Dealing with parents that are not ready to change the way they treat you

Our parents make mistakes in our upbringing that wound us. When we are grown they can keep treating us in ways that tear at those wounds. If we have done some work on ourselves we will often understand before our parents do that their behaviour is damaging.

However, if we try to talk to them about this there may be defences in place that keep them from being able to take in what we are saying. One issue is nature of the parent child relationships. It can be hard to take in critique from someone you believe you ought to know better than. Furthermore, if being a good parent is very important to you it can be heart-breaking to imagine that you have made mistakes. Other defences go back to our parents’ own childhood and the world view that they had to adopt to survive their own upbringing.

This can cause significant tears in the relationship, and significant suffering for both parties – where one is opening old wounds by exposing themselves to their parent’s denial, and the other is desperately but subconsciously holding on to their own world view, so that they don’t have to open their own wounds from childhood.

Sometimes the child’s need to be heard and the parent’s defences are equally strong and the only way for the relationship to progress is for each party to work on their own wounds before they can have a healthy discussion.

While it is not healthy for the child to try to supress what they have learned about themselves in order to maintain the relationships, they may be able to fulfil their need to be understood elsewhere, validate their pain and make peace with their parent’s limitations in such a way that they no longer take their parents harmful treatment to heart. Importantly, this does not mean having no boundaries. This approach requires a clear understanding of what treatment still opens old wounds and enough self compassion to not put yourself through that.

Alternatively, the parent might be able to process their own wounds in such a way that they can understand that they are treating their child in a way that is hurtful. Only then would they be able to treat their child the way that the child is asking to be treated.

If neither person can process their wounds they will continue to find interactions damaging, but neither will they be content apart.

Letter to my sister about the ways that I harm her

Now that we are learning a way of relating to people that differs from our parents’, let me be honest with you and learn from the ways I instinctively relate to you.

A couple of days ago I caught myself before telling you “it’s not that bad” when you found something disgusting. Yesterday you accidentally bit into a hot pepper. My instinct was to not take your reaction seriously and make a joke out of it. In the evening you had a panic attack, and while I could tell you all the right things and give you all the tools I had to give, I couldn’t get down on your level and feel with you. I was too afraid of that vulnerability, so I kept myself at a numb distance. A distance that I maintained even when I dared to start talking about my own grief.

This morning you left some dishes and my response was that you were shying away from taking your part of the responsibility, rather than thinking that you simply have a different relationship to mess and time, and that your ability might be different from my own. I caught myself and decided to focus on my own limitations – saying that it is important that I don’t have to do all of the dishes, rather than assuming that I knew your thinking and blaming you for it.

Please know that when you feel like your reaction is belittled, that is real. When you feel like I am not able to feel with you, that is real. When you feel I blame you rather than focusing on my own limitations, that is real. The harmful ways that I have treated you are real.

Please also know that these behaviours are based on my own limitations at this moment, not based on who you are. And I am working on changing them. Because I know that your reactions are not overreactions, I know that you deserve to have your pain recognized, I know that you are not asking for too much simply because our limitations are clashing.

Our parents, as amazing as they were in many ways, could not meet us where we were. Could not validate us. Their inability to see and validate their own needs caused them to be unable to validate ours. And we grew up believing, on some level, that there was something wrong with us for having the needs we had.

In many ways, though I understood the nature of your pain better than they did, I carried forth the legacy of our parents in how I treated not just myself, but you as well. I am sorry.

We have a chance to do things differently now. Starting by recognizing the harmful attitudes that we adopted from childhood, so that we can see what we are lacking. Here are a few things I thought I knew, that I am now trying to learn:

The expression of my needs is not “too much”. It is teaching me and others something important about me. My needs have intrinsic worth, irrespective of how they impact on other people. The world does not have a limited amount of resources so that listening to one person’s needs takes away from another person. Other people can respect and care for my needs, and I for theirs. Properly listening to people’s needs does not take us further from the truth, it takes us closer.

I hope that we can build on lists like these and be open about our journeys so that we can move forward together.

I love you,

Your sister

Why realizing I was autistic meant realizing I was normal

Different autistics have different experiences of oppression and masking. A while ago me and my autie friend F were discussing the main character of the Swedish-Danish series The Bridge, who is autistic. My friend commented that she would like to live in a society where people were allowed to be weird like that character did.

To me on the other hand, the character seemed to be “allowed to be weird”, but she also seemed lonely. I have lived in her society, and for me it was lonely. Like the autistic character but unlike F, I grew up in a family where very different people were accepted. For instance, I was never discouraged from playing alone or wearing boys’ clothes. However, the condition on this freedom was that I must not need anything from others, I must not be affected by others, I must not be “weak”.

In other words, it was ok to be different, but it wasn’t ok to need the extra assistance that often comes with being different. While the social model of disability states that disabled people don’t have more needs than abled people, they certainly have more noticeable needs. And in a society which values individuality and independence such apparent “dependence” on others was very frowned upon as something which reduced your worth somehow.

So, I couldn’t have “special needs”, including needing help to deal when some people treated me in negative ways because of my differences (ableism).

As I have detailed in another post, I reacted by becoming extremely independent and rejecting many of my fundamentally human needs. For instance: I wasn’t accepted in social groups – I decided I didn’t need belonging. I didn’t have any protection from the incoming stimuli – I dissociated and decided I didn’t need interaction. I wasn’t allowed study in a way that worked for me – I decided I didn’t care what people thought of my performance.

Disconnect from others in this way, and retreating to your own world is not an uncommon reaction to being in an overwhelming environment without support. In “Nobody Nowhere” Donna Willians writes about using this coping mechanism during her autistic childhood: “‘My world’ may have been lonely but it was predictable and came with guarantees”.

In an important way I was allowed to be weird: I wasn’t bullied and people didn’t attempt to make me “normal”. But this freedom was given on the condition that I was numb enough to tolerate living in a world that wasn’t adapted to me without support. Ironically the price I paid for being seen as a whole, worthy person was an ability to be seen, and see myself.


To the outside I looked extremely independent, and in a sense I was independent from others, but I was also completely adapted to what society thought was acceptable – different only in the ways that also meant needless. There is also an irony in a society that coerces people to be “independent” from others in this way. How independent are you if you are coerced?

Denying my needs made me thick skinned, alexithymic, dissociated, sometimes cold. I learned that my needs didn’t matter, that I was too much for other people to handle. With time I became depressed.

And through all of it, I didn’t realize that the extent to which I was doing this – numbing myself, making myself invisible. When everyone else thought I was acting from desire (I just seemed to love being on my own etc.), how was I to know I was acting from necessity? How was I to know that not everyone else denied their needs in the same way as a sacrifice to be seen as valid human beings?

Switching strategy

When I reached young adulthood I found some settings in which being invisible and numb wasn’t enough if I wanted to be “a successful adult”. So I learned to fake it, to put on a neurotypical mask. I wasn’t perfect at it of course, and it took enormous energy, but I was good enough at it to get by.

While this was hardly ideal, we can create ourselves partly through the personas we put on, and I learned some things about myself through this experience. I learned for instance that showing some emotions can actually be pleasant for me.

This experience, along with finding validating friends, made me realize that the unemotional, invisible, needless person I had been for most of my life had not been all of me. In searching for answers regarding who I actually was, I found autism.

Not “faking it” is not enough to be “who you are”

For me, realizing I was autistic meant realizing two things. The first one is standard for all autistics: I learned that I was different – I had different needs from others. For instance, I can’t tolerate the same levels of noise and I find social interaction more difficult than others to learn.

The second realization that came with the autism label was that in some very important ways I was the same as everyone else – I rediscovered those “normal” needs that I had denied in order to get through the world in an independent manner as a person with differences:

It wasn’t the case that I didn’t need to connect with people, I had just learned to do without. It wasn’t the case that I didn’t need my feelings to be taken into account, I had just learned to do without. It wasn’t the case that I didn’t have a need for self expression, I had just learned to do without.

Buried under an unemotional shell were deep feelings. I realized that just like everyone else I had a need for acceptance, for community, for social support, for comfort etc.

While my differences were in some sense accepted by my family growing up, the combination of these differences and normal human needs was not. Most of my upbringing I was not pretending to be neurotypical, and yet I wasn’t able to truly be myself either.

So when my friend F tells me she wishes she was allowed to be weird I think… I wish I was allowed to be weird And have the needs I have. To be weird And be interdependent. How do I go about combining these two? More about that in the next post.


Further reading:

“Nobody Nowhere” (book) by Donna Williams

I choose an accessible life

Sometimes I feel trapped by the things I cannot do because of my disabilities. Then I have to remind myself that I have agency. I did not choose my disabilities but I am choosing the life I want to live with my disabilities.

I choose not to make myself ill through going beyond my limitations.

I choose to care for myself.

I choose to have compassion with myself so that I am able to have compassion with others.

I choose self expression.

I choose being present and connected.

I choose to value myself.

I choose to make accommodations.
I cannot control everything, but to a degree I can choose to create a life that is adapted to my disabled needs. And I choose an accessible life.

Not believing people in a helpless position when they tell you about their needs is an abuse of power

TW: mention of abuse, rape, sexual abuse

For the longest time I’ve had a phobia of situations where others have power of me and might not listen to me, like being in a mental hospital or being raped.

At the same time I have a very shaky relationship with authority figures and I really dislike having power over others, especially being in any position where I might have to go against their will. This aversion is strong enough that I’ve avoided getting pets and felt unsure about wanting children because of the power dynamic I would have to be part of.

In short, I have difficulty trusting that people in power will listen to and care for the people they have power over.

I have often been surprised to realize that my problems mimic the problems of people who have experienced abuse by authority figures.

I have had loving parents so I believed it couldn’t be their fault. Instead, for a long time, I suspected that I had been sexually abused by some stranger and forgotten about it.

It wasn’t until I realized I was autistic that I started understanding that my parents abused their power in their treatment of me.

Autistic people have special needs. They experience the world differently. For instance, what is painful for an autistic person is not necessarily painful for the majority of people.

Now, a person who believes that the child’s needs are safe and worthy of being met will meet them, even though they are different. A person who sees needs as dangerous, on the other hand, will see special needs as particularly problematic and will try to “train them out of the child”.

Very indirectly, this is what my parents did.

Even after I realized that my parents neglected my needs in this way I couldn’t see how this related to my fear of people having power over me. It’s not like my parents beat me, controlled me or humiliated me. They were all about independence and autonomy.

Then I realized that for small children this kind of neglect is a form of abuse of power.

Telling a child that they ought to be more independent and their needs are not real or worthy of being met is an abuse of power.

Let me explain.

Small children are helpless. They depend entirely on their parents meeting their needs. This means that the parents have a responsibility to meet their needs. And refusing to do so is an abuse of power.

The situation is similar to one where a person in a nursing home asks for help to go to the toilet and the nursing staff refuses to help them. This is clearly neglect. And because of the power dynamics it is also an abuse of power.

Being unable to meet the needs of someone who is helpless is not always an abuse of power. So, what makes this kind of refusal abusive? The fact that the person in power is taking in what the helpless person is saying about their needs (regardless of whether they believe them), and Choosing not to act on it.

The message that the helpless person internalizes isn’t that the people in power are inadequate to help them, the message is that their own needs are not real or worthy.

How does this lead to a fear of people having power over you?

If you believe that people will not meet your needs, will not listen to you, will not believe you, then anyone having power to meet or not meet your needs is dangerous. And then depending on other people in any form becomes dangerous and power dynamics start to look inherently abusive.

So you make yourself independent. And you react negatively to others who show needs, because they remind you of your own vulnerability. And you try to help “train it out of them”.

And so the cycle continues.

Abled and disabled dependence

I like to sleep with a plushie
I become overwhelmed by loud fans
I get tired when you change my plans
I get frustrated when I have to use a new computer
I sometimes communicate through writing instead of speaking
I am calmed by tight squeezes from my boyfriend

You call me childish, dependent, exaggerating

I travelled alone on an airplane for the first time when I was 6
I made the independent decision to become a vegetarian when I was 8
I took complete responsibility for my studies at the age of 13
I took on economic responsibility for another person when I was 17
I am studying at one of the top universities in the world.

Do you call me childish, dependent, exaggerating?

You become uncomfortable when others look different from you
You care so much about being accepted that you bend who you are to fit in
You become frustrated when others don’t use oral communication
You have trouble making a plan and sticking to it

You call Me childish, dependent, exaggerating

I am no more dependent than you. The world just doesn’t accommodate my dependence like it does yours.

How non-normal needs are rejected

I have written before about how discovering my needs made me realize that society rejects non-normal needs, and the negative consequences that this has. In that article I mentioned that we live in a society that treats certain needs as more valid and natural than others. Quick recap from “Rejected needs and societal structures“:

An easy example can be taken from how people view autistic versus allistic (non-autistic) needs.

To stereotype a little:

  • Allistics need you to look them in the eye for emotional validation when you speak with them, autistics need to look away in order to process information when you speak with them.
  • Allistics need spontaneity, autistics need routine.
  • Allistics gain comfort and information through social non-literal social exchanges such as “how are you – good”. Autistics need exchanges to be literal for understanding.

Both the autistic and the allistic person has “demands” on what the other person does, and yet at best we see only the autistic person as the person with needs, or at worst we see the autistic person as a person with unreasonable demands. This regardless of the effort the autistic has put in to accommodate the “invisible” needs of the allistic person.

This has effects on how both the autistic and the allistic needs are seen. We may compare the experience with swimming with or against a current – the current being a metaphor for which needs are treated as “normal” and thus for the support you are automatically given in society. (see “the hidden brain”

When you are swimming against the current and nobody acknowledges that there is a current you attribute your struggle to yourself and see yourself as defective. The autistic thus starts to see their needs as invalid, as me and my sister did.

At the same time the allistic’s needs and dependence on society are masked. When you are swimming with the current, and no one has told you there is a current, you don’t notice that you are being helped and that you would struggle and need help if you were swimming in the other direction. You attribute your success to yourself, not the stream.”


When the person swimming with the invisible current meets the person swimming against it

In this article I want to talk about the two ways in which privileged people (those who are swimming with the current) tend to react to the declared needs of non-privileged people (those swimming against the current).

Throughout my teenage years I made myself easy to handle for with-the-stream (privileged) people because I denied my needs, was extremely independent, and did not ask anything from anyone. I watched others with similarly non-normal needs be rejected, and I did not want to give anyone that kind of power over me. While this saved me from a lot of conflict and rejection in practice this made it difficult to associate with others as equals because I wasn’t showing my full self.

Lately I have been choosing to be more open about my needs and have gotten to experience first hand the kind of direct rejection that I used only to observe in others. The advantage of this is that I have realized that privileged people (and non-privileged people who have internalised this way of thinking) have a couple of very predictable ways of reacting when against-the-stream people make it clear what they need:


  1. Acting like the need isn’t there

The first predictable way of reacting to a declared non-normal need is acting like the non-privileged person is mistaken about the need. This is sometimes thought to be due to the ignorance of the non-privileged person but often due to some kind of personality flaws of theirs, eg. they have a vendetta (angry man hating feminists), or they are in it for the attention (non-binary people), or they want to find an excuse for their laziness (people with mental health problems or learning difficulties) or they are just “too negative” or “too emotional”.

A natural response is then to ignore the person or give the person well-meaning advice not to focus on the “need”, as if it were an unhealthy obsession of theirs. The most harmful thing about this approach is that it takes the authority away from the against-the-streamer: they are not treated as the best judge of their needs. It states “I know better than you what you need” Such treatment has huge consequences for the ability to trust both yourself and others. Some examples:

  • When I took issue with the way disabled people’s confidentiality was handled in my college they acted like I was a single “angry trouble maker” and there was no problem.
  • My father once told me that he shut down a discussion about gender equality at work because focusing too much on it was impairing women’s performance.
  • When I first developed an undiagnosed illness people told me not to “obsess” about finding a diagnosis because it was “probably just stress”.
  • I once got caught in high waves and signalled to my father on the beach to come help me. He saw me and ignored it. Later he told me he would have come “had I needed it”.

A special case of this is the insistence that we ought not identify as autistic or disabled, that we are too negative if we identify with such different needs. Let me explain why this is problematic: I am disabled whether I identify with the label or not. Arguing that I ought not identify with my needs does nothing but show me that the person I’m talking to does not believe in my needs.  T

People believe that I will limit myself through reminding myself of my disability but because they don’t believe in my needs they don’t understand is that am more limited by not reminding myself of my disability because then I push myself too far and blame myself when I cannot perform what everyone else can.

The problem is if we focus only on the negatives, regardless of whether you have been validated or not. Validating difficulties does not cause you to focus more on the negatives, rather the opposite, when you have a name for them you can more easily make adjustments and move forward. You cannot ease another’s pain by telling them to ignore it. It doesn’t work and if you are a cause of their pain it is an insult.


  1. Acting like there is a real need but it’s not your problem to deal with

Because people who are swimming with the current don’t see their own dependence they may very well decide that when others show dependence this signals that they should not be considered responsible adults, or even that they have reduced worth as a person.

These privileged people see the problem as lying with the non-normal person, not society, and feel that society shouldn’t have to adapt. These are the people who respond to accommodation requests with “that’s taking things a bit far, isn’t it? We can’t accommodate everything, where will it end?” What they’re not seeing is that society is already adapted, it is adapted to the needs of the privileged.

These people see non-normal needs as real, but as somehow reducing the person’s right to participation. They may thus act like the person is simply too fragile to participate in society on equal terms. This can cause them to advice or force the person to leave a role, or not include them in the first place.

Taken to its extreme, this is the kind of reasoning which caused us to lobotomise disabled people, to put them in institutions, to exterminate them in the holocaust. In short, the kind of view that causes us to view disabled people as worth less.

Introduction to ableism

When I received an autism diagnosis I sent the information below to my family as an introduction to ableism.

Some important words

  • Neurodiversity – the neurological differences between people (primarily people with ADHD, autistics, neurotypicals etc).
  • Neurodiversity paradigm – the concept that these neurological differences should be recognized and respected as variations, not illnesses or deficits.
  • Neurodiversity movement – a rights movement that tries to promote the neurodiversity paradigm against ableism. Like the feminist movement it says that all neurotypes (feminism: genders) are equal and focuses on the problems created by ableism (feminism: sexism).
  • Ableism – discrimination or prejudice against disabled people. The idea that disabled people are somehow lesser than non-disabled people. Comparable to sexism and racism.

Examples of ableist beliefs

  • Seeing disabled people as less autonomous and less competent
  • Seeing disabled people as less than full members of society
  • Seeing disabled lives as worth less
  • Seeing disabled people as defective or in need of fixing.

Consequences of these include disabled people having more mental health problem and higher suicide rates, being put in institutions more than necessary, being unemployed more than necessary, not being seen as equal under the law, being more likely to be the target of hate crime, sexual abuse and other crimes, eugenics. The extreme end of this is described in this article (Trigger warning: graphic violence)

Ways that ableist beliefs may manifest

  • Saying as a compliment: “I don’t think of you as autistic” – Implied: autism is something negative.
  • Saying “getting a diagnosis will only have negative consequences” – implied: there is nothing positive with identifying as you are. Or you don’t really need the support that you think you need.
  • *laughing when autistic person does something autistic* – implied: your way of being is silly or childish.
  • Acting like accessibility adjustments are over the top/coddling/a slippery slope, e.g. questioning the need for trigger warnings in texts containing rape to help people with PTSD: Implied: disabled needs are not real or if they are they are less important than normal needs.
  • Using a word like retarded or autistic as a slur. Implied: disabled people are defective/worth less.
  • Insisting on helping the disabled person with something they’ve said they don’t need help with. Implied: you don’t know what you need.
  • Insisting that a person who is expressing non-typical needs is just being sensitive or lazy. Implied: disabled needs aren’t real
  • Assuming that we live in a non-ableist society and that the way disabled people are treated is necessary. Implied: disabled people are not competent and don’t know what’s best for them.

Why do we derogate disabled needs?

There are a few reasons why we might deny, look down upon or deny responsibility for disabled needs. Mostly this has to do with being uncomfortable with needs in general, and disabled needs being more obvious. Let me explain:

Both abled and disabled people need others. But because the disabled person is the odd one out they are seen as the one with extra needs. We all need cars to get around but only people who need wheelchairs are seen as dependent. We all need other people for making our clothes, building our houses etc, but only people who need a personal assistant are seen as dependent. When someone’s needs stand out in this way they are an easier target for denial and critique.

Obviously, this is a problem if you are disabled and your needs stand out simply through you being who you are. You may be able to choose to make yourself invisible and (almost) entirely independent, but because sharing who you really are is essential for healthy relationships you are then in effect choosing not to have real relationships. This is what ableism can force us to do.

Detour – the social model of disability

The social model of disability states that a disability is caused not by the disabled person’s difference or impairment but by how society reacts to that difference. Whether society is set up to respect and meet the needs of the person with that difference. In other words: if we had a deaf society which was set up to meet the needs of deaf people then a deaf person would not be disabled in that society. Another way of expressing the same thing is to imagine a society which is organised to accommodate those humans who do not need any sleep. In such a society a person who needs 7 hours of sleep each night would be disabled. According to the social model of disability people are disabled by society, not by there being something “wrong” with their bodies.

How do we become less ableist?

So, what can we do to change our derogatory views of needs, which disproportionately negatively affect disabled people? We can recognize them and contradict them:

  1. We believe that having needs and being dependent on others is a sign of weakness
  2. This is false
  3. Having needs and being dependent on others is entirely normal
  4. Disabled or non-normal needs really are Different.
  5. Different needs are not Worse needs.

Is there something wrong with highlighting differences?

Some people respond to the neurodiversity movement by saying that we are all unique in different ways and we don’t need labels. These are often the same people who say that they are colour blind or that feminism is sexist. The problem is that these people often want to deny the different needs that people have and the different ways that people are treated in society. Usually because they are uncomfortable with needs or uncomfortable with the idea that they have privilege. They can only imagine equality in a world where our needs are all the same. I hope that the above description of ableism shows why labels matter and can help disabled and nondisabled people be seen as Different And Equal.

Audre Lorde, the lesbian black feminist writer said: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Rejected needs and societal structures

Two years ago, I met two friends who became incredibly important for my understanding of myself. What was so special about them was that they were both so accommodating of different needs and treated each person as the authority on their own condition. Through these friends and through learning about and identifying with new labels I grew to better understand my needs. Parallel with this came a realization about how my family, my society and I respond when people presented non-normal needs.


Upbringing – Denied needs

My sister and I have both always had non-normal needs. As children we struggled with falling asleep, with eating, with social interaction, with noises and water and many more things. I now know that in my case at least this was partly due to being autistic.

My first experiences of other people reacting to my non-normal needs were of course my parents’ reactions. My parents, believing in independence, believing in their authority to teach us what we ought to ask of others, and having no sense of us having “special needs”, did not recognize, validate and accommodate all of these needs. Rather, when we expressed some such needs we were seen as being too demanding, too needy, even selfish. Of course, the same thing happened in school and other interactions with adults, and the same thing kept happening as we grew up.


Response to invalidation

Having your needs denied by your family and society is painful and creates a dent in your sense of self and sense of worthiness independent of your contribution or burden on others. My sister and I, being very different people, had different reactions to this treatment. I, being an introvert and a very cerebral being, denied my needs and became extremely independent, not wanting to give anyone the power of making me feel small or needy. I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t expose myself to rejection. In as far as social interaction can be seen as a game I said “I’m not playing”.

My sister on the other hand, being an extrovert and a very emotional being, was extremely open about her needs and became dependent on others. In terms of attachment theory, I became avoidant, she became anxious.

These responses to how we were treated determined how we learned to respond to others with non-normal needs. My sister is open to many different needs. I, on the other hand, have been much more consistent with my father in telling people to keep their needs to themselves.

I thought for a long time that I was better off with my reaction. It afforded me some of the privileges of the majority. I avoided being put down or controlled. I saw how people like my sister were treated and I dreaded it: Dreaded someone else having that kind of power over me.

But here’s the thing about ignoring your needs: You end up numb, you end up alone, you end up putting yourself through abuse/neglect to avoid someone else putting you through it, you end up sick and you end up abusing/neglecting others.


The neglected becomes the neglector

Not only did I not fight for my needs (which I did not know I had) but I took on the role of the oppressor in dealing with people with similar needs to mine. Other people displaying non-normal needs made me uncomfortable. It went against my world view (wanting to see us all was independent) and made me afraid for their safety. So I questioned their needs. I questioned why they needed to make their functioning the problem of other people. I told them to toughen up. A few such instances:

  • At 14 a friend from school was getting bullied. I didn’t tell him to talk to the teachers. Instead I instructed him to pretend he had no needs: I told him that if he ignores them they’ll stop.
  • At 17, my sister winced when I showed her how to pluck her eyebrows. I didn’t teach her to listen to her body, instead I told her to pinch herself at the same time, that way she wouldn’t feel the pain of the tweezers.
  • At 24, it was suggested that we present ourselves with our pronouns to the new students coming into university, to make trans-people feel comfortable. Feeling like there should be a limit to what is required of the majority from such a small group, I suggested that this was taking things a bit too far.


Change through seeing needs

It was only when I gained an understanding of my own needs that I grew to have a better understanding of needs in general and to be able to handle other people with non-normal needs more responsibly. And this all started with meeting people who treated my unusual needs as valid.

However, this change is hard to create if you don’t realize that you have needs. And here is where the societal structure dimension comes in.

One reason you might not realize you have needs is because your needs are constantly invalidated. Another is because your needs are always in sync with the norms of society. Let me explain:


Societal structures and validity of needs

We live in a society that treats certain needs as more valid and natural than others. An easy example can be taken from how people view autistic versus allistic (non-autistic) needs.

To stereotype a little:

  • Allistics need you to look them in the eye for emotional validation when you speak with them, autistics need to look away in order to process information when you speak with them.
  • Allistics need spontaneity, autistics need routine.
  • Allistics gain comfort and information through social non-literal social exchanges such as “how are you – good”. Autistics need exchanges to be literal for understanding.

Both the autistic and the allistic person has “demands” on what the other person does, and yet at best we see only the autistic person as the person with needs, or at worst we see the autistic person as a person with unreasonable demands. This regardless of the effort the autistic has put in to accommodate the “invisible” needs of the allistic person.

This has effects on how both the autistic and the allistic needs are seen. We may compare the experience with swimming with or against a current – the current being a metaphor for which needs are treated as “normal” and thus for the support you are automatically given in society (see “The hidden brain” at

When you are swimming against the current and nobody acknowledges that there is a current you attribute your struggle to yourself and see yourself as defective. The autistic thus starts to see their needs as invalid, as me and my sister did.

At the same time the allistic’s needs and dependence on society are masked. When you are swimming with the current, and no one has told you there is a current, you don’t notice that you are being helped and that you would struggle and need help if you were swimming in the other direction. You attribute your success to yourself, not the stream.


Why am I writing this?

I will write elsewhere more specifically about how non-normal needs are rejected, the defensive mechanisms keeping us from acknowledging others’ needs and how this plays out in specific cultures, such as Swedish (independence and equality) culture and rationality culture.

In this article, however, I wanted to paint a general picture of the rejection of non-normal needs in our societies and the consequences this has, using myself as an example. This affects disabled people and other minorities, but also other people who are not seen as the norm despite being a majority in society – for instance women.

Why am I writing about this in a blog about accessibility? Because I have learned two things in the last year: 1. Accessibility is as much about society as it is about the person with “special needs” 2. Validating the reality of the problem is crucial to being able to do something about it. Seeing the current and seeing that we are biased Not to see the current, have both been crucial for my ability to see, validate and adapt to my needs, as well as treat others better.

When I started to understand my own needs, I realized that the way I and the people around me react towards people with non-normal needs has clear negative consequences on our sense of worthiness, our ability to identify our own needs and our ability to form healthy relationships with others.

The process of discovering our needs and discovering the way we have been treated and are treating others is painful. But once we understand the system of rejected needs that we are a part of and internalize, we can start to change it.


To those who think that marginalized or traumatised people are asking to be coddled

I recently came home to find that the person I had rented out my room to had left the flat in such an unclean state that maggots had started to populate every room.

After the first two groups were discovered I (rightly) assumed that they would be found in the rest of the flat as well. Not only did my tenant not apologize and get to work cleaning the flat, but he used a variety of coping mechanisms to avoid blame:

  • He made fun of me for “exaggerating” how many groups there were.
  • He pointed out how the maggots were actually pretty cute.
  • He argued that the maggot flies were actually coming in from the outside, not from his trash can that was full of maggots.
  • He mentioned how he had heroically squashed a bunch of flies a few weeks ago, unlike his friend who had just shrugged at them.
  • He pretended he hadn’t noticed a single maggot before we got there.

Since he would be staying in the flat for another week and we were forced to coexist and I needed to get him to see that there was a problem and to do some work towards managing that problem (e.g. vacuum his room). What I was asking for was the bare minimum, but he kept putting it off in a way that compromised the effort that I had already made towards getting rid of the problem. He was clearly in some kind of denial.

So, my task was to talk to him in such a way that got around his defence mechanisms, no doubt grounded in a fear of failure and a desire to see himself in a good light, to make him see and do the bare minimum to deal with the problem. And it occurred to me that I face these defence mechanisms, and the issue of how to get around them a lot when talking to people about oppression:

  • They gaslight you, acting like you are being extreme or unreliable in some way, e.g. paint you as an “angry feminists”.
  • They belittle the problem, e.g. “who doesn’t like being complimented?” in response to catcalling.
  • They argue that the problem is coming from elsewhere, e.g. from “those immigrants with their patriarchal cultures who come here and rape our women”.
  • They mention all that they have done to deal with the problem as they see it, e.g. “I voted for harsher punishments for rape so don’t tell me about rape culture”.
  • They act like dealing with a small subset of the problem was dealing with the problem.

And here I am, trying to make them see that the house is still full of maggots, that they are part of the cause and that they need to make a change to manage the problem.

(On top of that, having been doubted on these issues my whole life, I have to fight against my own instinct to doubt myself, am I overreacting? Are maggots really a big deal? I ask some friends and they assure me that it is. It is harder when you are in the minority and don’t have people around you to ask.)


Who is being coddled?

Why am I pointing out the difficulties in dealing with people who have a vested interest in not seeing a problem? Because all too often I read texts by people who think that traumatised or marginalized people are asking to be coddled – whether they are asking for trigger warnings, accessible spaces or for their correct pronouns to be used.

And yet in their reply marginalized people are putting in enormous effort to coddle those same writers.

When it comes to worm guy I adjust to his defence mechanisms: I don’t ask for more than the bare minimum. I don’t tell him he is being unreasonable. I make sure to keep my tone as unemotional as possible. I point out how good he is being when he takes steps to deal with the problem and how we’re on the same team.

All the while he is feeling mighty inconvenienced by the fact that I am still pointing at a problem that he can’t see. Eventually my insistence visibly angers him. And then I live with the threat of his anger. Because we still share a flat and he is stronger than I am. And he may not be “one of those guys”, but how would I know? So, I take precautions and make sure I’m never alone in my own flat when he’s around.

And still, after all of my adjustments to deal with his insecurity, his anger, and his biases, some people say that it is people like me who are demanding to be coddled.

I guess they don’t want to feel guilty about the maggots.


Recommended reading like this
On this blog: Rejected needs and societal structures
Elsewhere: The hidden brain – how ocean currents explain our unconcious social biases