“Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person”- my reaction

If I had a pound for every time I read or hear the statements below, I wouldn’t be job searching…

Today I thought I’d take a different approach to usual and have a look at a video: BBC3’s “Things Not To Say To An Autistic Person” available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d69tTXOvRq4. It’s part of a series in which people in a social minority share with each other – and the viewers – what sort of things they constantly hear from people. And after watching the one about autism, I thought why not share my thoughts? So here are the statements covered.

“But you don’t look autistic!”

Can you tell me what an autistic person looks like? I’ll have a go. Human sized. Hair, mostly on the head. Two eyes. One mouth and nose. Four limbs, but only two are used for walking. I can’t really give much more detail, though, because no two autistic people are alike…

Autism isn’t a physical condition. In fact it’s not even one condition, and I’m well aware that those on the severe end of the spectrum may present as being obviously different. But it’s only their behaviour that shows it.

“What’s your special ability?”

The assumption that people like me have a special ability is, to be fair, loosely based on truth. It also implies that people on the spectrum have superhero alter egos. Which isn’t the case, because frankly, life’s not fair.

It is common for autistic people to have an above-average IQ, and an intense, detailed fascination with their area of expertise. I mean, not every five year old would know a polymorphic snake when they saw one. And yes, assuming someone is gifted is better than assuming that they’re dumb. But blatantly assuming anything can sound annoying, and anyway, it’s not always as simple as autistic people having one super-talent and struggling with everything else. Autistic obsessions may be rigid while they last, but they can change and overlap.

“Everyone’s a little bit autistic”

Nothing wrong with this statement exactly, but does everyone who coughs have a little bit of asthma?

“Autistic people don’t feel empathy

Let me stop you there. Many autistic people aren’t as expressive as neurotypicals. We don’t always know how to respond to people during immediate, face-to-face interaction, and yet somehow, we over-empathise. If someone I’m with is unhappy, it’s like the air is thick with it.

“You could be normal if you tried”

I don’t try. I just am. For me. Don’t even get me started on healing

“How would you describe autism?”

A hard question, but not necessarily an inappropriate one. Having Asperger’s, i.e. at the mild end of the spectrum, I’d say poor co-ordination, difficulty reading people, a mix of detailed and innovative, and overall a bummer, but also perfectly normal. Well, “normal.” If you want a lengthier description, you’ve got one right here.

“What is the best thing about autism?”

To be honest, it’s a nuisance. But hey, I can joke about lacking empathy or humour in a way that would be insulting coming from anyone else. I have life experiences, and an understanding of the world, that are apparently different from neurotypicals’. Plus, if I didn’t have it, I might not be writing this blog.

There you have it. Personally, I wouldn’t put a ban on those last two points, but other than that, please try to remember the issues touched upon. And while you’re at it, watch the video, and tell me what you think. How can one deal with these statements? Could they be replaced with something more appropriate?

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The importance of being empathetic

When trying to summarise Asperger’s Syndrome to people, I tell them I lack three basic things. 1) Empathy. 2) Emotions. 3)…sarcasm. You get it? Come on, I was sarcastically saying I lack sarcasm…oh never mind, thought it was funny.

A few years ago, I found an article about a groundbreaking new theory: that AS people do not lack empathy but instead are overwhelmed by it. I mean, I could have told them that, but I’m just glad that somebody did.

True, some people with more severe autism may genuinely struggle to empathise. And you could argue that AS people who seem to show it are just demonstrating learned behaviour without any feeling behind it at all. Which would be dictating how a person on the spectrum is feeling, without actually knowing. And they say autistic people lack empathy!

For me, the theory in the aforementioned article is very much true. I have been able to pick up on others’ emotions very acutely since before I can remember. When someone I care about is crying, I genuinely struggle not to cry with them. Also, I hate conflict. Even when it doesn’t involve me, I can see where both parties are wrong, feel the heated emotion, and am powerless to do anything.

What I find harder is knowing how to react to people’s emotions. As a teenager, I would have been completely at a loss for what to do when someone was upset, then hated myself for not helping. Now, I’ve honed my natural empathy so that I know what a person needs from me, as well as how they feel. It gets easier once I’m in tune with how they think – having a similar personality, or knowing them a long time, helps.

A while ago, my stepsister-in-law asked me (not unreasonably): what are my thoughts on AS people typically being Thinkers, and how does being a Feeler* with Asperger’s work? I can answer now. Speaking logically when it’s best not to isn’t the same as being unemotional. It’s just that an AS person may not realise they’re being inappropriate. It doesn’t mean they won’t be upset if they offend someone. Trust me; my whole life, especially at secondary school, would have been a whole lot easier if this didn’t bother me. Or maybe I would have been even less popular? I don’t know.

Sharing my struggles – and having friends open up to me – has taught me a lot about the importance of empathy. It’s not just sympathetic words and and forced optimism. It’s feeling someone’s emotional burden and working out whether they’re seeking advice, practical help, cheering up or – most likely – someone who listens and understands.

 

 

*Basic Myers-Briggs terminology, you can look it up anywhere.