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Autistic Screeching: The Meaning and the Controversy

October 23, 2023

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 https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autistic-screeching/

Looking for the meme online, I felt apprehensive. I anticipated feeling offended, but what if it was the dark, twisted humor that is sometimes 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.

As we delve deeper into autistic screeching, we’ll learn about this sound that carries a profound significance for those who experience it and seek to understand it. We’ll decode some misconceptions and try to understand this particular way of autistic communication better.

The History of “Autistic Screeching” Meme

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?

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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 find the meme funny. Comments on online forums, in response to the meme, went as far as saying: “Hilarious!” That raises the question: Is mockery the sincerest form of acceptance?

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 coddling is 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.

What is “Autistic Screeching”?

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.

The stance of many autism advocates seems to be that making jokes about autism is okay 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 reminds those on the spectrum that they are “outsiders” and “not wanted.” “Deeply hurtful” and “unkind” are some of the words of parents with children on the spectrum.

Common Misconceptions about “Autistic Screeching”

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about this kind of vocal expression in autism, leading to stigmatization and misunderstanding. By shedding light on some of them, there’s a hope the world will gain a better understanding of this challenging aspect of ASD. Here are some common misconceptions.

It’s Attention-Seeking

One common misconception is that individuals with autism engage in “screeching” for attention. In reality, this kind of vocal expression can be a genuine way for them to communicate discomfort, pain, or frustration.

It’s a Behavioral Problem

Contrary to popular belief, this behavior is not a tantrum or a behavioral issue. Autistic “screeching” is a form of communication, a way for individuals with autism to express themselves when words may fail them. Understanding this fundamental concept is the first step in building better connections.

Autistic Communication is Incomprehensible

Autistic children follow distinct patterns of communication that, when recognized and respected, can foster meaningful interactions. These patterns may include gestures, body language, or even echolalia, which involves repeating words or phrases.


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Autistic People Don’t Screech

Autistic screeching is the meme’s name, 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 of ASD.

People with autism stim for various reasons, and research has yet to identify if it serves a purpose beyond self-soothing. Many questions about stimming 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,” autistic adults were interviewed concerning 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.

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.”

Supporting Individuals who Engage in Vocal Stimming

Supporting autistic individuals who engage in this kind of verbal behavior, rather than making memes about it, is essential for promoting their well-being and helping them develop more appropriate communication skills. Here are some constructive approaches to support autistic individuals in managing and addressing this challenging behavior.

Encouraging Self-Advocacy

Empowering autistic individuals to advocate for their needs and preferences is crucial. Encourage them to express themselves through their preferred communication methods – writing, signing, or using assistive technology. By doing so, you not only honor their autonomy but also strengthen the communication bond.

Show Patience and Compassion

In all interactions with autistic individuals, patience and compassion should be your top priority. Recognize that each person on the spectrum has a unique communication journey, and progress may take time. Help them celebrate their small victories, and always approach communication with empathy.

Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment

Another way to show compassion and empathy to individuals on the autism spectrum is by creating a sensory-friendly environment. Minimize sensory triggers by providing a calming atmosphere where individuals can retreat when needed. Let your environment be their safe space.

Use Communication Aids

When using words to communicate fails, don’t give up, and show the individuals with ASD that you care about them expressing their feelings, needs, and opinions. Explore alternative communication methods, such as picture boards or sign language, to help non-verbal individuals express themselves.

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Conclusion

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 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.

FAQs

Q: Is “autistic screeching” the same for every individual with autism? 

A: No, “autistic screeching,” or vocal stimming, varies widely among individuals with autism and can differ in pitch, intensity, and frequency.

Q: Can vocal stimming be stopped entirely?

A: While it may not be eliminated entirely, strategies can help manage and reduce stimming episodes.

Q: Is vocal stimming always a sign of distress? 

A: No, vocal stimming can also be a form of joyful expression or a reaction to sensory stimuli.

Q: Should I discourage stimming altogether? 

A: Instead of discouraging, it’s more beneficial to provide alternative communication methods and support to minimize vocal stimming.

Q: Can vocal stimming be a sign of progress in individuals with autism? 

A: Yes, as individuals with autism develop better communication skills, stimming may decrease.

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