As an autistic person, the offensive #AutismChallenge TikTok trend reinforced my decision to stay away from the app

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A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration
A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration

Reuters

  • The trend is even more offensive when considering the app’s previous policies that suppressed videos from some disabled people.

  • Haley Moss is an autistic writer and attorney.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For people with disabilities, navigating social media is complicated; on one hand, it’s a powerful teaching tool and a place to find a sense of belonging and build community. On the other hand, it publicly exacerbates the stereotypes and challenges associated with being disabled.

As an autistic person who has been involved in the online autism and disability communities for over a decade, social media is inextricably part of my life. I credit social media with going viral and giving me a platform to talk about autism and disability on my own terms. Sometimes I share neurodiversity memes on my Instagram stories, or I write something more personal or share something about my family. Usually, people are pretty nice and encouraging, often thanking me for informing their perspective. At the same time, being disabled on social media opens the door to bullying from strangers or people who don’t know how autism affects my daily life. Although people incorrectly label autism as a childhood-only disability, I don’t use TikTok to connect with teenage audiences, mostly because I felt the platform could be a misstep for me as a young lawyer — judges should never have to consider ruling on my dance moves or ability to make viral videos.

Besides, TikTok’s policies have been offputting when it comes to promoting and moderating disability content. To curb bullying, TikTok had policies relating to vulnerable people including those with Down syndrome, autism, and other disabilities, though policies don’t always protect the very people they purport to. Similar to how I use other social media, some disabled influencers use TikTok to educate others. But, the platform previously admitted it suppressed content made by disabled creators, citing its anti-bullying policy and saying that disabled users, along with fat and queer users, were vulnerable to cyberbullying and susceptible to harassment. 

Autistic people like me are susceptible to harassment offline and online; a survey from the Kennedy Krieger Institute reported that nearly 63% of children on the autism spectrum have been bullied. Despite classifying autistic and disabled users as vulnerable to bullying, a harmful trend dubbed the #AutismChallenge took off. In the challenge, users would dance to audio uploaded by user @zanayasligh. The audio itself makes fun of difficulties that disabled folks may have with speech and movement, and the dance mocks the ways autistic and disabled people express themselves through facial expressions or gestures. 

Autistic people like me use our bodies to communicate, sometimes through behaviors that bring us comfort or input to deal with the overwhelmingly inaccessible world around us. For me, that looks like my hands flapping when I get unusually excited about something, or overly fidgety when I’m feeling nervous. In the TikTok challenge, users made a cruel joke out of my flapping along with the other ways autistic people communicate our feelings. I had restrained many happy flaps in school or in public out of fear of bullying, and TikTok confirmed my worst fears as an openly autistic person.

Following public attention to the challenge, prominent autism groups posted statements calling for an end to the autism challenge. In a statement from the Autism Society of America, the organization’s President and CEO, Christopher Banks, said the advocacy group is “extremely disturbed by the recent ‘Autism Challenge’ that is currently appearing on TikTok,” adding, “Now, more than ever, we must come together to promote acceptance to create a more inclusive world, not use hate to divide us.” Parent influencers took to their platforms to condemn the videos.    

@cyn_moon888

I am livid ##autismawareness ##antibullying ##illbreakyourjawwiththistrend ##duet👑kingdomfamily ##iampheonixmoon ##notfunny ##comeatme ##fuckyou ##mommabear

♬ original sound – zanayasligh

 

Disabled creators flocked to social media – including TikTok – to denounce the challenge, while citing TikTok’s previously reported attitude towards creators and influencers with disabilities. Ableist sounds and challenges with captions mocking autistic people gain traction with slow moderation on a platform that has previously algorithmically tethered disabled creators. I learned about the challenge’s viral nature through a mutual friend’s Facebook post, and tweeted my reaction like many others did.

 

Using the original sound from the defunct autism challenge, people on the autism spectrum, parents of autistic children, and others posted short clips expressing their outrage at the offensive gestures, expecting better of people and TikTok to take down those videos; the critical videos outnumbering the original dance. The original sound is flooded with disabled people, parents, and allies condemning bullying people with disabilities.

TikTok removed the #AutismChallenge hashtag, however, some of the videos still remain. While it’s comforting to see swarms of people online reiterating a message that bullying and cyberbullying towards people with disabilities is still uncool, it shouldn’t need to be trending after an ableist viral dance challenge in 2020.

@the_regulators_again

Spread love, note hate. ##foryou ##bluecollar ##deadthistrend ##gotthisforyou ##familytime

♬ original sound – zanayasligh

 

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