Autistic Science Person

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”:

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.