Expectations Unmet: Why Are We So Quick to Judge?

Author: Marina Sarris, Interactive Autism Network

Posted: January 20, 2015

We “neurotypicals” – people who don’t have autism – are social creatures, with set ideas about the proper behavior of others, aren’t we? When 20 people arrive at a lone ticket booth at the theater, we expect everyone to form a line and wait for his turn to pay. Once inside, we expect others to remain quiet and seated during the movie.

We also expect children to behave in certain ways in public; at a minimum, we expect parents to instruct and, yes, control their kids. When children “misbehave,” we turn into judge and jury. One mother was reminded of this when her daughter was two and behaving very much like a two-year-old, climbing on a chair and generally not minding entreaties to sit still in a waiting area. A woman sitting nearby glared at mother and child, her lips pursed and face hard. Then the mother remembered advice from her mother-in-law: tall children like hers are judged harshly because people assume they’re older than they are.

So the mother turned to the frowning woman and said, “We’re dealing with the ‘terrible twos’ right now.” The stranger’s face instantly softened, and she smiled kindly. This woman now understood that the youngster might be the size of a 4-year-old, but she couldn’t be expected to act like one.

Imagine the glares and stares that parents of children with autism receive when their kids don’t meet the expectations of their communities. People may be annoyed when a child with autism flaps his arms, screams or simply doesn’t respond to smiles or questions. Maybe they have judged the child to be rude and his parents to be negligent in their duties.

Several years ago, Nick Lombardi witnessed the reaction of other shoppers when he went to a mall with his mom and brother with autism, then 7. "They were very judgmental — staring at us with the look, 'Why can't you control your kid?'" Nick told The Greenburgh (New York) Daily Voice.1 Afterward, he coined the slogan, “I’m not misbehaving. I have autism. Please be understanding.” Autism Speaks offers buttons with his slogan as part of its autism awareness campaign.

Of course, sometimes people realize the child has a disability and recoil from it anyway. That rejection is the result of the stigma autism still carries in many places. Pope Francis recently spoke about the need to end the stigma and isolation faced by people with autism and their families. Our article, Autism and Stigma: When All Eyes are Upon You, explores the effect of stigma on families in different parts of the world.


  1. Kramer, S. (2013, January 24). The Greenburgh Daily Voice. “Greenburgh Student Raises $75,000 For Autism Awareness.” Retrieved from http://greenburgh.dailyvoice.com/neighbors/greenburgh-student-raises-75000-autism-awareness
These archived articles were originally published as part of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) research project. 
The project is closed and no longer accepting participants.

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