead to a host of negative effects, both for individuals and the community as a whole. On a personal level, it can contribute to lower self-esteem, increased anxiety, depression, and a decreased sense of self-worth. It can discourage autistic individuals from seeking support and accommodations, out of the fear that they will be seen as a burden or incapable.

The effects of internalized ableism extend beyond the individual, shaping societal attitudes and practices. It can reinforce harmful stereotypes about autism, further stigmatizing autistic people and perpetuating a cycle of misunderstanding and discrimination. It can also create barriers to inclusivity and accessibility in various societal contexts, from schools and workplaces to healthcare and media.

an autistic man with a silhouette of a hand in his face

Consider its impact on their mental health. When autistic individuals internalize the negative messages society often sends about autism, they are more likely to struggle with mental health issues. Research has shown that autistic individuals have higher rates of mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, than the general population. While there are various factors contributing to this disparity, internalized ableism certainly plays a significant role.

Internalized ableism also affects community building within the autistic community. If an individual believes the negative stereotypes about autism, they may be reluctant to engage with the autistic community or advocate for their rights and needs. This can lead to isolation and a lack of support networks, further exacerbating feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding.

Overall, internalized ableism perpetuates a cycle of harm, reinforcing ableist beliefs and practices, undermining the well-being of autistic individuals, and hindering efforts toward true acceptance and inclusivity. Breaking this cycle requires a concerted effort to challenge ableist attitudes, promote positive representations of autism, and foster a society that values neurodiversity.

Strategies to Combat Internalized Ableism

While the impact of internalized ableism is substantial, it is not insurmountable. There are several strategies that can help combat internalized ableism, both at an individual and societal level.

Education about Autism and Ableism

an autistic woman educating neurotypical friends about autism and ableism

Knowledge is a powerful tool. Understanding the nature of autism as a neurological diversity rather than a defect can shift perceptions significantly. Equally important is educating oneself and others about ableism, its manifestations, and its harmful effects.

Promotion of Self-Acceptance and Autism Acceptance

Autistic individuals, like everyone else, deserve to feel accepted and valued for who they are. Encouraging self-acceptance involves promoting the understanding that being autistic is a part of one's identity and that it comes with its own unique strengths and challenges. It's equally important to promote acceptance of autism within society, challenging stereotypes and fostering understanding and respect for autistic individuals.

Positive Representation and Role Models

Seeing positive portrayals of autistic individuals in media and having access to autistic role models can help counteract the negative stereotypes that fuel internalized ableism. Representation matters and can play a powerful role in shaping perceptions and attitudes.

Supportive and Inclusive Communities

Having spaces where autistic individuals feel safe, accepted, and understood can significantly reduce feelings of isolation and stigma. This includes both: physical spaces like inclusive schools or workplaces, and virtual spaces, such as online communities and social media platforms.

Mental Health Support

an autistic man having consultation with his life coach

Given the link between internalized ableism and mental health issues, providing access to mental health support is crucial. This might include therapy, counseling, or support groups, ideally with professionals who understand the specific experiences and needs of autistic individuals.

While these strategies can be powerful in combating internalized ableism, it's important to remember that the responsibility does not rest solely on the shoulders of autistic individuals. We all have a part to play in challenging ableism and creating a society that truly values and respects neurodiversity.

Moving Forward

As we've explored throughout this blog post, the intersection of autism and internalized ableism is a significant issue that warrants our attention and action. Internalized ableism, borne out of societal ableism, has far-reaching effects on the lives and well-being of autistic individuals. It can undermine self-esteem, mental health, and a sense of belonging, while reinforcing harmful societal stereotypes and barriers.

However, this is not a hopeless situation. By shining a light on this issue, we can begin to tackle it head-on. We can challenge our own biases and misconceptions, promote understanding and acceptance of autism, and work to create more inclusive, supportive environments for autistic individuals. This is not a task for the autistic community alone but a collective responsibility that we all share.

a group  consisting of autistic and neurotypical persons supporting each other

Remember, autism is not a deficit or a problem to be fixed. It's a different way of experiencing the world, rich with its own unique insights, strengths, and challenges. Autistic individuals are not “less than” – they are simply “different from,” and “different from” is something to be understood, valued, and celebrated.

By addressing internalized ableism and fostering an environment of acceptance and understanding, we can help create a world where every individual, regardless of neurotype, can truly flourish. Let's strive to create a world where every individual, autistic or not, can echo the words of autism activist and author Dr. Temple Grandin: "I am different, not less."


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