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Social stigma in autistic people

Apr 14, 2023

Based on what is considered normal or correct in different sociopolitical contexts, there is discrimination against a wide variety of groups: LGTBIQ+ people, racialized people, psychiatrized people, autistic or physically disabled people, among many others. All of them have specific struggles and demands, but they also have something in common: the social stigma they suffer in different spheres and situations due to their belonging to a group that, from a position of privilege, is perceived as inferior, less functional, incorrect or even reprehensible.


The term ‘stigma’ as we know it today -with the meaning of prejudice- was defined by the sociologist Erving Goffman in 1963, and would imply a form of exclusion towards certain groups that share a condition, attributes, traits or behaviors considered unacceptable or of a lower category than those of the majority of the population.


At the top of this pyramid of social prestige we would find cisheterosexual, upper-class, young, attractive white men with higher education and normative bodies. However, as we move away from this center, from this abstract scale of desirability that challenges us in all our interactions, we acquire labels and discriminatory treatment for not being sufficiently “functional”, or “stable”, or “cultured”, or “thin”, in a downward spiral of intersectionality of oppressions that will affect our self-esteem, our relationship with others and even the right to have the same opportunities as other people.


Social discrimination and the cycle of stigma


According to Goffman, there are three types of stigma: physical -due to visible organic or bodily alterations-, psychological -suffered by individuals with non-normative behaviors and personality traits- and social -discrimination based on nationality, religion or orientation sexual, among others-.


In autism we would basically talk about social stigma, due to the misinformation and prejudices of the neurotypical society, which attributes a series of traits to autistic people before letting them be, that they in fact manifest those attitudes and stereotyped behaviours that fly over the collective imagination of people regarding what it means to be “autistic”. However, autistic people also receive psychological stigma when, in effect, we express our discomfort or even our joy in unconventional ways.


Finally, and before going into specific examples, some basic concepts should be clarified: stereotypes are based on cognitive processes, and refer to knowledge or beliefs about a certain group; prejudices are the emotions that these considerations arouse in us, and which, at the same time, can lead to unfavourable comments and qualifications towards the stigmatized group, and discrimination would encompass all concrete acts -subtle or not- of rejection or exclusion. These three concepts -which, moreover, feed each other- would make up the cycle of stigma.


Stigma related to eye contact


According to a study (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2020), explaining the reasons behind certain behaviours translates into a reduction in stigma -in all conditions and diagnoses investigated, except psychopathy-. Therefore, we can affirm that it is critical to make autism visible -mainly in the first person-, overthrow myths and stereotypes, express our concerns, fears and needs, and, ultimately, inform and educate society to fight against stigma.


For example, autistic people often experience discomfort when maintaining eye contact; we feel that it is too intrusive, or that we cannot concentrate on what is being said to us because we have to focus on too many stimuli, or that we are unable to elaborate an answer if we spend our energy looking into the eyes.


For neurotypicals, on the other hand, not making eye contact is a sign of rudeness, disinterest, lack of attention -when we, precisely, avoid that contact to listen carefully to what they are telling us-, dishonesty or disloyalty.


They do not know what is really hidden behind this act -which they usually have perfectly integrated and automated-, and, therefore, due to this cycle of stigma -whose origin is ignorance and, therefore, fear and rejection-, attribute a series of tremendously unfair, unfavourable and incorrect explanations and qualifications, in such a way that they dehumanize and caricature the “other” who does not behave the same as them and relegate them to a lower social category, according to which “those others” -those who do not look into the eyes, such as many autistic people-, are liars, clueless, rude and even intellectually incapable, never asking us if our reasons correspond to what they think.


Meltdowns and sensory collapses


Another example would be found in the myth that autistic people are violent. This is often something anecdotal, infrequent -in fact, an autistic person is much more likely to be a victim than an aggressor-, but the stigma exaggerates residual behaviours and makes them the norm, as if the entire autistic group shared the same traits -completely ignoring that autism is a spectrum-.


Again, it is true that we can have meltdowns and sensory collapses, but we must delve into the causes and origin of this discomfort, of those cries for help in the form of stereotypes or anxiety attacks, instead of thinking that we are “too rigid”, “capricious”, “immature”, “rude” or even “violent” -and this last qualifier is very serious, mainly because it is not true; we have already said that violence is residual, and when it occurs, it is usually in the form of self-harm, and never as a volitional act of attacking an external person.


Surely, we have endured a lot of abuse, as well as an excess of stimuli that have caused us a sensory overload, before reaching that meltdown. And that is our way of communicating, of demanding adjustments and measures, and, ultimately, of letting off steam to continue surviving another day in this system.


Empathy and diverse emotions


Another widespread belief is that autistic people do not have empathy. And this is also false; simplifying a lot, this myth is due to the fact of having a different processing style, as well as diverging in emotional lability, pragmatism, or rhythms of emotional expression, among other issues. Faced with a problem, an autistic person is likely to be quick to offer advice and solutions, instead of showing affection or emotional support – and the latter is what the neurotypical person probably needs.


There is, then, as the researcher Damian Milton proposes, a “double empathy” problem, which works in both directions, since neurotypical people also do not understand how the autistic brain works and, therefore, do not know how to help us in multiple situations. Autistic people could also accuse neurotypicals of not being emphatic to us, but that is not the right way; we must understand that neurodiversity is extremely rich, varied and complex, and fight together against stereotypes, prejudices and stigma.


Teasing and ableist comments


Stigma leads us to suffer unpleasant comments and subtle or explicit forms of discrimination; for example, isolating autistic children in schools -many parents do not want their children to hang out with them, as if autism were dangerous or contagious-, or through complaints or ableist ridicule for having preference in queues at amusement parks or for being able to access parking spaces reserved for people with disabilities.


Many autistic people have witnessed those disapproving glances, unpleasant comments, even insults for having those “privileges” that, according to them -and here the stigma appears again- we do not need. As if these “privileges” were not infimum and insufficient concessions compared to all the accommodations, readjustments and public aid that we would need to live on equal terms with the neurotypical society. As if our anxiety when being surrounded by people in queues, or not being able to park close to home -in the case of some autistic people; obviously, this does not happen to all of us-, were a whim or “desire to attract attention”, as we have heard so many times. And this is not so: noise hurts us, certain textures hurt us, extreme temperatures hurt us. But, above all, people’s prejudices and comments hurt us.


To fight misinformation, diagnosis can be a great ally; it allows us to understand each other, to meet more people like us, to free ourselves from the guilt of being different, to forgive ourselves. And, through this self-knowledge, we can begin to do activism, to explain to others the reasons behind our behaviours so that they can understand them and so that, little by little, the stigma towards autism is diluted.

Written by Montse Bizarro.


Gillespie-Lynch, K., Daou, N., Obeid, R., Reardon, S., Khan, S., & Goldknopf, E. J. (2021). What Contributes to Stigma Towards Autistic University Students and Students with Other Diagnoses?. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 51(2), 459–475. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04556-7
Goffman, Erving (1986 [Ed. original 1963]). Estigma. La identidad deteriorada. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu. ISBN 950-518-016-0.
Mak, W. W., Cheung, R. Y., Law, R. W., Woo, J., Li, P. C., & Chung, R. W. (2007). Examining attribution model of self-stigma on social support and psychological well-being among people with HIV+/AIDS. Social science & medicine64(8), 1549-1559.
Sasson, N. J., Faso, D. J., Nugent, J., Lovell, S., Kennedy, D. P., & Grossman, R. B. (2017). Neurotypical peers are less willing to interact with those with autism based on thin slice judgments. Scientific reports7(1), 1-10.
Zhang, Z., Peng, P. & Zhang, D. Executive Function in High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-analysis of fMRI Studies. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 4022–4038 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04461-z