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Autistic Screeching: the Meaning and the Controversy

June 18, 2021


In an episode of Modern Family (S9, Episode 2) Mitch rebukes his daughter Lily after a snarky comment by telling her: “Ok, if you’re going to be mean, be funny.” The controversy concerning the “autistic screeching” meme brings up some uncomfortable questions about this idea of humor and hurt and where the two meet.

Autistic Screeching: the Meaning and the Controversy

Looking for the meme online, I felt apprehensive. I anticipated feeling offended; but what if it was the kind of dark twisted humor that is sometimes, well, a little funny? The meme, for those who missed it, shows two men shaking hands in mutual agreement, with a third angry man crouched some distance away, his hands thrown in the air, with the caption “autistic screeching” above his head.

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The history of the meme is uncertain and a search online takes you down a disturbing black hole where you can watch Pepe the Frog REEEEEEE for 10 hours. Some believe this onomatopoeic expression of rage (or REEEEEEE) is where the “autistic screeching” meme originated.

Dubious history aside, the meme is used to mock the extreme anger often displayed by political and religious ideologies to opinions differing from their own. Apparently these groups are the real target of the meme. Which begs the question, why bring autism—a neurodevelopmental condition— into the meme at all?

It’s not difficult to see why many people with autism find it offensive, or for that matter, lacking in the wit department. Whether the meme is funny or not is up for debate—the real question is whether mocking or making fun of a condition like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has any societal value.

Mockery: the sincerest form of acceptance?

Considering the sensitive nature of the meme, it may come as a surprise that some adults with ASD do find the meme funny. Comments on online forums, in response to the meme, went as far as saying: “Hilarious!” There were even autistic forum members who admit to a like and a share of such memes.

On other forums, people with autism shared how, despite finding the meme offensive, they were glad that autism was no longer a “tip-toe around the poor victim” type condition. Many in the autism community say they find coddling infinitely worse than being mocked. They voice concerns about ever truly fitting in socially (a challenge for many on the spectrum) if they can’t be fair game in banter.

This way of thinking seems to be the opinion of high-functioning individuals on the spectrum. One can imagine a parent of a child with ASD who needs a lot of support may feel a little differently about their child’s condition being the subject of a meme.


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Lastly, there are also those on the spectrum who are firmly in the nonchalant camp. Those who see it as just another attempt by the alt-right to get attention. The sentiment seems to be: “It doesn’t bother me, the humor is blah, and its so very 2019.”

Insider jokes

For those expressing anger over the meme, a total lack of understanding is at the core of their vexation. They (rightfully) would love to know if the creator knows anything about the “austistic screeching” so liberally mocked in the meme.

The term autistic screeching could be seen as a description of complete sensory overload where those with ASD are verbalizing a sound (or so called screech) to drown out offensive stimuli, to comfort themselves, or just as an expression of their anxiety (they might be in the midst of a meltdown due to extreme stress).

The stance of many autism advocates seems to be that making jokes about autism is ok, if you’re part of the autism community, or if you understand the condition enough to joke about it in a way that is more funny than cruel.

Many parents face an uphill, emotional battle when dealing with their autistic child’s “screeching”. Something that earns your child judgmental stares and exclusion from social events will therefore probably not register as amusing.

These parents feel the meme is just another way the neurotypical world is reminding those on the spectrum that they are “outsiders” and “not wanted”. “Deeply hurtful,” and “unkind,” are some of the words parents with children on the spectrum use to describe it.

Autistic people don’t screech

Autistic screeching is the name of the meme but, when truly talking about the behavior described above, a better and more appropriate way to describe it could be vocal stimming. Stimming, short for self-stimulatory behavior, is associated with repetitive behaviors—a core characteristic associated with ASD.

People with autism stim for various reasons and research has yet to identify if it serves a purpose beyond self-soothing. There are many questions about stimming that still need to be studied and answered, for example: “Is stimming the expression of a dysfunctional nervous system, or is it a way for people with ASD to cope with sensory overload?”

Whatever the answer may be, those on the spectrum and the neurodiversity movement in general are appealing for greater understanding from society. In a study titled People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming (Kapp et al., 2019) autistic adults were interviewed with regard to their stimming behavior.

Neurotypical individuals don’t always understand the behavior of those on the spectrum; and the study highlights the fact that, even though stimming is not socially accepted, it could become more so if the behavior was understood. Society would probably have empathy for behaviors like stimming if it was accepted as a way for people with autism to cope, or to self-regulate (Kapp et al., 2019).

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Managing Autism Meltdowns, Tantrums and Aggression

Most autistic individuals do have sensory difficulties, and a meltdown (including stimming behavior) may be the result of sensory defensiveness. With a little bit of background history and some understanding of the condition, the meme may be viewed differently. Replace the caption “autistic screeching” with “an individual or child with a neurodevelopmental condition trying their best to cope with a sensory overload and a struggling nervous system”—and we may all second the popular suggestion of replacing the current caption (autistic screeching) with pterodactyl screech.

To sum up

Maybe if society starts paying attention to why a person on the spectrum needs coping mechanisms like stimming, the behavior will no longer be the subject of offensive memes. Or if (like some high functioning autistic individuals) you believe stimming should be fair game for humorous purposes, it’ll be done in a way where understanding of the behavior leads to a laughing with vs laughing at kind of funny.

References:

Kapp, S. K., Steward, R., Crane, L., Elliott, D., Elphick, C., Pellicano, E., & Russell, G. (2019). ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming. Autism : the international journal of research and practice, 23(7), 1782–1792.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361319829628

Pepe the Frog (created by Matt Furie Boy’s Club 2005)

“The Long Goodbye.” Modern Family. Season 9, episode 2. 2017. (O’Neill, E., Burrell, T., Vergara, S., Bowen, J., Ferguson, J. T., Stonestreet, E., Rodriguez, R.,Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, Inc.)
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7339924/

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