I have been confronting a lot of my internalised ableism, both towards myself and other neurodivergent people. One thing I have realised is that toxic, unaccepting environments are often created when certain traits that are often associated with disabilities are attacked because they are different from the “norm”.
For example, making fun of people who stand with a different posture, or walk on their toes, or miss social cues. These are all traits that are common in autistic people. And I can honestly admit that I have commented on people who show these traits, even after my autism diagnosis. This is something I am working on everyday, because disabled people can still be ableist. But one specific word that is used to describe almost everyone I’ve met with ASD at some point, but is rarely discussed as a form of ableism, is awkward.
I originally looked up the definition to help me show how negative the connotations are for this word, but it also showed me something else. All of these descriptions are also used as insults against autistic people. I want you to go back and read that list again, and think about anyone you have ever described as “awkward”. Whether it was to their face, or behind their back.
Now, I want you to think about what it was specifically that made you refer to them using that word. Was it their body language, or the way they spoke, or how they engaged with you? And then think about why those traits or differences were immediately seen as a negative thing by your brain. That is called ableism. Whether those people were disabled or not, you saw traits associated with disabilities and you labelled them as wrong.
This is why I am starting to think that the word is much more dangerous than it seems. We often cloak it in backhanded compliments, or use it to describe characters who are “shy, naive, bumbling and clueless” in a way to make them seem endearing. But when we laugh at their poorly timed jokes or misunderstanding of a situation, what we are really doing is laughing at their difficulties. This also pushes the idea that creating comedy out of ableism is acceptable. This isn’t to say that being autistic doesn’t have its funny moments, and I have so many stories that I can laugh about. But deliberately using autistic traits for comedy or making fun of them is wrong and harmful.
In real life, autistic people are punished for the traits that others find funny. We are forced to hide our autistic traits and behaviours so that we might avoid the backlash that comes from being ourselves. We exhaust ourselves to the point of burnout and meltdowns by masking all day long because that is preferable to being laughed at, bullied or called “awkward”. When you call someone awkward, you are acknowledging that they are different and in the same word, you are isolating them from the rest of the world. With this one word, you tell someone that you do not accept their differences and that they should be ashamed of who they are.
For those of you who have read this far and want to know an alternative to using this word, there already is one. If you meet someone who doesn’t act like you, or walk like you, or talk like you, they are different. Not different from the norm, but different from you. And that is not a bad thing. But this does not mean you should just replace one word with another. We still need to address the ableism that is rooted in this word, and realise that we don’t need to view autistic traits as inherently wrong.
On the other hand, you could stop commenting on differences and learn to accept that not everyone communicates or thinks the same way. Autistic people don’t need to conform to society’s expectations of how everyone should act to be accepted. We can thrive when we are allowed to express ourselves in a way that is comfortable for us. If that makes you uncomfortable, then you need to do some reflection about why you want everyone to act the same way.
We are different, not less.