when behaviour is stigmatised

We all behave. We all use behaviour as a form of communication. We all have opinions about other peoples behaviour. We all make assumptions about what constitutes “good” and “bad” behaviour. In the context of disability support, behaviour is a much discussed topic, and very often the word “behaviour” is preceded by the word “challenging” or followed by the word “management”. More and more though, I want to precede or follow the word “behaviour” with the word “stigmatised”.

– the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others he will vouch for her good behaviour | his insulting behaviour towards me. [ as modifier ] :  behaviour patterns. [ count noun ] :  management is a set of techniques and behaviours for getting things done.
– the way in which an animal or person behaves in response to a particular situation or stimulus: the feeding behaviour of predators.
– the way in which a machine or natural phenomenon works or functions:the erratic behaviour of the old car.

I find the use of the word behaviour in conversations about disability uncomfortable. Not because I think people don’t “behave” but because I think peoples behaviour is classified into problematic categories depending on how observers perceive the person. We acknowledge this fairly easily in instances of racism and classism, but not so much in instances of ableism.

The reason autistic people are expected to endure behaviour management therapy and social skills clubs is because their behaviour is deemed inappropriate by non autistic people. When an autistic person is “aggressive” or “rude” or “socially inappropriate” or “antisocial” or has a meltdown or stims, these are all labelled challenging behaviours that need managing by professional intervention- a distinction not made when non autistic people do the same things.

The thing is that often when non autistic people do these things they really are being aggressive, rude, socially inappropriate and antisocial, and sometimes intentionally, but often when autistic people do them they are acting from a place of distress or misunderstanding rather than intentional disrespect or casting aside of social convention. Not to say that autistic people aren’t capable of being intentionally rude- of course they are!- but there is a discrepancy between the overall general assumptions made about autistic peoples motivations in behaviour and the reality of what is happening.

So, when I see someone postulate about a persons behaviour, I think it tells me more about the person commenting than the person behaving.  And when it is done by a majority of people in a community there is a problem.

In the case of the autistic minority the problem is a power imbalance that results in the autistic people being stigmatised for doing things that are in fact normal human behavioural responses to situations and experiences that cause them distress. The fact that autistic people do these things more often or more obviously than non autistic people is not bad- it is simply evidence of the fact autistic people experience the world differently. Yet “autistic behaviours” are stigmatised, medicalised and frowned on.

This isn’t a problem experienced only by autistic people. Many neurodivergent people and people disabled in other ways experience this unfair categorising of behaviour.

We see it all the time in non disabled peoples responses to our own advocacy: “calm down”, “if you speak politely you are much more likely to get your message across”, “I need you to stop being aggressive”, “you have to look at me when I speak to you”, “don’t complain- there are people who have it worse than you”, “you should be happy you get the help you do”…. etc.

We see it in response to children reacting to overwhelm caused by sensory sensitives: “calm down”, “sit still”, “stop that or you’ll have to go to time out”, “be polite”, “use your words”, “quiet hands”….. etc.

We see it in the way people react as they claim to want to help: “have you tried this diet to control their behaviour?”, “they just need to be disciplined”, “naughty”, “bad parenting”, “I heard of a new therapy that will help you”…. etc.

Even the sympathy response is heavy with stigma: “you poor thing”, “what’s wrong with them?”, “that must be so hard”, “I don’t know how you do it”….. etc.

These responses are dismissive, silencing, controlling, condescending, and stigmatising.

And this stigma leads to the responsibility for change toward conformity being put onto the disabled person and enforced by the non disabled.

Social skills classes are a good example. We send our neurodivergent children to social skills classes for the sole purpose of teaching them how to appear more like the typical kids they are expected to befriend, yet the typical kids are not expected to attend special classes that help them understand the neurodivergent kids or alter their behaviour to include them more fully. In fact, when a neurodivergent child is bullied we send them to social skills classes so they can learn to blend in and be more resilient, yet the bully is not expected to go to classes to learn to be respectful of those different to them. How is that fair or right? Even the assumption that the neurodivergent child should assimilate with the other children and that it will be better for them to do so is full of stigma laden assumptions about what is “good socialisation”.

The so called democratic process for making change to laws is another example. There is a long and inaccessible process to go through to get laws changed. And if that process breaks down or acts in favour of the majority so that decisions are made that end up being dangerous for disabled folks, disabled peoples options are limited and include resorting to protesting at the risk of being arrested, or choosing to remain silent and suffer life changing, sometimes life ending, consequences of the law. Yet the people making the laws can do so without consulting the people the changes will impact, and can choose to uphold and enforce laws made so long ago it’s hard to believe anyone could think they are still appropriate.

Over and over again we see people in majority groups stigmatise and dismiss those in minority groups casting aside their needs as unimportant because they deem their behaviour inappropriate. This is the result of careless attitudes toward understanding differences and a lack of value of diversity.

Stigmatising behaviour because we are too lazy to do anything more than assume is unfair and causes harm.  Please, make time to read what autistic people are saying about autism, what neurodivergent people are saying about their experiences, what disabled people are telling you about living in our society. Given the abundance of information about disability written by disabled people that is so easily available now, continued stigmatising of behaviour is inexcusable.


3 thoughts on “when behaviour is stigmatised

  1. Brilliantly observed writing Michelle..this is going to be included in my document Im drafting to put to my sons school to stop him being treated this way.As a parent of an Autistic child I am deeply grateful for the writing Autistic adults are sharing…ithe insights are so very helpful for everyone and I will circulate it wherever I can and as much as I can.Thank you

  2. Michelle what inspirational words! We have had an on going situation with my little boy at school for the last few years I am actually shocked by the amount of stigma and prejudice he’s been subject to by adults and children a like. This piece sums up perfectly everything I would like to say to these parents!!! Thank you so much for finding the words!

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