Just Stimming…

A land we can share (a place I can map)

Dangerous Assumptions

with 39 comments

There is this thing that happens sometimes.

Parent has an autistic child. Autistic child doesn’t speak, or their speech isn’t an accurate window into what they are thinking. Autistic child is presumed to be very significantly intellectually disabled.

Years later, a method of communication is found that works for the child, and it turns out that they are in fact very smart. Very smart! The parents are overjoyed. They begin talking about presuming competence, the least dangerous assumption, that not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.

They are so, so excited.

And they start talking about all the incorrect assumptions they had. If we’d known, they say, we wouldn’t have done X. If we had known they could read, think, hear us.

And it’s a big problem, because the way they talk…..they think the problem was that they treated their child like they were intellectually disabled, and they weren’t. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that they thought their child was intellectually disabled, and so they didn’t treat them like a person.

These revelations, about presuming competence, human dignity, and the least dangerous assumption—they don’t apply only to kids who are secret geniuses. They apply to everyone. They are the most important for the kids who really do have intellectual disabilities, who really can’t read or use full sentences and who really do need extensive support. The people who came up with these terms came up with them for a population where there is very little doubt that significant disability is a factor. These terms don’t mean assume they aren’t actually disabled. These terms mean assume they are a person, and remember what you don’t know.

When the neurodiversity movement first got its legs, oh so many years ago, we got a LOT of pushback from people who thought we were denying disability. And we had to be clear that we meant everyone. And I worry, more and more, that certain very academic circles have left that behind, in practice as much as in theory. It makes liars out of the rest of us, and it makes a lot of work very, very difficult.

If I told the parents in question that I am thinking about this, they wouldn’t understand. They’re not saying intellectual disability doesn’t exist, they would say. But the truth is, they’re either saying that, or they’re saying thank god, it wasn’t my kid.

And it’s a slap in the face, every time.

Written by Julia

December 21, 2014 at 4:39 pm

39 Responses

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  1. Glad to see an update here.


    December 21, 2014 at 5:57 pm

  2. You have just put your finger on what bothers me about the very same thing. I couldn’t come up with such an accurate and succinct explanation, but you are EXACTLY right.


    December 21, 2014 at 6:30 pm

  3. Reblogged this on Spectrum Perspectives.


    December 21, 2014 at 6:52 pm

  4. This is so true. I have read all the stories, (my daughter runs a disability library) and when I hear parents of other children yammering on it grates on my nerves. Our Sped Director here saw Restraint and Seclusion: Hear our Stories, and actually said to me, “we have to be sure kids like Peyton don’t fall through the cracks, that just terrifies me, the prospect of missing that.” I wanted to strangle him. He thinks he can identify with the “trapped” ones, but won’t fill in the cracks for everyone. In spite of all the research showing how much better everyone does if everyone gets basic human rights and dignity.


    December 21, 2014 at 9:18 pm

  5. Reblogged this on Lemon Peel and commented:
    Please read this. Please read this as many times as it takes. I’m not sure how many times it will take. So just…keep reading.


    December 22, 2014 at 1:25 am

  6. Reblogged this on Creatively Maladjusted and commented:
    A very important point.


    December 22, 2014 at 2:48 am

  7. Thank you so, so much for writing this. It really needed to be said.


    December 22, 2014 at 5:59 am

  8. Yes, this is important. When people ask me if I am intellectually disabled, my answer is: does it matter? I don’t know if I am.

    Glad to read your writings again!

    Amy Sequenzia

    December 22, 2014 at 11:46 am

  9. julia, this is poignantly important . epically . im plea it is understood by persons
    all . peyton

    Peyton Goddard

    December 22, 2014 at 2:07 pm

  10. I’ve been having a debate with myself over the issue of ‘presuming competence.’ I think you’ve nailed it for me as to why. Yes, if it means accept people with ID/DD as humans it’s great. I’m afraid people are taking it to mean not having a disability.

  11. and where is the gratitude that their parents, even if they were wrong in their approach, did not give up on their child. Sorry, but I am offended by the idea that because a parent was wrong, but still loved their child, that they therefore harmed their own child. I am very familiar with this type of heightened narcissism attitude. Sadder still is if the child grows up and does well, they may still harbor resentment towards the “mistakes” their own family made while they were growing up.

    Alessandro Machi

    December 22, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    • If someone did something harmful, even with the best of intentions, it is still harmful. It is more useful to all involved to commit to doing better than it is to say “be grateful I sort of tried”.

      Kassiane Alexandra S.

      December 25, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    • “Sorry, but I am offended by the idea that because a parent was wrong, but still loved their child, that they therefore harmed their own child.”

      But people harm other other people without meaning to all the time. Not just parents and children.

      People are very, very *likely* to harm other people without meaning to if they harbor attitudes about those people that excuse harm, or that tell them that harm is impossible.

      Countless people do love their children, but still harm their children. And many of those children ARE grateful not to have been given up on. That doesn’t mean they weren’t harmed. It doesn’t make them obligated to deny the harm or to say it doesn’t matter.

      I am *confused* by the idea that just because someone doesn’t intend to harm their child, that they are incapable of doing so.


      December 26, 2014 at 12:43 am

  12. Reblogged this on Restless Hands and commented:
    I work with kids of all ability levels. To me, they are all brilliant in some way, and I celebrate their every accomplishment.

    There are the ones I know will go far, assuming no one breaks them too badly– the ones who show that “genius” streak already, in spite of language delays or motor skill difficulties.

    There are the ones whose intelligence and potential I cannot judge at all.

    And there are, at times, those I think will always need major support.

    And I adore them all. I respect them all. They all deserve to be acknowledged as individuals and treated as real people. They deserve friends, fun, loving families. They deserve to have their preferences noted and their personalities appreciated. They deserve to be talked to, listened to (even if they can’t use words), read bedtime stories. They deserve to be dressed in nice clothing and taken out for treats. They deserve a turn at activities. They deserve the chance to try to do things themselves– over and over and over. They also deserve to have someone do things for them or assist them when needed.

    Restless Hands

    January 3, 2015 at 12:44 am

  13. i am just seeing this. by god this had to be said. thank you, thank you., and thank you. sharing in 5,4,3 ..


    January 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm

  14. Blown Away. Printing to hang in front of my eyes every.single.day.

    Tina Andrews

    January 16, 2015 at 3:43 pm

  15. Yes. And to see the proof you only have to look at the story of Carly Fleischmann to see it.

    Planet Autism Blog

    January 22, 2015 at 3:03 am

    • Okay, but you’re kind of proving the post’s point right here?

      Carly was presumed to be severely intellectually disabled, and turned out not to be, and everyone went “See, see, presume understanding!”

      But the way Carly was treated as a child wasn’t wrong because she wasn’t really intellectually disabled. It was just wrong. It was wrong whether or not she was intellectually disabled. It IS wrong when people who DO have severe intellectual disabilities are treated that way.

      If something is wrong to do to a kid who isn’t really intellectually disabled, then it is wrong to do to someone who really, really is.


      February 1, 2015 at 7:58 pm

  16. Maybe I’m one of those parents. I hope not but someday my son might tell me otherwise. I have so much to learn and have really made a lot of mistakes. My thinking is constantly stretched and challenged. I’m thankful for voices like yours that cause me to really question just about everything. This, in particular, was a really important read for me and will certainly expand how I talk to others about presuming competency.


    January 30, 2015 at 1:40 pm

  17. My son cant speak…he Still tests low…he’s very intelligent BUT if he were actually what ridiculously inaccurate tests presume him to be? He would still deserve exactly what I try to give him now…even truly ID ppl can and do communicate and deserve to be listened to and respected!


    April 11, 2015 at 11:20 pm

  18. Reblogged this on Melissa Fields, Autist.


    June 6, 2015 at 8:21 pm

  19. Reblogged this on autisticreformedcalvinist.


    June 8, 2015 at 1:00 pm

  20. YES! Even if the child cannot respond EVER due to disabilities that limit their ability to respond, that doesn’t mean they can’t still understand they are being spoken about disparagingly. That doesn’t mean the words won’t hurt.

    J. L. R. Star

    September 18, 2015 at 3:09 pm

  21. This is why school systems across the world screw us in our futures…
    I don’t see how it can be ended, let alone handled.


    April 21, 2016 at 7:30 pm

  22. Hello Julia,

    Great article, very important points.

    I am completing my thesis as part of the requirements for my Masters in Social Work at the University of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada). My project is a critique of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).

    I am looking to interview adults with developmental disabilities who have experienced ABA in a way in which they perceived to be problematic or unsettling. The adults I am looking to interview would have to have the ability to make their own decisions and therefore consent to the project on their own.

    I was hoping that you would be interested in helping me out by distributing the attached announcement to your networks (family, friends, acquaintances, people you may have met at trainings, conferences, anyone you can think of etc.). It is important that in order to follow ethical requirements, you may not be in a position of authority over the individual that you distribute my announcement to, i.e. they cannot be receiving direct support from you in a formal way.

    Thanks so much, looking forward to hearing from you.

    Tara McRae

    Looking for Participants
    A Study on Developmental Disabilities and Problematic or Unsettling Experiences
    with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

    Are you an adult with a developmental disability?
    Have you had an experience with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that you found to be problematic or unsettling?
    Would you like to participate in a confidential interview to share your story?

    Must be able to make your own decisions / consent to participating in this study
    Must be able to communicate verbally, or in writing

    If interested, please contact
    Tara McRae
    613 562 5800 ext 6390.

    Tara Rose McRae

    March 11, 2017 at 12:43 pm

  23. […] Presumption of competence (this is the opposite of denying intellectual disability) […]

  24. To anybody within academia, if you are reading this and are moving away from the idea of intellectually disabled people being treated as a person, know that there is very strong groupthink within many of those circles that try to encourage you not to think of severely disabled people as people – the same circles that try to dispel ideas of other animal species being sentient, and for many of the same reasons. The reason I use this comparison is because those academic circles are essentially of the opinion that severely disabled people are less than human, and belong in the category of “animal” – the disparaging definition of animal, that is.

    Please try to resist this groupthink, and try to understand that just because a human does not have abilities that are as great as others, or indeed that human lacks abilities often associated with humanity, which some do, that does not make them any less human. Presuming competence does not mean assuming skills a person does not have; it means assuming they have some kind of skill, patiently doing what you can to help them find the skills they do have, without abusing them or relying exclusively on carrot/stick methodologies (those hinder connection on a genuine basis), and being willing to accept both when they can do more than you thought and when they can’t do something you thought they could do. In other words, accept them as they truly are, not as something less or something on a pedestal.

    And besides, that philosophy can improve objectivity, as it means you are not making up either stories of incompetence or stories of abilities beyond an individual’s skill; you are trying to base what you do to help on what the person’s ability really is, which may include misunderstandings and failures, but also abilities that are too often underestimated. It’s a win-win; improved objectivity and respect of the dignity and personhood of others (or animalhood, if you are working with non-humans; I believe it’s good to show a certain respect to the other species we share this planet with, too, but again, don’t use inappropriate animal comparisons when working with humans – this addendum only applies if the species you are working with are actually non-human, not humans with disabilities).

    Lucy M.

    April 19, 2017 at 5:04 am

  25. Reblogged this on autisticagainstantivaxxers.


    April 19, 2017 at 7:15 am

  26. […] So are things like presuming competence, which doesn’t mean “treat people like they’re not disabled,” but “treat them like a person with strengths and support needs.” As Julia Bascom wrote in 2014: […]

  27. I’ve been trying to address this in the circles it’s most common in for eons. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want to hear it.

    Also there was always a strand of both autistic self-advocacy and neurodiversity (which are not the same thing and not equivalent) that does deny disability very strongly. It’s always been opposed. But it’s always, always been there. Mind you, most of the people who actually accomplished much of anything understand perfectly well that autistic people are disabled and have an outside understanding from other strands of the disability rights movement. But there has been a massively “We’re not defective because we’re not disabled don’t call us disabled we’re special geniuses!” strand of things for-fricking-ever, it’s not new, and it’s wildly popular in some circles because it’s much easier (and less effective).

    Mel Baggs

    April 2, 2018 at 11:05 am

  28. I remember those days. I used to constantly explain to people how disability didn’t have to mean incapable, incompetent, worthless; how it didn’t make much sense to say “autism isn’t a disability” but plenty of sense to say “disabled is a neutral fact, not a shameful thing to distance oneself from”. There’s still a lot of that out there, but many autistics–and many parents of autistic children–have come to understand the danger of having to justify your existence by portraying yourself as “high-functioning” or “not intellectually disabled”.


    April 3, 2018 at 1:14 pm

  29. Thank you for this. It’s something I haven’t thought about as specifically as this, but it’s a very good point. For my part, it was mostly having blinders on to anything but trying to find that “thing” that worked for my son, to get access to that method, and to set him “free” (his word). In that process, the ability to look beyond and see others was limited, but now we’re looking forward. My son definitely has disability rights on his mind as a goal to fight for, and this is a topic to ponder.


    May 8, 2018 at 12:07 pm

  30. […] Just Stimming – Dangerous Assumptions […]

  31. […] get ignored or otherwise not included in community-based needs assessments on a regular basis, as Julia Bascom and Amy Sequenzia have pointed out. From what I can gather as a relative newcomer to the Autistic […]

  32. […] Julia Bascom […]

  33. […] Julia Bascom […]

  34. Reblogged this on Autism Candles.

    Autism Candles

    April 2, 2021 at 2:15 pm

  35. Reblogged this on How Autism Self-Advocacy Revolutionalized My Life and commented:
    Okay, I’m going to have to start following this blog, because I’m reblogging so many of the posts! 😀. I wish I had the words to say these things, but since other people say them better than I can, I’m just going to reblog them when I find them. 😂


    July 18, 2022 at 9:39 pm

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