square bulletThe Importance of Disability Culture

Morrigan Hunter (they/them) is a former MSW intern at Trauma Informed Oregon.

The sixth principle of trauma informed care looks at cultural, historical, and gender issues. As an Autistic person I have seen how important it is for service providers to know about disability culture. It is also important to know that different disability communities can have different views from each other. This article considers trauma informed care for Autistic people. I hope that it encourages discussion about what trauma informed care can look like for other disability communities.

Understanding Ableism

  • Ableism refers to the ways in which a person experiences discrimination because of their disability.
  • All parts of a person’s identity (gender, race, age, disability, economic status etc.) affect their experience.
  • A person can experience ableism and still have privilege from other identities.
  • My own experiences are shaped by being white, Autistic, agender.

Addressing Stereotypes

The sixth principle of trauma informed care asks us to address stereotypes. This is very important for providing trauma informed care to Autistic people because there many harmful stereotypes. For instance, movies and television often show Autistic people as white cisgender straight men from wealthy families. This leaves out many Autistic people who do not fit that image. It is also common for non-Autistic actors to play Autistic roles with little input from actual Autistic people. Because movies and shows are often what people think of when they think of autism, it is important to recognize how they can promote harmful stereotypes. For instance, BIPOC Autistic people often have a harder time getting a diagnosis and access to support. LGBTQ+ Autistic people might have their gender or sexuality dismissed because of lack of awareness that Autistic people can be LGBTQ+.

As another example, I have been told by well-meaning disability service providers that I should not pursue a career in social work because I am Autistic and they did not believe that Autistic people could do social work. I happen to know many other Autistic social workers who encouraged me to pursue my MSW. However, this experience of being labeled by a stereotype was traumatizing to me and it has helped to remind me of the harm that stereotypes can cause. I think it is easy to look at the description of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and assume that every Autistic person will be similar but this is not true. One of the challenges that I experience as someone who is open about being Autistic is that people will often want me to fit into a box based on these stereotypes. Part of providing trauma informed care is recognizing a person’s humanity and the uniqueness of their own experience, which can never be reduced to stereotypes.

Understanding Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity means accepting the ways in which Autistic people are different from non-Autistic people. This is important because many Autistic people are expected to mask or pretend that they are not Autistic. This means accepting things like Autistic stimming and interests. Stimming refers to the many ways in which people self-regulate with sensory input. While everyone stims, Autistic people tend to stim more often. Autistic people often have strong interests and neurodiversity celebrates those interests. It is also important to recognize that BIPOC Autistic people might experience pressure to both mask and code-switch in white non-Autistic spaces.

Many Autistic people feel that being Autistic is an important part of who they are. Because of this, many Autistic people prefer to be called Autistic rather than “person with autism.” However, it is important to respect each person’s preferences. Language is important in other ways too. The terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” are often considered to be hurtful. Therefore, it is more common to refer to someone’s support needs instead.

Learning about any culture, including a disability culture, is an on-going process. It is important to listen and learn from members of disability cultures, especially those who experience other forms of discrimination. Please see the TIP sheet Providing Trauma Informed Care to Autistic Adults for additional information.

Additional resources can be found in the TIO Resources Library:

Providing Trauma Informed Care to Autistic Adults
Trauma Informed Care for Survivors with Disabilities