A universal Autistic experience that is rarely talked about: Shame and Rejection.
Why do Autistic people face so much shame and rejection from an early age? How does it poison all areas of our lives? What does it do to our mental health and self-worth? How does it affect us if we are multiply marginalised?
What can you, as a family member, partner, friend, educator, colleague, or therapist, do to break the cycle of shame and rejection?
When our very existence is seen as an insult…
A common reaction to finding out about being Autistic is anger. Not because we don’t want to be Autistic, but because we think back to all the times we were shamed and rejected for being ourselves. Something just clicks. It was never our fault.
Our very existence is seen as an insult to “how things have always been”, a threat to the status quo of social expectations.
Imagine being told from a young age that:
The way you play is wrong.
The way you talk is wrong.
The way you walk is wrong.
Saying no is wrong.
Telling the truth is wrong.
Being yourself is wrong.
Imagine being punished, bullied, and excluded for simply… being. This is our daily reality. This is our Autistic experience, ‘diagnosed’ or not.
It’s no surprise that many of us develop an extreme sensitivity to rejection. We become perfectionists and people pleasers. We overthink and ruminate. We hide and mask. All to alleviate the pain of past and future shame and rejection.
When really, it’s not our fault. There is nothing wrong with us.
It’s up to everyone to break the vicious cycle:
Stop rejecting Autistics.
Stop shaming us for being us.
When our Autistic experience is dismissed and our needs are denied…
“Go on, those socks aren’t scratchy.”
“How can the light be too loud?”
“My aftershave is giving you a headache?!”
Autistic people are known for their sharp senses. This is a real Autistic experience. We see, hear, smell things others don’t. Sometimes, we struggle with things others don’t even notice. But the moment we advocate for our needs, people dismiss us because they reject our perception of reality. It doesn’t bother them, so it can’t be bothering us.
We learn that our needs don’t matter, that they aren’t even ‘real’.
As a result, we are too ashamed to take up space and ask for what we need.
We won’t ask to turn down the volume.
We won’t ask you to smoke outside.
We won’t ask for a seat on the bus.
We won’t ask for support when we are overwhelmed and struggling.
We won’t ask for accommodations at school and in the workplace.
We won’t ask for help with addiction and mental health.
We stay when we need to leave.
We hold it all together in public and fall apart the minute we get home.
We suffer in silence until we slowly burn out.
Stop dismissing our needs. Respect our experience.
We start to put other people’s needs above ours
We please people to prevent pain.
We don’t set healthy boundaries because we are afraid of people’s reactions.
We don’t say no because we are taught it’s not an option.
Compliance-based “therapies” (aka abuse) like ABA make sure of it.
We might say no to ourselves but can’t say no to others. We are taught that our needs matter less. And we worry that if we reject their demand, they will reject our friendship.
The flawed reasoning behind people pleasing is: If we do whatever you want, you don’t have any reason to reject us. We are being “good”, so you have no choice but to like and accept us. Right?
As empathetic people, we have a hard time refusing to help. We see others struggle. And as sincere people, we believe that they are genuine as well. Which leads to people taking advantage of us.
Unfortunately, people don’t respect those with no boundaries. In the never-ending neurotypical game of social hierarchy, we move down a spot every time we say ‘yes’ when we think ‘no’.
Which leads to more people taking advantage of us.
It’s hard to escape this downward spiral. The moment we finally say no to others and yes to ourselves, we face immense backlash because we are questioning the convenient state of things.
Stop ABA and other compliance-based abuse. Respect our boundaries. Autistics need to feel safe to say no.
What happens next after all of this shame and rejection? We start ruminating and overthinking
For many Autistics, social interactions don’t start with “Hi, howya?”
They often start hours if not days earlier, when we prepare for every eventuality.
What am I going to say?
How am I going to respond to…?
Some Autistics script out and practise whole conversations, worrying about everything that might go wrong.
And our social interactions don’t end with “bye bye bye bye” either.
Now the rumination starts. We replay the conversation on repeat.
Did I talk too much?
Did I not talk enough?
Did I say something wrong?
Did I embarrass myself?
Contrary to common belief, many of us are hyper-aware of how we come across. Rejection and shame loom over every interaction. We become conversation perfectionists.
And perfectionists in all areas of life, for that matter.
Your criticism becomes our inner monologue. We overcompensate by trying to prevent mistakes.
It becomes impossible to make a decision. Impossible to start a task. Impossible to be less than perfect.
We always ask ourselves:
Is it good enough?
Am I good enough?
Could I have done more?
Then… we suppress our stims and SPINs
Am I talking too much? Am I boring them?
Am I doing that thing with my hands again?
What if they think I’m weird?
SPINs and stims are two of the most wonderful aspects of Autistic life. SPINs (“special” interests) gift us immense joy and meaning. Stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour) makes us happy and helps us regulate our emotions.
And yet, Autistics often suppress both.
We are told that our interests are too ‘out there’. That we talk too much about them. That nobody cares about them. That we need to talk about something else.
And if we flap, spin, fidget, rock, or hum, people stare. We are told ‘quiet hands’. We are told ‘whole-body listening’, when really, stimming IS whole-body listening.
As a result, we don’t want to take up space. We don’t want to be seen as “weird”. Maybe we don’t want to be seen at all. So we stop stimming. We stop talking about our interests. We stop sharing our joy. And we lose parts of ourselves in the process.
… and we start doubting our self-worth
our experience is being doubted…
our needs are being dismissed…
our boundaries are being invaded…
our interests are being ridiculed…
our stims are being punished…
It is no surprise that rejection and shame affect our self-worth and the very core of our identity.
Many of us are multiply marginalised, shamed and rejected for:
Being Autistic and a woman.
Being Autistic and gay.
Being Autistic and nonspeaking.
Being Autistic and black.
Being Autistic and chronically ill.
We are rejected for not using mouth words, for not ‘acting’ like a ‘real’ woman/man (whatever that means), for being LGBTQ+, for being part of an ethnic minority, for not having access to education or a living wage.
All this leads to depression, anxiety, c-PTSD, low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, constant masking, and Autistic burnout.
Is there a way out?
So what can we do to break the vicious cycle of rejection and shame?
The opposite of shame is pride (not pity).
The opposite of rejection is appreciation (not tolerance).
Stop pathologising Autistic traits. Celebrate Autistic culture.
Stop policing Autistic play. Embrace Autistic ingenuity.
Stop compliance-based “therapies”, stop rewards & punishment. Accept who we are.
Stop dismissing our reality and needs. Believe us.
Stop denying our rights. Respect us.