Why you shouldn’t identify with autistic people. Try some empathy instead.


This is about when neurotypical (NT) people over-identify with an area of autistic struggle. If you’re autistic you’ll know exactly what I mean, if you’re NT – I’m not being rude but – I could be talking about you.

Why complain you ask? Identification is surely good?

Well…no actually, I don’t think it always is. In fact, this is something which can get in the way of autistic people being heard properly and fairly accommodated.

Many autistic people experience this over-identification. Often NT people begin to think that they themselves could be ‘a little bit’ autistic, with a matching and equal array of challenges.

It is a natural human response but it must be curbed when it comes to neurological difference.

This is not empathy. In fact this blocks empathy. Such NT responses are acutely demoralising for autistic people because they minimise our struggle.

And today my heart sank a little because…

Yesterday’s blog post about autistic artists and the inherent difficulties within professional structures and systems – including Arts Council England funding application processes – is already attracting the ‘me too’ response.

Autism poses unique challenges, which are not faced by NT people. This truth has to be absorbed more widely.

More specifically, if NT artists find the professional structures of the art world hostile and difficult to navigate, that sensation should be magnified twenty fold to understand the barriers to autistic professional progression.

A core challenge of autism resides in the specific area of social pragmatics, which just so happens to underpin every aspect of managing a career in the arts. Strengths in social communication are pretty much key.

This is why – of late – I consistently use the term autistic, rather than the terms neurodiverse/nerurodivergent in my blogs, because I believe specificity can be helpful in certain contexts. We are part of a larger group who are not ‘typical’, or rather which makes up a neuro-minority for whom existing societal practices and structures are disabling.

Yet we need to signal clearly exactly what our challenges consist of and I would like to try to articulate this the simplest terms regarding a defining and core aspect of our struggle.

The extreme emphasis on, and burden of social communication within an artist’s professional life creates a gross inequality for autistic artists, which operates across the board and at all levels.

I believe that if more NTs can manage the job of empathising with this – rather than imaging that they share in this singular predicament  – we will have made progress.

Every glimmer of genuine empathy really does help us move towards action and change.




Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

13 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t identify with autistic people. Try some empathy instead.

  1. Man, I’ve experienced exactly this. But I didn’t have the guts to try to express the crushing impossibility and absolute terror that has held me back my entire working life. When people complain about the process, they still get it all done, they still proceed with the tasks I find excruciating and soul crushing. When I was younger and trying so hard to be normal, I fought my inner terror and shame to fulfill applications for grants, etc. Even then I could see their complaints were a farce. Like so many things, their ‘difficult’ and my ‘difficult’ vastly differed, and that gap made me more ashamed, more afraid to admit I had bigger walls than they could imagine. I just gave up trying to make a real career as a fine artist. I know I am, I know my work is very valuable, because it’s all love, it’s all good stuff, I pour my soul and all my love into everything. But I find marketing myself repugnant, I find the whole system to be a monstrous, hellish ‘NO!’ And then I keep my art locked in the closet of my private world. I abhor selling my art, even though I know it can sell and I don’t necessarily like being poor. Since I cannot compete in the real world, I compete against myself. Though I am completely poor and unknown, with no affiliations or alliances, my work is a real reflection, a honest effort. I offer an authenticity that cannot be found when an artist spends more than half of their energy with mounds of paperwork that proves other people think their work is worthy of recognition. Since I cannot be in that room, I look for people on the street who need my art, I look for those who ache for something real. With the internet, I can lay my wares on the digital sidewalk, free of charge, for anyone who wants it.That’s the best I can do.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My daughter is a dancer in training, she struggles greatly because there is no understanding of her daily struggles.
    She is told there’s no place for special needs in the dance world or that she will grow out if it.
    You have touched a nerve for us struggling with a beautiful technically stunning dancer who has no understanding of emotion.
    The arts world needs to change art itself is nearly always created by the neuro diverse!!
    Don’t stamp out what makes people different embrace difference and a different way of being!
    Autistic wife and mother of 3 autistic girls and one very patient NT son.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The example I’m starting to use with NTs who persist in this is “you can no more understand how this is for me because you do X than you understand what it’s like to be blind because you occasionally walk into dark rooms.”
    It pisses them off but it works.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Yes. I am not in arts but sciences (luckily my talents lay that way – I could never have achieved my degree in an “essay subject”!), where the sadly too typical response to any disclosure is the well-meaning but misguided: “we’re all a little bit autistic”. It’s meant to be helpful, show solidarity, tell me I’m not alone, etc – but what it actually tells me is there’s no way my difficulties will be fully acknowledged or accommodated!

    Liked by 1 person

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