Open AccessLanguage, Speech, and Hearing Services in SchoolsLetter to the Editor11 Jan 2024

Ableism, Code-Switching, and Camouflaging: A Letter to the Editor on Gerlach-Houck and DeThorne (2023)

Abstract

Purpose:

This letter to the editor is in response to the Gerlach-Houck and DeThorne (2023) epilogue regarding their proposal for speech-language pathologists to offer Autistic code-switching (Autistic masking and camouflage) as a viable, non-ableist social communication tool that Autistic clients may choose to use in “high-stakes” social situations. In connection with Autistic code-switching, the authors reference “the debate” regarding code-switching in “African American Vernacular English speakers,” specifically, whether “standard” English should be encouraged as a way to access “conventional forms of success.”

Conclusion:

Professionally training Autistic clients to “code-switch” with the goal of improving the client's chances of accessing conventional forms of success is essentially training Autistic masking and camouflaging. This type of therapy reinforces to both the Autistic client, as well as society, the position that hiding a person's Autistic traits is a pathway to acceptance and success. Autistic camouflaging has detrimental ramifications for mental health outcomes; perpetuates both internalized and societal stigma; hinders bias and discrimination deconstruction; reinforces ableist values; and fails to dismantle power inequities and social barriers that lead to marginalization, oppression, and exclusion.

Gerlach-Houck and DeThorne's (2023) forum epilogue, “Resisting Ableism: A Personal Response to Complex Questions,” employs a question-and-answer format to put forward personal perspectives on six questions related to resisting ableism in the field of speech-language pathology. In their epilogue, the authors reference Kendi (2019) and suggest that, similar to how individual or structural actions can perpetuate racism, individual or collective actions that lead to disabled people being perceived or treated as inferior members of society can perpetuate ableism. The authors link a question pertaining to ableist therapy practices with adult Autistic1 clients to the “debate” about whether “African American English Speakers” should be encouraged to code-switch as a way to access “conventional forms of success” (Gerlach-Houck & DeThorne, 2023, p. 157). Presumably to avoid ableism, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are advised to refrain from pressuring Autistic adults to perform with neurotypical social skills such as small talk “all the time” or making them feel that small talk is the “right way to communicate.” However, the authors simultaneously maintain that as long as SLPs avoid devaluing their clients' natural neurodivergent social conventions, it is not ableist to “want autistic adults to understand neurotypical forms of communication” because the client can benefit from using these forms of communication as a tool in “high-stakes situations” if they make the choice to do so (Gerlach-Houck & DeThorne, 2023, p. 157).

Black AAVE Code-Switching

When proposing the idea that Autistic individuals can choose to alternate between Autistic and neurotypical communication styles depending on how important the context is, the authors draw a parallel to Black individuals who alternate between “standard” English and African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When AAVE speakers in the United States refrain from using AAVE, African American English (AAE), or Black English (BE) in White spaces and replace these with “White Mainstream English” (Baker-Bell, 2017, p. 98), the adaption of their communication is defined as code-switching. Not all Black people use AAVE, but many who do convey that code-switching entails significantly more than the alteration of one's speech. Centered on the needs of White people, code-switching involves a broader range of behavioral changes (Casimir, 2020, p. 2) that incorporate the mirroring of White behavior with the suppression or dissociation with the authentic self, purposely concealing aspects of one's Black identity from natural hair, to dress, to tone of voice, to mannerisms and demeanor, to activities and music. Nonmarginalized, White populations may view code-switching as an “objective linguistic phenomenon,” but in racist “anti-Blackness” environments, code-switching is compulsory impression management (Johnson et al., 2021, p. 3).

Both in recent years, and as viewed through a historical social lens, Black code-switching has been negatively defined as “assimilation to the dominant culture and inauthenticity” (Dickens & Chavez, 2017), a “relationship between colonizers and colonized” (Fickers, 2022), requiring the “submergence of one's cultural roots to gain access,” and gatekeeping “proximity to elites” (Myers, 2020). Nearly half a century ago, in their position statement on the communication habits of students with widely different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds, the Executive Committee for the Conference on College Composition and Communication (1974) declared that “the claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another.” Thirty-five years later, Young (2009) asserted that code-switching is a strategy used to “negotiate, side-step, and ultimately accommodate bias against the working-class, women, and the ongoing racism.” Young, and more recently in a Web article, Okundaye, a Black Autistic man, express that at its core, code-switching underscores the belief that White culture is the superior, acceptable culture in the United States and that non-White culture is unacceptable and inferior (Okundaye, 2022; Young, 2009, p. 54).

Persistent themes of colonialism, racism, power inequity, oppressed identities, gatekeeping, and subservience to White hegemonic society are linked to the topic of Black code-switching in the United States (Baker-Bell, 2013, 2017, 2020). Daily, Black individuals are thrust to the fringes of society strictly because of their race, so they feel compelled to align with White norms at the expense of their authentic self-expression (Myers, 2020; Wiltz, 2020). Code-switching normalizes systemic racism (Wiltz, 2020), fortifying linguistic racism and underpinning the presumption of a superior, autocratic form of communication used to justify discrimination against those who do not adopt it (Baker-Bell, 2017, 2020; Wiltz, 2020). McCluney et al. (2021) argue that while code-switching is often neutrally portrayed as a tactic for managing impressions, in reality, it may perpetuate White professional expectations, resulting in social and psychological burdens for Black workers.

Providers and educators may surmise that if a Black AAVE speaker learns the dominant culture's forms of communication and successfully employs them through code-switching in White environments, the marginalized individual increases the prospect of successfully gaining access (Baker-Bell, 2020; Champion et al., 2012; Daniels, 2018; Easton & Verdon, 2021; Gerlach-Houck & DeThorne, 2023; Hamilton, 2020; Latimer-Hern, 2020; McClendon, 2016; McClendon & Valenciano, 2018; O'Quin, 2021). However, AAVE code-switching does not guarantee access and equitable inclusion, and the expectation for code-switching further perpetuates power inequities between the privileged and the marginalized. Myers (2020) alludes to this:

I recognized that this White Director stereotyped me based on my racial identity; I was selected for this role because I was Black, and my outward appearance told the world that my language was supposed to sound one way. Although Frazier's work received criticism for its harsh portrayal of the Black middle-class struggle for status and White recognition, I realized in that moment that my respectability, that me trying to emulate a White dominant culture that would always see me as Black and attach media fueled stereotypes to me, would not excuse me from the surveillance and oppression of the White dominant group; on that point, Frazier was correct. (Myers, 2020)

The “survival practice” of Black AAVE speakers code-switching in a society where individual and structural racism thrive can result in social exclusion and rejection from in-group members (Casimir, 2020; McCluney et al., 2019), lead to confused or eroded identity (Singletary, 2020), and significantly contribute to poor mental health outcomes. The injurious impacts of systemic discrimination and chronic suppression of authenticity affect overall psychological and physical well-being (Hudson et al., 2020; Johnson et al., 2021; McCluney et al., 2019).

Despite the serious repercussions of code-switching on mental health and well-being, Black code-switching in White American spaces is viewed as a salient means of survival and self-preservation (Casimir, 2020; Da Silva, 2022; Fickers, 2022; Myers, 2020; Singletary, 2020; Wiltz, 2020). Code-switching is perceived to be a “necessary evil” carried out by a marginalized population to placate restrictive societal narratives that elevate White cultural standards as right and superior (Casimir, 2020) in an attempt to divert discrimination, maltreatment, violence and to survive police interaction (McCluney et al., 2019). Some believe that a Black person's ability to successfully code-switch in America may mean the difference between living or dying (Gill, 2021; TEDx Talks, 2017); however, the act of performative code-switching in exchange for personal safety does not assure protection. Online news stories referencing hashtag #WhileBlack reveal countless examples of how Black people experience “non-sensical terror” while doing ordinary, nonthreatening things in their daily lives (Nkadi, 2018; Ortiz, 2018). Baker-Bell (2017) addresses this reality:

Danny: I get that people from different cultures and backgrounds communicate differently with each other, but I also understand that my students will enter a land where they will be judged based on their language. Whether this is fair or not, as their teacher, isn't it my job to prepare my Black students to communicate in “standard English” so that they don't get discriminated against?

Baker-Bell: They are also living in a land where they are discriminated against based on the color of their skin, so how do you prepare them to avoid being discriminated against for being Black? (Baker Bell, 2017, p. 97)

Because statistics demonstrate that Black people are two to five times more likely than White people to be killed during encounters with police officers (Bunn, 2022; GBD 2019 Police Violence US Subnational Collaborators, 2021; Minto, 2023), Black families have been preparing their children and young people for how to avoid or live through police encounters by heeding parental warnings and performing with certain behaviors (Solis, 2021). Yet, fatal police violence statistics are more associated with “systemic and direct racism, manifested in laws and policies as well as personal implicit biases” (GBD 2019 Police Violence US Subnational Collaborators, 2021, p. 1239). Examples of Black Autistics who have been harmed or killed in police custody in the United States within the last 8 years include Troy Canales (Goldensohn, 2015); Kayleb Moon-Robinson (Ferriss, 2016); Laquan McDonald (Babwin, 2018); Arnaldo Rios, as well as Charles Kinsey, the Black behavior technician who was with him (Iannelli, 2019); Morénike Giwa Onaiwu (Ball & Jeffrey-Wilensky, 2020); Elijah McCain (BBC News, 2021); Matthew Rushin and Osaze Osagie (Kim et al., 2023); Eric Parsa (Webster, 2023); and Curtis Hayes (Lepore, 2023). In the end, a Black Autistic individual may not have the capability to adhere to specific behaviors or observe the warnings outlined in “the talk” (Solis, 2021), much less possess the ability to code-switch well, or at all. This author recognizes the unique intersectionality inherent in the lived experiences of Black Autistic individuals as they navigate disability and race, and referencing Gerlach-Houck and DeThorne (2023), acknowledges that Black families may deem certain aspects of code-switching crucial for survival.

Autistic Masking and Camouflaging

The conscious and unconscious acts of masking and camouflage by Autistic people in non-Autistic spaces have detrimental mental health outcomes. Autistic people describe camouflaging as “adaptive morphing,” a conscious or unconscious response to increased social, psychological, and physical risk of harm (Lawson, 2020, p. 519). Autistic camouflaging goes deeper than adapting one's social behavior to a certain social context. Predicated on centering the comfort of neurotypicals in proximity, adaptive morphing is a magnified effort to gain access and inclusion that may involve mimicry, using specific gestures, memorizing scripts and practicing conversations in advance, maintaining eye contact or tolerating sensory overwhelm despite personal discomfort, demonstrations of submissiveness, and suppressing other Autistic traits such as stimming.

Outcomes of Autistic camouflaging include mental exhaustion; psychological distress; burnout; chronic, debilitating anxiety; depression; low self-esteem; confused or eroded identity; suicidal ideation; and suicide (Cassidy et al., 2020; Hull et al., 2021; Perry et al., 2022). Recent studies indicate that Autistic children learn to camouflage at a young age, which increases during adolescence. Camouflaging is linked with anxiety and depression in Autistic children and adolescents as young as 4 years of age (Ross et al., 2022).

Baker-Bell (2017) and Alim and Smitherman (2012) assert that in any society, those with privilege and power determine what constitutes standard and appropriate language and communicative norms, so, by default, marginalized language and social norms are judged inappropriate or deficient. Both Black (Goff et al., 2014) and Autistic (Cage et al., 2019) communication are consistently dehumanized; conspicuously denigrated and pathologized in society, research, and academic and professional environments; and used to gatekeep access and inclusion. Here, it is important to reiterate that unless an Autistic individual has intersecting marginalized identities, the lived experiences each group undergoes are not identical. As Baker-Bell contends, one cannot “separate a person's language from their racial positioning in society” because White society racializes Black people regardless of whether they use White Mainstream English or AAVE (Baker-Bell, 2017, p. 98). In online opinion pieces highlighting the personal experiences and unique challenges of being Black and Autistic, Burkett (2020) states that “it's particularly dangerous to be autistic while Black,” and Ventour-Griffiths (2022) writes,

I have felt pressured into codeswitching out of fear of violence (even if I know I do it badly). Yet, while I codeswitch when I inhabit white spaces, I do so again when speaking and engaging with Black/white neurotypicals. In the normalisation of neurotypical and white ways of existing, this expectation leaves little room for being autistic while Black. So, many autistic Black people are left to navigate racist and ableist cultures of violence. Aspiring to whiteness and presenting to be neurotypical is in effect repressing ourselves twice over, in our Black and autistic identities. (Ventour-Griffiths, 2022)

In contrast, although autism is an inherent part of identity, an Autistic individual with less apparent or no other intersecting identities may be able to camouflage their more obvious Autistic traits in exchange for interim conditional acceptance, though the risk for poor mental health outcomes remains (Hull et al., 2021). However, some inherent aspects of Autistic social conventions are more difficult or even impossible to camouflage enough to avoid scrutiny and stigma because dehumanizing societal attitudes toward Autistic people predominate over acceptance (Cage et al., 2019). Sasson et al. (2017) concluded that negative first impressions of the social presentation style of Autistic adults and adolescents engaging in real-world social interactions persisted across multiple thin-slice judgments. The authors highlight the importance of negative first impressions extending to Autistic school-age children because of the intense focus on social skills intervention during their school years, which suggests that Autistic social skills training does not lead to increased acceptance by others. Libster et al. (2022) found that, in contrast to the assumption that stronger social skills in Autistic children and adolescents equate with better peer relationships, in actuality, stronger social skills in Autistic children and adolescents increased the likelihood of Autistic victimization experiences.

According to Chapman and Carel (2022), the pathologized, stereotyped, and deficit-centric view of autism deems it an inherently harmful disorder that prevents Autistics from living a good life (e.g., due to impaired social communication). This medicalized perspective conflicts with Autistic voices asserting that, in actuality, it is “marginalization, stigma, and exclusion” that thwart the wellbeing and functioning of Autistics (Chapman & Carel, 2022, p. 619). Gerlach-Houck and DeThorne (2023) recommend that non-Autistic peers “become familiar” with Autistic social conventions to facilitate successful and equitable engagement between Autistic and non-Autistic peers. However, more in-depth peer education is necessary to promote peer equity between non-Autistic and Autistic peers (Cage et al., 2019; Jones et al., 2021). Non-Autistic students must understand that Autistic social conventions are not inferior to neurotypical social conventions, nor should their Autistic peers be required to perform according to neurotypical social expectations in exchange for inclusion. By spotlighting the differences between non-Autistic and Autistic social conventions in an effort to develop familiarity, yet failing to stress acceptance and equality, it is a campaign of awareness rather than acceptance, and peer-to-peer power inequity remains the status quo.

In an educational or therapy setting, if a non-Autistic person and an Autistic person experience a breakdown in communication, the problem is presumed to be due to the Autistic person's social communication “deficits.” Therefore, because of their deficits, the Autistic individual is expected to accept responsibility for the breakdown in social communication and then do all of the work to resolve it. However, social communication between Autistics and non-Autistics is an intersubjective phenomenon (Williams et al., 2021). Autistic communication difficulties are apparent when Autistic people interact with non-Autistic people and alleviated when interacting with Autistic people (Crompton et al., 2020). In direct contradiction to the diagnostic criteria for autism, Autistic social communication between Autistic adults has been shown to be as effective as non-Autistic social communication is between neurotypical adults (Crompton et al., 2020: Morrison et al., 2020). These findings support Milton's “double empathy” theory (Milton, 2012; Milton et al., 2022). The “double empathy problem” posits that a disruption in mutual understanding is more probable between individuals with divergent experiential backgrounds, notably Autistic and non-Autistic individuals (Milton, 2012; Milton et al., 2022). It further contends that when a communication breakdown occurs, everyone involved is responsible for repairing it.

Conclusions

Gerlach-Houck and DeThorne (2023) put forth the expert opinion that it is not ableist for an SLP to teach their Autistic client neurotypical styles of communication because in high-stakes situations, the client can choose to use these tools at their discretion. The authors correlate this with marginalized Black AAVE speakers gaining access to “conventional forms of success” (Gerlach-Houck & DeThorne, 2023, p. 157) through the performative expression of code-switching to White forms of communication. With this “paternalistic” (Späth & Jongsma, 2020, p. 73) assertion, the authors bolster structural racism, ableism, and unjust power inequities by reinforcing assumptions that being Black or Autistic is the “barrier to belonging” (Chapman & Carel, 2022, p. 619) rather than society's stigma and prejudices toward Blacks and Autistics. Such a position assigns sole responsibility to the marginalized individual to break down social barriers. It suggests that camouflaging or code-switching will benefit marginalized individuals when they are in high-stakes situations with privileged groups. They do not. Camouflaging and code-switching benefit the privileged by centering and prioritizing their comfort. While Black populations and other marginalized populations might employ different strategies for hiding authentic expression and have distinct reasons for doing so, this does not make the concepts of teaching code-switching and camouflaging something to promote at the broad, systemic level. Activists must be vigilant in assessing therapeutic approaches that may devastate the mental well-being of Black and Autistic individuals and explore means to end the societal pressures for code-switching and camouflaging. It is vital for SLPs to recognize that Black AAVE code-switching and Autistic camouflaging have outcomes of associated traumas, internalized and societal stigma, power and access inequities, and detrimental impacts on mental health. Because of implicit bias, structural racism, systemic racism, and individual racism, Black AAVE code-switching does not guarantee a pathway to conventional success, nor keep Black people safe from bias and discrimination, mistreatment, harm, or even from being killed in high-stakes situations. Autistic camouflaging does not guarantee access to and inclusion in neurotypical social settings, nor is camouflaging an assured pathway to conventional success because of pervasive, deep-seated societal autism bias and stigma. Autistic individuals who camouflage may not be able to camouflage their Autistic traits well enough to appease neurotypical social expectations. If the Autistic individual is also intellectually disabled and/or minimally or nonspeaking, they may not be able to camouflage at all. Moreover, as we have seen, the complex intersecting identities of Black and Autistic compound and exacerbate these intricate issues.

Ensuring that marginalized populations maintain the power hierarchies of White, neurotypical communication norms through code-switching and camouflaging is not the solution to overcoming Black and Autistic societal barriers and power inequities. The ethical solution to gaining equitable access and inclusion for marginalized people is for SLPs to, with cultural humility and continuous self-reflection, individually and collectively work to dismantle structural, systemic, and institutional racial, ableist, and oppressive societal barriers, including barriers of social communication elitism.

References

Footnote

1Throughout this letter, I use identity-first language. I prefer and advocate for its use over person-first language when referencing autism. Similar to the majority of Autistic individuals surveyed (Taboas et al., 2023), I consider autism an intrinsic part of my identity.

Author Notes

Disclosure: The author has declared that no competing financial or nonfinancial interests existed at the time of publication.

Correspondence to Julie Roberts:

Editor-in-Chief: Kelly Farquharson

Additional Resources