The Spoiled Brat Stereotype and Autistic Children

TRIGGER WARNING – gaslighting, trauma

The Spoiled Brat stereotype is often applied to children who are raised as girls. They may call you the princess and the pea. They may tell you to stop complaining. They may call you a drama queen, or a whiner. They may tell you to stop asking so many questions. They may tell you to “just say ok for once.”

All of these things lie on the assumption that the child’s emotions are “too much” or their feelings and opinions are intruding on other people’s priorities and attention. The Spoiled Brat stereotype assumes that the child is intentionally being rude, that they know better, and that they do not have any “real” reasons behind their actions. It assumes negative intent.

As someone who was raised as a girl and has two older brothers, I know this first hand. Many of these Spoiled Brat archetypal behaviors, such as asking a lot of questions, complaining or “back talking,” literal interpretation, and being very talkative in certain contexts are actually autistic traits.

However, instead of the parents thinking that the child might need help or more support in some way, they assume it is “typical girl behavior” and the child is simply expected to “behave better.” A lot of researchers write about how autistic people, especially autistic people raised as girls, actively camouflage their autistic traits, but that’s not the whole story.

That’s not the story at all.

I Was Obviously Autistic

The autistic traits I displayed were right there. I brought a book everywhere, even to school. I had a few good friends but didn’t interact with people at school. I stood next to groups at recess hoping to make friends but didn’t know how. I did activities on my own, such as swinging on the swingeset. I talked my mom’s ear off about things I was interested in. My autistic traits were obvious! But the Spoiled Brat archetype worked against the assumption that I needed support, and instead adults believed I needed chastising or ignoring.

When I displayed autistic traits, these traits weren’t considered weird or odd or pathological, they were simply annoying, difficult, or “too much.” “Too much” are words a lot of autistic people hear growing up.

An Illusion of Choice

The expectations put on kids raised as girls are so high that they either fail to adhere to societal/family standards and feel bad about themselves, or hurt themselves emotionally by becoming a different person completely to please other people and achieve approval.

Unfortunately, both of these things often occur at the same time. Because the autistic person recognizes that who they are is not who other people like, but it’s the character they play for others that people enjoy. Some days I would try to “play the part” to achieve calming interactions with others, to not make a “big deal” out of everything. At the end of the day, I would be angry because I knew that wasn’t me. I would be angry that I had to change my intonation so other people didn’t think I was rude, and ask myself why I wasn’t right. Why wasn’t my tone right? Why weren’t my facial expressions understandable? Why did they keep reading into things I didn’t say? What was my problem? What was I doing wrong?

Mimics ABA Therapy

Essentially, the “spoiled brat” stereotype is ABA therapy in itself. If you act like yourself, there will be negative interactions with others. People won’t understand you. And you may be told negative things about yourself. However, if you act like someone else (a neurotypical person, or don’t talk at all), people aren’t saying negative things to you or about you. In fact, even if they do say something negative, it’s not really about you, because you’re playing someone else.

Here’s the thing autistic masking doesn’t fix:

People still don’t understand you. People still don’t like you. And you are an unwilling witness to this knowledge.

The worst part is that you know it. Maybe not on a conscious level, but as a feeling. You absolutely know it. As a kid, I blamed my unlikeable-ness on my high-pitched voice, and I do think that contributed (after all, my screams when my mom brushed my hair would make everyone else complain about me), but it was a whole combination of things.

A big part of my unlikeable-ness by others was that my autistic self was seen through the lens of The Spoiled Brat Stereotype. Needing to be in control, needing to know everything, and following rules strictly were all seen as difficult and unnecessary. And sensory sensitivities? I will be writing a whole separate post about that one.

The Broader Societal Effect

This doesn’t just affect autistic children. This affects autistic adults and parents of autistic children too. Even in public, parents may experience shame from other adults about their kid because of judgement from other adults or even other parents. A child may have a meltdown in public, and adults will simply assume that the parent needs to get their kid “under control,” instead of thinking, “I wonder what that child is dealing with right now, that must be tough.”

Leads to Shame – A Story

I once had a meltdown at a family reunion because my mom had promised me we could watch Ratatouille for the 15th time (I loved the music in that, still do). I asked her probably 5 to 6 times that day, not believing her, “Do you really promise?” She said yes everytime.

My brother, skilled in diplomacy, convinced the rest of the family to watch a different movie about 10 minutes before we were about to watch Ratatouille, so my body decided to writhe and yell on the couch for a few minutes in meltdown mode.

I was pretty old for that kind of “tantrum” (not a tantrum), and my uncle looked at me afterwards, with my tears streaming down my face, and said, “You are acting like you have been abused.” That moment stuck with me for the rest of my life, because afterwards, at around 10 years old, I was wondering, why am I like this? What is wrong with me? Did I have some suppressed memory that I didn’t know about? (I didn’t, but I did have years of sensory pain and gaslighting)

I searched for a reason. I thought it was sexism or because I was the youngest in the family, anything to make sense of it. Eventually, I had a very cynical view of the world. Promises were never to be kept, no one could be reliable except for me, and I must “be a person” when people ask me to and force me into loud, painful environments. I still asked why, I still “argued.” But I gave up figuring out why and just let my self-esteem float away from me. I didn’t think it was a problem I would ever solve, I was just some unlikeable neurotypical “normal weird” kid in my mind.

And for me, it all comes down to that Spoiled Brat Stereotype, that misreading, that emotional and sensory invalidation, that assumption of negative intent, that “too much”-ness.

Sensory Invalidation

I will likely write an entire post devoted to sensory gaslighting, but I wanted to talk about the gendered aspect of this sensory invalidation here. Please note that people who were raised as boys very much could also experience this same gaslighting, albeit in different framing. It is not the Spoiled Brat stereotype, as much as it is toxic masculinity – i.e. “Man up” or “get used to it.” I’m sure many autistic people raised as boys were also told they were too sensitive as well. Different pressures and expectations of gender growing up may even force all of us into this same box of autistic masking, but the context around it can be quite different.

I asked autistic people on twitter the question, “What have other people said to you in childhood/adulthood when you brought up your sensory sensitivities?

I was surprised to find out how inherently gendered some of the replies were. In particular, at least 4 people referenced being called “the princess and the pea,” and 3 people note this was specifically used in a scolding or negative way.
One person was specifically told to be a “big girl”:

  • “It’s just a little wound. Are you going to be a big girl about it?”
  • “It’s not that bad. You’re just trying to get attention.”
  • “No, it’s not hot. Eat it already.”

Though I don’t know if all of these replies reference autistic people raised as girls, other responses I found striking are here (bolded for emphasis):

  1. “Princess and the pea”, said with scorn.
  2. “Don’t be such a princess on the pea”
  3. “You’re such a little manipulator/drama queen/princess.”
  4. “stop overreacting”
  5. “don’t be so dramatic”
  6. “you’re too sensitive”
  7. “The world doesn’t revolve around you.”
  8. “You’re being so selfish” (when I would ask to/say I wasn’t going somewhere or doing something because it was overwhelming)
  9. I’m told I “can’t possibly have heard that”, that the touch “couldn’t have hurt” me, or that  “it’s just not possible that you feel my clothes all the time”,  or “there’s no way you can tell those colors apart”
  10. That I’m overreacting or acting out. That I’m disregarding everyone else around me, that it’s not real, or just straight up ABA me. Straight up not believe me and punish me for meltdowns and breakdowns. So I learned how to shut down in order to avoid punishment.
  11. “It’s only…”
    • Yes, I know it’s only. That doesn’t mean it’s not bothering/hurting and I’ve told you that so please could you now stop.
    • “Stop making such a fuss.”
  12. “It’s not loud” or “It’s just a noise”
  13. “Stop being difficult Everyone else is happy, can’t you just join the group? The lights don’t bother anyone else. Just tune it out. Why are you always so difficult?”
  14. Someone once said, behind my back, that I was “attention seeking.”
  15. Very unsympathetic. Cry baby. People thought I was whining. I suffer in silence now
  16. People have said I’m making it up.
  17. Noise: “But it’s not that loud”
  18. Food: “Spoilt and difficult
  19. Touching: “Everyone has things they don’t like” Or for all of them: “you’re just making it up”
  20. In my childhood everyone but 3 family members would tell me I was “over reacting”, to shut up, or just “deal with it”. Now people say I’m “weird”, or “particular”, but I’m lucky that I have found some people who understand me and care and ask what they can do for me.
  21. “If the music’s too loud, you’re too old.” “It doesn’t hurt. Stop being dramatic.” (said by multiple doctors and dentists!) “Just tune it out. It’s not that hard.”
  22. That i was a brat, a doctor straight up said that my mom “needed to be bullwhipped” when I had a meltdown in her office (they thought it was a tantrum)
  23. That I’m faking it. Or overreacting. Or telling me it’s not real so I have to just stop feeling what I’m feeling. It’s real to me. I literally can’t stop.
  24. regarding live music at a restaurant when I was about 10… my mother said “if it’s too loud you’re too old.” like, joking with me. but I was lowkey in agony and did not understand what was funny tbh

I’d like to end with this quote:

“I was judged and labeled “too sensitive”. I felt my thoughts/feelings and sensory issues were disregarded, so I learned to ignore them myself. I suffered silently without anyone knowing. I still have a habit of doing this today, but I’m now working on making my needs known/met.”

Too many autistic people have silently suffered.

How To Help – Validate Our Experience

  1. Take “spoiled, dramatic, over-reacting, too sensitive, attention-seeking,” and any other negative word without cause out of your vocabulary.
  2. When a child is upset, don’t assume it’s nothing. And don’t assume that your interpretation is the right one. Don’t assume negative intention.
  3. Don’t judge parents for children’s actions in public – there’s likely a reason.
  4. Remember that your experience of pain and sensory processing is not what ours is, and ours is just a valid.
  5. Remember that there are a LOT of undiagnosed autistic people out in the world. They may complain about a sound you can’t hear, or a light flickering that you don’t notice. Stop yourself from invalidating them.

A handful of the quotes above I’ve also experienced in my childhood. It’s probably one of the most universal experiences us autistic adults have with each other, being invalidated. Don’t make us hide our needs.

If you ignore our sensory needs or our questions, we will mask around you. Because we know that we can’t be safe with you. That we can’t trust you.

Learn to give us the benefit of the doubt, and we’ll do the same.

45 Replies to “The Spoiled Brat Stereotype and Autistic Children”

  1. you should NEVER feel Shame by OTHERS ..IT IS them who should .you would NOT want
    your children husband.boyfriend too feel this .peoples views/judgements are very Snotty
    Nosed ..i take part in a lot lot research
    my blog.http;//mark-kent.webs.com
    twitter.supersnopper
    i am co-Author of a book .JUST PUBLISHED .book is about.Disability and Sex
    can give you a Link
    mark

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My early diagnosis still did not stop my family members from calling me a “brat” when I reacted in ways they did not like. My mom straight up threw a fit a few years ago when I tried to explainto her that meltdowns and tantrums are not the same thing. Which may explain a lot, she did treat my meltdowns as though they were behavioral problems and it has destroyed me emotionally.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. It’s been some days since you posted this, and my sadness at being confronted with this major part of my life that is invalidation has been… nothing short of inconsolable.

    The other day, a wee days before your article existed, i wondered out of nowhere why being soothed by other person (in particular if it’s something I’m expected to self-soothe from, let’s say, a papercut for example) is a sure way to open the floodgates. And then feel greedy for not wanting that hypothetical person to leave, blowing everything out of proportion with tears. It felt too indulgent. Kids are the ones who should be soothed by minor things, not grown adults.

    Enter: this post.
    “Wow. It all falls into place. I never expect to be the one validated in first place, let alone soothed, no matter how small it is. It makes absolute sense. It’s not indulgent, it’s LOGICAL.”

    People really underestimate the power of cumulative invalidation. We’re even invalidated for the major things, and they expect us to be a “grown up” about our personal agency being obfuscated since day one. That’s some gross gaslighting.

    Your article brought so much needed clarity, thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I’m hesitant to be too critical, because there are probably numerous additional hurdles girls have to overcome which I’m unaware of, but I think that it’s possibly invalidating to some autistic boys and men to be told that they aren’t subjected to the “spoilt brat” stereotype unless it’s toxic masculinity in question.

    Many boys and men, I suspect, are indeed seen as “spoilt brats” except that it’s framed in terms that women and girls would find acceptable, as they are gaslit into being seen as entitled misogynists for wanting their own space.

    After all, if someone expects too much of a daughter that’s willing to back down to make people feel happy, or a grown woman, especially a mother, who is willing to pick after her husband, then they might assume that a boy or man who’s privileged enough not to back down when challenged, but still enough of a scapegoat to be blamed for failing to conform to ableist, classist or patriarchal standards, they might jump to the conclusion that the boys in the family are just less willing to behave, rather than realizing that they might be employing toxic or absurdly high standards in the first place.

    I suspect that a lot of grown middle aged men with autistic traits in previous generations really are enforcing patriarchal standards because they’ve never been given the opportunity to realize that other people aren’t there to clear up after them.

    I also suspect that a lot of middle aged neurotypical women grew up in less enlightened times and are subconsciously holding on to some idea that their parents will get upset with them from beyond the nursing home or the grave if they don’t keep their house tidy all the time; as a result, they wind up blaming their children instead of society or their partners (especially if they’re male) for mess.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. About the light touch being painful thing:

    For me, slapping my arm with an open hand, or even karate-chopping the wall, hurts less than being lightly touched on the palm with one finger. And the pain of punching the wall, for me, is more or less comparable to that same light touch. And yet, if I gave a neurotypical an open-fisted slap and insisted it can’t possibly hurt because it feels way more comfortable than a light touch – well, you can guess. and yet it would not be illogical for some autistic people who feel that way to assume that the reason it’s not okay to hit people is because of social convention because either they and they alone feel pain both from the light touch and the slap, or everyone feels pain from both phenomena.

    And it would similarly not be illogical for that same person to wonder why neurotypicals react so poorly when they punch the wall and discover it hurts. And that would lead to the same reaction as they would get if they expressed belief that being slapped on the wrist is painless to neurotypicals. And those are just a few of the types of wacky conclusions someone could come to with an upbringing like that. What’s really surprising is there aren’t more of them.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I already said something about sensitivities and light touchy and I want to add this: about the knowing that nobody understands you part? That is a thing also attributed to narcissists – agreeing with the statement that “nobody understands me”. So you see those assessments, and wonder if you aren’t in serious danger of becoming narcissistic (I know I did).

    Except, here’s the thing: When narcissists, particularly covert narcissists, say “nobody understands me”, they mean “nobody understands how magnificent I am”, “nobody understands my genius” and related thoughts of outsize “greatness” – with nothing to back it up.

    Whereas autistics who feel misunderstood feel misunderstood as PEOPLE. And yes, sometimes our genius is misunderstood as well. But when autistic genius is misunderstood, the autistic person who realizes that can conceptualize the nature of the genius that is being misunderstood. Furthermore, said genius autistic might not even realize their genius IS genius- they may think those ideas are stupid or babyish or just a fantasy or something like that, because guess what? There isn’t some reliable meter telling someone whether their ideas are “genius” or not.

    And even someone who IS a genius can still come up with ideas that are flat-out wrong, even in their own field of expertise. Like a certain famous Canadian psychology professor who got so many things wrong about lobsters that I know that a favorite professor of mine who did work on lobsters (and who incidentally was on the authors list of at least one study on the exact topic that dude cites) likely doesn’t want to hear a word about that man ever again.

    And that’s the thing – we autistics who are not narcissistic may feel nobody understands us, and even that nobody understands our good ideas (which sometimes are good and should be obvious), but usually when we think of nobody understanding our ideas, we would be okay if someone else came up with the same idea and would want more people to understand that idea even if we didn’t come up with it independently, and are okay with accepting other people’s ideas as good too – even those of us who do have genius IQs.

    And above all, here is one VERY important thing – often we autistic people who feel nobody understands us WISH we were understood, and that people knew we meant well. And I for one feel it would be nice if we could have our own space without having to have every one of those spaces be determined by axes of societal privilege. That way, everyone, no matter what group they belong to, can have their own space to be in.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Your article is so well written and resonates so deeply with me – not only because I have heard neuro normal people mutter “spoiled brat” under their breath when my students were having trouble coping – but because your post brought childhood memories rushing back. I, too, was labeled as being “overly sensitive” and “a drama queen.” I wonder how many “gifted” and “sensitive” people of my generation are actually in the spectrum? Keep writing!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thankyou for this, people even including parents can bee very unpleasant when people display autistic traits, and I think the worst place for this is around schools. The issue too with masking is that after a while, in my experience, you struggle to know who you really are.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The boys in my family with ADHD always seemed to be cut more slack as far as ‘behavioral issues’ go. The girls were the ones who were expected to ‘man up’ and it seems like acting our age for girls was really our age plus 10 years or so. Not all families are the same – at least I hope not.

    All I wanted was to be left in a corner to read and to not be forced to wear synthetic fabrics – seems pretty easy to look after a child like that… but no… their expectations were not being met. “Your face is always in a book – no one will marry you”.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Like you. I grew up with two older brothers! I tried way too hard to fit in with them and other people. I have been walking around with a book since high school and I isolated myself since about third grade when I started questioning myself . At about the age of four a suffered a brain injury, but the doctors just dismissed me as being too young for it to even matter. Now, they are doing a lot more research on the effects of early brain injuries on adults. Nothing ever seemed right with me. I strain to see colors, it takes a lot of concentration and I always am made to feel stupid and people say ” I thought girls weren’t color blind.” The truth is I don’t know if I am color blind or if I just have a harder time seeing colors, but either way something is not right. My brothers always called me weird and that has been the word that breaks me, its a trigger word. I get irritated easy when I hear certain noises, especially crumbling paper bags, or people eating with their mouth open. I hated condiments until recently . I am extremely sensitive to smells. There are so many labels for everything that it’s overwhelming to think of all the things I could be, but reading this made me feel less alone and more understood. Thank you so much for writing this ! I also work with special needs kids and this was very inspiring and transforming in how to think about behaviors.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hello! I am a female autistic adult, also diagnosed in adulthood and also interested in Neruoscience! (My degree was in Animal behaviour, Experimental psychology and Neurophysiology.) I really recognise a fair few of the experiences you describe in my own life. I also feel a lot of shame with respect to myself even now, knowing I have a condition which causes these differences. At least this condition is being better understood now. But it’s still hard dealing with the after effects of the way people with this issue used to be treated.

    Anyway – really interesting post – many thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thank you so much for this. My daughter has a moderate intellectual disability and is on the spectrum. I learned (and am still learning) how to interpret her thoughts and feelings as well as letting her express herself. It can be a challenge. I actually blog about it to help other parents. She is 13 and I bet you have stories about your teenage years. People didn’t understand why I treated my daughter the way I treated her and everyone wants to assume she is “bad” and it’s a pain to explain. Even with my own family it was hard.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yea, I often emailed my family even when I was in high school because it was hard for me to physically talk about feelings without already being upset. The emails worked really well. That sounds frustrating to explain all of the time to other people.

      If you want other autistic self-advocates to follow, I’d definitely suggest following @lilririah on twitter. They do really good advocacy.

      Their twitter link is here – https://twitter.com/lilririah

      And if you have any specific questions you’d like to ask autistic adults, use the #AskingAutistics hashtag on twitter, and you’ll get a lot of responses from us!

      Like

      1. Thank you for that. I wish there were more self advocates for people with intellectual disabilities. But I don’t mind being my daughter’s advocate. I truly feel that she was given to me for a reason.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m not sure what to say. Everyone seems to be obsessed with their own autism and ADHD issues. One thing I understand is that each of us becomes a “small researcher” and accumulates knowledge and repeats the practice rather than joining the community. That leads to a unique and unmatched life for each person. Each person is unique.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I really enjoyed the read. It was very informative as I have a granddaughter that I believe is autistic/sensory processing disorder we have yet to have her tested but… this sounds just like her and… my son (her dad) so it really hits home with me, thanks for sharing. 🤗🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. As a ParaEducator for the Elk Grove Unified School District. I work with severe Autistic children from Elementary Schools, Middle Schools, and High Schools. I feel that Autistic people are the most intelligent, most interesting, most misunderstood people I have ever met. I understand their abilities are extraordinary. They are human beings and should be treated as so… Stereotyping should be outlawed. So many judge a book by its cover. I remember my Mother Marie Grant telling me to never judge a book by its cover. Because the cover is the backbone of all the different pages inside. So this is to all Autistic People in the universe today. I love you all. Stay strong I will always back you, as others will too. Thank you all for being who you are… Shelly M Grant

    Liked by 1 person

  16. You should really be commended for what you have gone through and what you’re achieving now despite all these troubles that come along your way.

    Like

  17. Hello, I totally agree with you. When I was about 9, I hated myself a lot because a lot of people called me spoiled. It made me think about myself and question if I really deserve to live. I think I was thinking too much at such a young age.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank-you so much for educate those of us who don’t experience autism. You do a great job helping us understand what it’s like and how we can be supportive and inclusive

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I don’t have completely idea about this. This is totally shocking for me and educating people about autism is so much important. We need to understand the nature of this one with much more deep knowledge; informative for me. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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