Reframing the notion of “accommodations” for autistic people

As autistic people, in a world established for non-autistic (“allistic”) people, we sometimes believe that the “accommodations” which we require to engage with the world are burdensome, and that others are very much “doing us a favour” in providing them. And, indeed, providing these accommodations requires work from other people. I will not deny that some accommodations are difficult to achieve, and require thought, time, skill, money, and patience to get right. This is the reality of breaking down barriers to access. But what I want to talk about in this article is (the little-acknowledged fact) that autistic people daily make accommodations for allistic people. Not only is this fact not acknowledged, but I don’t think that even autistic people realise that what we provide for allistics are, in fact, “accommodations”.

Just because we often have to go through “official channels” to get our accommodations does not mean that we fundamentally have more needs than allistics, it means that we experience systematic disadvantage. If allistics were a minority, the things which we do every day to accommodate allistics in our autistic lives, would be more clearly seen for what they are: accommodations. Autistics are often seen as rude when we transgress a social norm because of prioritising our own comfort or communication style, but allistics are rarely seen as “rude” for prioritising their comfort and communication style – why not? Because allistic comfort and communication styles are normative and therefore considered acceptable, regardless of who has to work hard to accommodate them.

The accommodations that autistics provide for allistic people are hard work, draining of our resources, are difficult to achieve, and require thought, time, skill, money, and patience to get right. Some example are as follows:

-using verbal language to communicate (if and when we are able) even when this is intellectually, emotionally, and physically draining, and has perhaps taken us years of training to learn how to do it. For many autistics verbal speech is something which involves a complex process of translation, from pictures or concepts into words, leaving us at a disadvantage in conversations ranging from the ordinary every day conversations, to more complex situations such as in debate. Those of us who have no trouble speaking (and never had) accommodate allistics by learning to say “socially acceptable” things, and by learning to interact in allistic ways. We accommodate allistic “speakers” all day every day (except when we just can’t, in which case, we do require accommodations from allistics – but nevertheless we are expected to make accommodations first, even when it is clear that an autistic is nonverbal).

-meeting/working with allistic people in places where the sensory environment causes us to have to process everything with incredible feats of concentration and mental stamina, and which can leave us with several hours or days of incapacitation to recover. Some of us do this because we value the people we are interacting with, and wish to facilitate them being in our lives. This includes our families, and our friends, even when they do not know it. The accommodations we make involve “appearing normal” in situ to avoid the discomfort of allistics who might become overly concerned at the behaviour of a member of “the group”. Often allistics when feeling discomfort at the behaviour of a member of “the group” will try to “correct” the situation with their verbal concern, overt expressions of discomfort at our discomfort, and so on. Allistics can be really difficult to manage in these situations, so we accommodate them to prevent their distress, and escalation.

-tolerating very loud or smelly (perfumed) people with grace. This might sound snobby but it is not. Loud or smelly people to somebody who has an extremely heightened sensory system can cause shut downs, difficulty contributing to conversations, and emotional distress. But in situations where we are expected to be “professional”, i.e. the allistic concept of professionalism, we make accommodations. We often offer people our space and time, knowing that it is often not their fault if they are loud, and knowing that their “group-think” causes them to need to cover natural smells which are considered socially undesirable. When we are unable to tolerate it, we are often seen as rude or unkind (and so accommodating allistics is thus presented not as the hard work it is, but as “the polite thing to do”!).

-When an allistic changes a plan at the last minute, and we have to change our whole mental picture of what our day was going to look like whilst simultaneously *convincingly* reassuring an allistic that even though we are “disappointed” (doesn’t really cover it) it is ok that they changed the plan. The picture of our planned day might have taken a couple of days to fully imagine, and feel ok with. We accommodate by re-imagining the situation with the new information, perhaps stimming privately to cope with our stress, and journaling or writing to our supportive friends. We do this because allistics can be sensitive to what they perceive as negative feedback to what was unavoidable for them. We realise that allistics often take the emotional reactions of others personally, and so we accommodate their emotional sensitivities, we learn ways to express our distress in moderate, allistically acceptable ways. If we are unable to do this, we are seen as “difficult” rather than just “expressers of legitimate distress”.

These are just a few of the ways in which autistics accommodate allistics, there are of course many more. Some of us are able to make accommodations more  often than others (but those that are able to make more accommodations often “pay for it” later). I am sure that other groups of disabled people could come up with similar lists.

When autistic people ask for accommodations, they are not asking for allistic people to do something out of the ordinary. For autistic people, accommodations are being given to non-autistic people all day, every day. We are simply asking for some give-and-take, and for some equality in our giving of accommodations. Rather than “accommodations” maybe we should call them “reparations”, “reciprocity”, or just “meeting autistic people half way (for a change)” (though perhaps the latter is a bit long-winded).

The structures of our personal lives are autistic; we accommodate allistics therein. Returning the hospitality is not “doing us a favour”, it is a fair exchange. When we are unable to provide allistics with the accommodations they require, we are not being rude, we are simply requesting that they take turns with us, and accommodate us for a change.

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