Unlearning Embarrassment

[Image description: a yellow flower in front of some stones with some white flowers to the side.]

Autistic children are taught to suppress their natural behaviours. There may be autistic children raised in a way contrary to this, but they are the exception rather than the rule. We are taught to suppress our natural instincts and behave in a manner seen as more acceptable in our society. One of the tools used to coerce autistic people into making this change is embarrassment.

I can speak only for myself when I say that I had no concept of embarrassment before I started school. I was aware that adults considered such a thing to exist, but I did not view it as a feeling I could personally experience. There is ample evidence in terms of videos of conversations with my parents to back this up, should my memory of those early days prove insufficient. But it changed once I started school.

I was actively encouraged to feel embarrassment by those adults around me. Whenever I behaved in a manner (and this was before I was diagnosed, mind you) that was deemed not socially acceptable, I was asked “aren’t you embarrassed?” For a long time, my answer was no, because I didn’t understand the concept. But I started to. There’s only so long that people can say “you’re so embarrassing” before you start to – at the very least – associate the concept of embarrassment with certain behaviours.

And in this way, I was trained to be ashamed of myself, and my nature. I was taught there was something wrong with me, that unless I changed who I was, people would not want to be associated with me and would laugh at me. Which, in our society is unfortunately partly true. But constantly feeling embarrassment about one’s own nature leads to serious problems with self-esteem in the long term, problems I still struggle with today.

I have a lot more confidence than I did in 2014 when I left school… but far less than I did in 2002 when I started. Six-year-old me was a happy, confident child, excited to start school and make new friends. Only a year or two later, I’d completely changed, and it was the attitudes at school which did it. Now, my lack of self-esteem still affects my life on a daily basis as a result of how I was treated then.

This link between embarrassment and low self-esteem seems fairly clear – if you believe that you behave in a way which is shameful, you will not hold yourself very highly and will not expect others to do so, either. Teaching autistic children to be embarrassed is teaching autistic children to dislike themselves. This is something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, and affect our prospects.

Changing autistic behaviours is seen by many in the neurodiversity movement as fundamentally wrong, and I agree. But it is not only the act of changing the behaviours that is wrong, but also the way they go about it. Some methods used, such as ABA, have been known to cause trauma, but even the less extreme methods, such as encouraging shame, can have long-lasting impacts on the lives of autistic people.

We need to recognise that embarrassment is used as a tool to control the behaviour of autistic children and adults alike, and recognise this as a form of coercion and harm. Autistic people continue to be hurt every day because of internalised shame due to this form of control, and if people are serious about changing the outcomes for autistic people, we need help to unlearn the embarrassment that has been trained into us from childhood.

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