How “The Golden Rule” Harms Autistic People

How “The Golden Rule” Harms Autistic People

[This post was also published at NeuroClastic. For new posts from me, head to my author profile on NeuroClastic.]

Miscommunication and misinterpretation of autistic people happens very early in life.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Or in modern language, “Treat other people as you would like to be treated.”

Everyone knows about The Golden Rule. Most people learn about it from a young age, either in school, or in church, or from their parents. But this rule is part of the reason why unintentional harm of autistic people starts so early in life and is so pervasive in our society.

When I’m having a shutdown, I’d prefer non-autistics to:

  1. not look me directly in the eyes
  2. not ask me what is wrong
  3. not expect me to answer them
  4. not tell me they know how I am feeling
  5. not hug me (hugging me makes it worse. Much worse.)

However, we’ve taught neurotypicals incorrectly. We’ve been telling them their entire lives to treat other people as they would like to be treated.

Question: What if other people don’t like to be treated this way?

Do you know what neurotypical people often think would help when someone is having a shutdown? All of the above! Because it would help them when they are upset. But just because it would help them, it doesn’t mean it would help me.

Do you know how many interactions cause autistic people harm and could be easily mitigated if non-autistics stopped assuming other people were exactly like them? If instead of projecting our own needs and emotions onto others, we actually learned about each other’s differences, listened to other people, and respected their own different needs and way of being?

If we treated people how they would like to be treated, rather than how our own selves would like to be treated – this would make such a large difference in so many neurodivergent lives.

The assumption that everyone in the world has brains that work the exact same way actively harms minority neurotypes– and disabled people in general. This is why we need the idea of neurodiversity, so that people understand that not everyone has a brain that works the same way as their own. And that doesn’t make anyone “wrong” or “bad” or “weird”– it’s just different ways of processing stimuli.

All of those different ways of being should be respected and heard– not just one.

Unintentional Harm: The Fallacy of “We’re All The Same”

We autistic people have spent years, sometimes decades, hiding our sensory pain and overwhelm. When I told people that the TV was too loud as a kid, or that someone was talking too loudly, they didn’t experience it that way, so they ignored my requests.

They said not to worry about it. I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them that the sound was physically hurting my ears. You see, I, and other autistic people, thought that everyone had our same experiences– that everyone had pain with noise, so we hid it.

I tried not to flinch when the school bell went off. I tried not to grimace when I walked next to a lawnmower. I thought everyone else just figured out how to easily hide their sensory pain, and that I was required to do the same. And this hiding of my pain, for over a decade, was partially because of The Golden Rule– that somehow we’re all the same, that we must all have the same sensory experiences.

That really harmed me.

I want to tell my childhood self that we don’t have the same experiences– that they were brave for putting up with as much as they did. That they didn’t have to do that. That they should’ve been allowed to wear headphones, to be accommodated, to be themself, to feel okay.

“Treat other people as you would like to be treated.” The Golden Rule is a backwards way to treat other people, and it harms us. It harmed me. I don’t want another autistic child or adult to be harmed because of this ridiculous rule on how to treat others. Treat others with compassion. Do not treat them as an extension of yourself.

Neurotypical Comfort is an Autistic Person’s Kryptonite

In an anecdotal facebook experiment by Terra Vance, both neurotypical people and autistic people viewed the image below and provided their own interpretation of the situation:

Young woman holding her ears while 5 people look at her in a circle.

Unsurprisingly, most of the neurotypical people commented on this picture assuming that the blonde woman in the center, who seems upset, is being supported and comforted by all of the other people sitting around her because she needs emotional support. Here is what some non-autistic people had to say:

This is an intervention.  She is struggling with addiction, and the others are trying to let her know that she’s supported.

A young lady is having a hard time and the people around here are supporting her, helping her through it.

A teen girl is struggling.  Her parents are on one side and her peers are on the other side showing her support.

The lady in the middle is having a hard time making a decision, or is upset about the results or outcome of something. The others are trying to comforting, helping, guiding her.

However, most autistic people had a different read on the situation.  Here’s what some said:

On first glance, I thought Sensory overload of the woman in the center because multiple individuals are talking at once, she seems to be overwhelmed and possibly on the verge of a meltdown or shutdown with no place to go. -Andrew Wolfheart Sanchez

How not to comfort me when I’m upset. (group of people looking at me and about close enough to sit in my lap eeeeeek) -Eve Reiland

She’s overwhelmed. She needs everyone to just leave and give her space- probably for the rest of the day at the very least. The crowd is trying to help her and make things better for her but the reverse is actually what they are inadvertently doing. -Brandi Peyton

Honestly, this is triggering to me. It seems like someone has invited all of these people over to watch this person freak out… The people on the right disturb me.  Especially that asshole with the clipboard and their hand up. That hand is saying WAY too much. -friend

What neurotypical people may think of as comforting, autistic people may experience as intrusive and painful.

The New Golden Rule

Treat other people as they would like to be treated. Listen to other people’s experiences without projecting your own. Respect their needs even when they are different from your own. You do not have to understand someone to respect them or help them. You merely have to listen to how they want to be treated.

16 thoughts on “How “The Golden Rule” Harms Autistic People

  1. I tell people with my 2 Spectrum Kiddos “Look, just take a step back, then think about if you no longer had skin to buffer your nervous system…NOW HOW WOULD YOU WANT SOMEONE TO RESPOND TO YOU?” This will change the tone really fast with anyone that is invading or doesn’t have training yet with my kids! But I AM SAVING THIS POST AND SENDING IT OUT TO EVERYONE!! OTS GOING TO BE A MANDATORY READ FOR ANY CAREGIVER HERE ON OUT!! PERFECT!!🤩😍🌈

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Thank you! Beautifully articulated. As mother to two autistic people, it’s a lesson I had to stumble on, making so many mistakes along the way. My daughter once asked me if it made me sad that she didn’t like cuddles. I told her (honestly) no, because cuddles hurt you! I love that we spend time together. I get my “cuddle fix” from those who also enjoy them, but there are so many ways to connect… we just have to find one that fits us both

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you for sharing this perspective. I’ve worked with kids who are on the spectrum as a sub in a special needs classroom. Just the mention of the fire alarm would send one of them into a tortured panic. (aka meltdown?) I also witnessed caring assistants responding to these kids with appropriate responses and saw how much the kids loved them for it.


    1. Many of us have hyperacusis, which is when sound is completely overwhelming, and in some cases, like for me, sound physically hurts my eardrums. It feels like a knife is literally being stabbed into my eardrum when a loud sound happens. I wish more neurotypical people understood that our nervous system is physiologically different and that should be taken into account. People are often more sympathetic to cats around loud noises than autistic children. And that’s honestly really depressing to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hugging once helped me solely because I became so focused on analyzing my discomfort, vs the person’s good intention, that I was temporarily distracted from my upsetting situation.

    It’s weird… I used to be super into touch. SUPER. But somewhere in the last 20yrs that turned into STAY THE F AWAY FROM ME!


  5. I agree the Golden Rule has been ethically questionable since its inception, but there are also problems with your conceptualisation of the new rule.

    For example, some autistic people struggle to articulate their needs in difficult times (with me, I have this difficulty at all times). How can one expect people to listen and understand when you cannot effectively communicate with them? This is especially troublesome for me when I want people close but everything I do and say tells them I want them to go away.

    Secondly, we cant avoid projecting our feelings into others. Empathy is guessing how other people feel and projecting our own feelings – a subjective version of what we have approximated the other person to be feeling – then acting accordingly.

    I admire this post, however. It offers a conceptualisation of an accepted norm from an autistic perspective. Such things should be challenged more.


  6. “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
    —George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman


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