Autistic Screeching: the Meaning and the Controversy (2023)

Autistic Screeching: the Meaning and the Controversy (1)

ByYolande Loftus, BA, LLB

December 23, 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 (2)

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.

Autistic Screeching: the Meaning and the Controversy (3)

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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).

Autistic Screeching: the Meaning and the Controversy (5)

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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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FAQs

What are autistic Stims? ›

Stimming – or self-stimulatory behaviour – is repetitive or unusual body movement or noises. Stimming might include: hand and finger mannerisms – for example, finger-flicking and hand-flapping. unusual body movements – for example, rocking back and forth while sitting or standing.

What is spinning in autism? ›

When a child is spinning or jumping he/she is activating the vestibular system. The child may seek vestibular stimulation as a means to elicit “feel good” sensations and/or also to positively affect his/her arousal.

Do neurotypical people stim? ›

Stimming is common in autistic people but it's not diagnostic of the condition; stimming can also occur in neurotypical people. Stims are behaviors like rocking, hand-flapping, and repeating words or phrases.

What causes stimming in autism? ›

Causes of stimming

Autistic people of any age may stim occasionally or constantly in response to excitement, happiness, boredom, stress, fear, and anxiety. They may also stim during times when they are feeling overwhelmed.

What is oral stimming? ›

Oral sensitivities are also known as oral stimming. A child 'stims' as a way of regulating emotions or when he or she is under or overstimulated with their environment. For those who need oral stimulation, managing chewing behavior can be challenging.

What is vocal stimming? ›

Vocal stimming, also known as auditory stimming, is self-stimulatory behaviour that involves the use of the mouth, lips and vocal cords. It can also involve the use of ears.

Why autistic child cover their ears? ›

Many children with autism have auditory sensitivities to specific sounds, such as a fire engine, baby crying, or toilet flushing. Covering their ears is one way to lessen the auditory input. Emily: Children with autism are often hyper-sensitive to auditory stimuli.

What kids should not do with autism? ›

Here's what shouldn't be done to deal with autistic children:
  • Feeding into their behavior – Kids of the spectrum might engage with caretakers or parents by making annoying sounds or moving in ways they think would get their attention.
  • It might escalate into poor behavior if they see that it gets them what they want.
1 Aug 2022

Why do autistic kids run? ›

Children with autism may elope for a variety of reasons: Some children elope to get to desired items or places. For example, a child might elope to get to a favorite toy in a store. Children with autism may find it hard to cope with certain everyday situations and may elope to get away from stresses.

What are ADHD stims? ›

Self-stimulation or “stimming” refers to self-soothing, mostly unconscious repetitive sounds or movements. Almost everyone stims: think hair twirling or nail-biting. For folks with conditions such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stimming may be harder to control, however.

What are Raptor hands? ›

Raptor hands (also called raptor arms, meerkat hands, and many other things of this format) are a way of holding one's hands/arms at rest. It's when a person has their arms in a resting position where their elbows are bent.

What are neurodivergent traits? ›

What characterizes neurodivergent people?
  • a lack of babbling or pointing by the age of 12 months.
  • poor eye contact.
  • no single words by the age of 16 months.
  • no two-word phrases by the age of 2 years.
  • no smiling or social responsiveness.
  • not responding to their name.
14 Jul 2017

What does stimming do to the brain? ›

Overstimulation: Stimming can help block out excess sensory input. Understimulation: Stimming helps provide extra sensory input when needed. Pain reduction: Repeated banging of the head or body actually reduces the overall sensation of pain.

Should you stop a child from stimming? ›

The short answer to “Should I stop my child from stimming?” is no. You don't want to stop it, as long as they're not harming themselves or another person. These behaviors are calming to the kids. You can, however, limit the stimming in some circumstances.

What does it feel like to stim? ›

It's stimming, short for the medical term self-stimulatory behaviours - a real mouthful. Stimming might be rocking, head banging, repeatedly feeling textures or squealing. You'll probably have seen this in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but not really wanted to ask about it.

Do autistic people have an oral fixation? ›

Autism and ASD - Stimming behaviors are commonly associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders. This may not always present itself in the form of an oral fixation, but many children will use chewing or biting items as a way to reduce anxiety and cope with sensory overload.

Can you Stim and not be autistic? ›

Stimming does not necessarily mean a person has autism, ADHD, or another neurological difference. Yet frequent or extreme stimming such as head-banging more commonly occurs with neurological and developmental differences.

What are the facial features of a child with autism? ›

The study found that children with autism have an unusually broad upper face, including wide-set eyes. They also have a shorter middle region of the face, including the cheeks and nose.

What does Hyperlexia mean? ›

Hyperlexia is advanced and unexpected reading skills and abilities in children way beyond their chronological age. It is a fairly recently named condition (1967) although earlier descriptions of precocious reading do exist.

Do people with autism have empathy? ›

Yes. Despite the stereotype, people with autism can be empathetic. In fact, some experience a type of empathy known as affective empathy, which is based on instincts and involuntary responses to the emotions of others.

How do you control verbal stimming? ›

Communicating Emotions: Help identify what your child may be feeling and verbalize to him in short messages for example “I see you are excited !” Provide attention to meaningful verbal responses. “I like how you used your words!” Try to interrupt and re-direct the behavior.

Why is my autistic child always screaming? ›

One of the difficulties of autistic children is sensory disturbances (sensory sensitivities, sensory thresholds). Noisy environments, too many people around, or annoying people can be unbearable for children. Therefore, children scream to warn and denounce.

Why do autistic kids tip toe? ›

A dysfunctional vestibular system, a common problem in autism, may be responsible for toe walking. The vestibular system provides the brain with feedback regarding body motion and position.

Should you punish a child with autism? ›

Your child might not understand the consequences of their actions, which can be frustrating. However, you should refrain from any kind of physical or verbal punishment that could have a negative effect on your child. Instead, be gentle with your words and actions.

Does autism come from the mother or father? ›

The team found that mothers passed only half of their structural variants on to their autistic children—a frequency that would be expected by chance alone—suggesting that variants inherited from mothers were not associated with autism. But surprisingly, fathers did pass on substantially more than 50% of their variants.

Can you spoil an autistic child? ›

"It's unfair to discipline a child with a disability."

So, for example, scolding a child with autism for "stimming" or making noise may well be unreasonable. These are behaviors that are part and parcel of being autistic, and it may be nearly impossible for the child to simply "extinguish" those behaviors.

At what age does autism peak? ›

A recent study by UC Davis MIND Institute researchers found that the severity of a child's autism symptoms can change significantly between the ages of 3 and 11.

How do you calm an angry autistic child? ›

What to do during a very loud, very public meltdown
  1. Be empathetic. Empathy means listening and acknowledging their struggle without judgment. ...
  2. Make them feel safe and loved. ...
  3. Eliminate punishments. ...
  4. Focus on your child, not staring bystanders. ...
  5. Break out your sensory toolkit. ...
  6. Teach them coping strategies once they're calm.
18 Apr 2018

At what age can an autistic child be left home alone? ›

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists 11 or 12 as an appropriate age to leave children at home, but only during the day and for no more than about three hours. The National SAFE KIDS Campaign recommends that no child under 12 be left home alone.

Do people with ADHD have anger issues? ›

Problems with emotional dysregulation, in particular with anger reactivity, are very common in people with ADHD. You are not alone in struggling in this area. Anger may indicate an associated mood problem but often is just part of the ADHD. Either way, changes in traditional ADHD treatment can be very helpful.

How does music help ADHD? ›

MUSIC FIRES UP SYNAPSES.

Research shows that pleasurable music increases dopamine levels in the brain. This neurotransmitter — responsible for regulating attention, working memory, and motivation — is in low supply in ADHD brains.

Does ADHD affect eye contact? ›

Recent research suggests that children with ADHD may show specific impairments related to processing of other's eye gaze. For example, children with ADHD often fail to attend to others' eyes during emotion recognition [15] and are not using others' gaze direction to guide their attention [16].

What causes a child to flap their hands? ›

Usually, toddlers will flap their hands when they're stimulated by something and are either happy, excited, angry or anxious. In the case of autistic children, it is one of the self-stimulating or stimming behaviors that help them regulate their emotions.

What is ASD in a child? ›

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. Some people with ASD have a known difference, such as a genetic condition. Other causes are not yet known. Scientists believe there are multiple causes of ASD that act together to change the most common ways people develop.

What was the hand thing in Jurassic world? ›

In the first Jurassic World film, the nefarious Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) attempts to do a raptor hand and gets that hand eaten. But Grady clearly has a relationship with these animals, enough that they recognize the legitimacy of his raptor hands.

How do Neurodivergents think? ›

Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. Neurodivergent people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in unique ways. This concept can help reduce stigma around learning and thinking differences.

Is autism a Hyperlexia? ›

Hyperlexia is often, but not always, part of the autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It's considered a “splinter skill,” a unique skill that doesn't have much practical application. But therapists can often use a child's hyperlexic skills as a tool for their therapy and treatment.

How do you unmask a neurodivergent? ›

Seven Steps to Unmasking as a Neurodivergent Person
  1. Figure Out Your Own Pace. ...
  2. Think about What You're Like When You're Alone. ...
  3. Notice The Behaviors You Do For Other People. ...
  4. Recognize Internalized Ableism. ...
  5. Let Yourself Rediscover Passion. ...
  6. Find A Neurodivergent Community. ...
  7. Get Professional Support.
12 Sept 2022

What are the 3 main symptoms of autism? ›

Main signs of autism

finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.

Can PTSD cause stimming? ›

Those with schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even post-traumatic stress disorder might engage in this behavior, too, added Dr. Fizur.

What are some examples of stimming? ›

Stimming might include: hand and finger mannerisms – for example, finger-flicking and hand-flapping. unusual body movements – for example, rocking back and forth while sitting or standing. posturing – for example, holding hands or fingers out at an angle or arching the back while sitting.

What is Visual stimming behavior? ›

Visual stimming is one of the self-stimulatory behaviours that children with autism often present with. It may include repetitive behaviours such as: Staring or gazing at objects, such as ceiling fans or lights. Repetitive blinking or turning lights on and off. Moving fingers in front of the eyes.

How do I know if my child is Neurodivergent? ›

Speech and language challenges. Learning challenges that may be related to difficulties with focus, reading, calculation, ability to follow spoken language, and/or problems with executive functioning (important skills, including working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control)

What is vocal stimming? ›

Vocal stimming, also known as auditory stimming, is self-stimulatory behaviour that involves the use of the mouth, lips and vocal cords. It can also involve the use of ears.

What is spinning in autism? ›

When a child is spinning or jumping he/she is activating the vestibular system. The child may seek vestibular stimulation as a means to elicit “feel good” sensations and/or also to positively affect his/her arousal.

What triggers stimming? ›

Stimming actions can vary in intensity and type and can occur due to various emotions. Autistic people of any age may stim occasionally or constantly in response to excitement, happiness, boredom, stress, fear, and anxiety. They may also stim during times when they are feeling overwhelmed.

Can you stim and not be autistic? ›

Stimming does not necessarily mean a person has autism, ADHD, or another neurological difference. Yet frequent or extreme stimming such as head-banging more commonly occurs with neurological and developmental differences.

What are ADHD stims? ›

Self-stimulation or “stimming” refers to self-soothing, mostly unconscious repetitive sounds or movements. Almost everyone stims: think hair twirling or nail-biting. For folks with conditions such as autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stimming may be harder to control, however.

What are the 3 main symptoms of autism? ›

Main signs of autism

finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling. getting very anxious about social situations. finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own.

How does stimming feel? ›

Stimming might be rocking, head banging, repeatedly feeling textures or squealing. You'll probably have seen this in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but not really wanted to ask about it. It is a term used widely in the ASD community.

Why do autistic kids walk on their toes? ›

A dysfunctional vestibular system, a common problem in autism, may be responsible for toe walking. The vestibular system provides the brain with feedback regarding body motion and position.

Should I stop my son from stimming? ›

The short answer to “Should I stop my child from stimming?” is no. You don't want to stop it, as long as they're not harming themselves or another person. These behaviors are calming to the kids. You can, however, limit the stimming in some circumstances.

How do I stop verbal stimming? ›

Communicating Emotions: Help identify what your child may be feeling and verbalize to him in short messages for example “I see you are excited !” Provide attention to meaningful verbal responses. “I like how you used your words!” Try to interrupt and re-direct the behavior.

Do people with ADHD have anger issues? ›

Problems with emotional dysregulation, in particular with anger reactivity, are very common in people with ADHD. You are not alone in struggling in this area. Anger may indicate an associated mood problem but often is just part of the ADHD. Either way, changes in traditional ADHD treatment can be very helpful.

How does music help ADHD? ›

MUSIC FIRES UP SYNAPSES.

Research shows that pleasurable music increases dopamine levels in the brain. This neurotransmitter — responsible for regulating attention, working memory, and motivation — is in low supply in ADHD brains.

Does ADHD affect eye contact? ›

Recent research suggests that children with ADHD may show specific impairments related to processing of other's eye gaze. For example, children with ADHD often fail to attend to others' eyes during emotion recognition [15] and are not using others' gaze direction to guide their attention [16].

Which parent carries autism gene? ›

Due to its lower prevalence in females, autism was always thought to have a maternal inheritance component. However, research also suggests that the rarer variants associated with autism are mostly inherited from the father.

Does autism worsen with age? ›

Autism does not change or worsen with age, and it is not curable.

Do autistic people have empathy? ›

Every person living with autism is unique; some may struggle with empathy while others may feel completely overwhelmed by other people's feelings, and then there is everyone in between. It seems that autistic expression of empathy may be atypical.

What does stimming do to the brain? ›

Overstimulation: Stimming can help block out excess sensory input. Understimulation: Stimming helps provide extra sensory input when needed. Pain reduction: Repeated banging of the head or body actually reduces the overall sensation of pain.

What are examples of stims? ›

Stimming or self-stimulating behaviour includes arm or hand-flapping, finger-flicking, rocking, jumping, spinning or twirling, head-banging and complex body movements.

Is holding your breath a stim? ›

Breath holding spells were once considered to be attention-seeking behavior, but studies showed that these episodes are not intentional and are a result of an involuntary reflex. [3] Children who voluntarily hold their breath do not lose consciousness and return to normal breathing after they get what they want.

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