“Suffering” Parents and Dehumanizing People on the Spectrum

There is a tendency for people on the spectrum to be portrayed as burdens to their families in the media. Sometimes this is the angle of the journalist reporting a story, and other times, it comes from the voice of a parent. Sometimes this narrative can even attempt to justify parent or caregiver murder of someone on the spectrum. Unfortunately, this portrayal has damaged public perception of autistic people, and many on the spectrum have spoken out against it.

Autistic People Are Not a Burden

This portrayal is more common among individuals on the severe end of the spectrum, but it can be seen anywhere. A lack of understanding about autism leads to disrespect and the poor treatment of autistic people. Lydia Brown writes in an open letter to people on the spectrum who feel like a burden:

“You are not a burden to society if you need any form of accommodation to navigate this world. The society in which we live was not constructed around the needs and experiences of people like you and me. In fact, it ought to be the basic, minimum standard of human decency to ensure that you and I have equal access as everyone else. And sometimes that means making accommodations for us.”

Too often people expect autistics to conform to all neurotypical standards, and these same people fail to offer them adequate supports. This does not make autistic individuals a burden. Autistic advocate Chris Bonnello posted a Facebook meme recently that captures this sentiment well:

“Struggling with a school’s environment is not a reflection of a student’s capability. A Tyrannosaurus Rex would struggle to cope in the arctic, but nobody would ever claim that it’s inferior to a baby seal.”

The Problem With Seeing Autistic People as a Burden

Seeing autistic people as a burden can influence public policy makers by causing them to make decisions that fail to deliver services needed to remedy this problem. Autistic people need more support services that help them transition successfully during important phases of their life and more accommodating environments wherever they go. Even neurotypical people encounter situations where they feel unprepared or uncomfortable. Learning to cope with these situations and develop a healthy sense of flexibility and adaptability is important to surviving and succeeding in life for anyone. But it is unfair to suggest that this process is the same for autistic people as it is for neurotypicals.

The perception of autistic people as burdens to society or to a family can have dangerous, violent consequences, as in the justification of murder. Media can sometimes portray the murder of autistic people as mercy-killing, or justified in that caring for disabled people is too overwhelming, and that they are “better off” without these people alive. Alex Spourdalakis is one such example.

Is There a Solution?

As with any large societal problem, this fix isn’t quick or easy; however, there are certainly steps individuals can take to help combat the poor perception and treatment of people on the spectrum.

  1. Promote autism acceptance. Speak positively about autism and begin by not contributing to the problem. See 10 Things You Can Do Today to Support Autism Acceptance.
  2. Share positive stories. Share stories via social media and through your own discussions that promote the dignity of all people on the spectrum.
  3. Offer support when you can. Make accommodations for the people in your life and become involved with the lives of autistic people in your community.
  4. Learn more about autism. Stay informed about the needs of autistic people and read about ways you can help.


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