In working on my master’s thesis, I’m doing a lot of research on autism. I’m also reading the writings of other autistics. It is by turns infuriating and insightful. A lot of research from the last century describes what autistics supposedly lack. We lack imagination. We lack the ability to imagine others’ mental states. We lack social abilities. We lack central coherence. We lack executive function.
It’s all so very nice and neat, these little labels, little buckets of competencies that seem to be missing, depriving us of a full component of selfhood, of human-ness. But the more I read what other autistics have written, the more I realize that the buckets researchers claim we are missing are the wrong ones. Because I do feel as though I lack certain skills, even though this is not how I am supposed to think of myself. I lack the ability to front. I lack the ability to intuit when someone else is fronting. Thankfully, these can be learned, or at least, compensated for.
Of course, I’m not supposed to say I lack anything. The autism community tells me the opposite of what the researchers say, that my abilities are not less than those around me; they’re just divergent. Different.
Not that it matters if you call them deficits or alternatives; they still separate us from non-autistic people. We still don’t see the world the way NTs do, which bothers me a whole lot less than the fact that they don’t see the world the way I do. What is ordinary to them is gross and misshapen to me. What is normal to them is overwrought to me, is backwards, is impossible.
Researchers like to claim that we autistics lack the imagination required to intuit others’ states of mind. But that’s not how it works. We don’t lack that imagination. We have a surfeit of it that renders each theoretical situation with the same brightly-colored and well-defined contours as reality. It is not that we cannot imagine other states of mind, but that we imagine them so well they become just as real as, just as fraught as, and thereby threaten, our own mental states. We are literal, enormously, painfully so. It’s not that we don’t get metaphors; it’s that we are keenly aware of the ways in which they fail to align with reality and can’t ignore the dissonance.
For me, this creates host of realities that don’t follow any universal set of rules. Commercials drive me crazy. So do rom-coms. Because it doesn’t matter that they aren’t real; in my mind, everything is real. So whenever I run up against a situation that would not, could not happen in real life, it frustrates me because the only reason I know that it could not happen in real life is through experience, not through some built-in remove that kicks in automatically in non-literal situations. Autistics have no such remove. It’s all real. All of it.
No wonder we are so socially inept. Exposure to popular media means we get conflicting information about what is and isn’t socially acceptable and we have no internal sense of which is which, no matter the setting. Did you know that it’s rude to take food off someone else’s plate? I didn’t, because in commercials when it happens people laugh about it. I remember being stunned to discover that it isn’t funny when I tried it myself. Not only that, I’ve discovered that saying “I’m stealing a french fry” somehow makes it acceptable even though I’m performing the exact same activity and calling it “stealing” which in my mind should make it worse, not better.
How am I supposed to function in this environment?
My whole life has been like this. I only pass now because I have learned the hard way what does and doesn’t work, and only because I’ve tried all the stuff that doesn’t work and not gotten the expected response. And even though I know my brain does this, now, sees situations on television or in movies and lends them misplaced verisimilitude, I am still incapable of seeing them any other way.
So when I see something that I know intellectually is fake, I get angry. I want to scream that’s not real! that’s not how life works! and the NT people around me are like, um, duh. And I’m like I can’t handle this I have enough trouble sorting through situations as it is. And I worry about autistic kids like myself thinking that writing “new friend check yes or no” on a chewing gum wrapper and handing it to someone is cute and not rude.
Everything is so fake. And knowing that is depressing. I feel like 99% of what I’m exposed to is built on sand. People’s teeth aren’t blindingly white in real life and no one expects them to be, for instance. Seriously, I am obsessed with the relative whiteness actors’ and commentators’ teeth. And unwrinkled clothes. And all-white kitchens that look like no one ever cooks in them. And doormats with no dirt. And the incredibly fake settings in pharmaceutical commercials, where someone is either a shut-in in a gray house or works as a volunteer for a community garden or climbs mountains or something (don’t any of these people have to work for a living?). It’s so wrong, all of it, and I spent so much of my life not realizing that, that when I see it now it is deeply upsetting.
That’s what autism is. It is intolerance for incongruence. It’s no wonder we prefer the company of things or animals instead of people. It’s because we need as much as possible in our lives to be exactly what it says it is, and people just aren’t like that until you get to know them really, really well, and the level of detail we need to acquire on those we are closest to constrains the size of that subset rather considerably.
I’ve gotten trapped in discussions about the merits of social discourse (read: lying) with non-autistics and I’d just as soon not do that here, because that’s not my point. My point is that we autistics are crappy dissemblers and the fact that NT people do it without thinking is weird and wrong to us. Everything and everyone is weird and wrong to us. Our lack of central coherence isn’t a lack of coherence; it’s a lack of consensus among the information coming in. If I’m looking at, say, a sign about mask-wearing, any tiny detail that is out of place, off center, crooked, colored incorrectly, misspelled, miscapitalized (see above), even if the mask cartoon doesn’t look like a real mask, if any of those things are there, my comprehension falls apart because I can’t not see them and can’t fit them into the purported whole the sign is supposed to create.
It’s why I prefer text to pictures. I can be extremely metaphorical with words because what words mean is strictly defined. (And when someone uses them incorrectly it is almost physically painful to me because words are the only thing I can count on.) It’s why I get so upset when people decide they can remake the rules of the English language because someone else is doing it (don’t get me started on erroneous hyphens, for instance). Despite the fact that the English language lacks a governing body, the need for universality in word-based communication renders it extremely stable. (Not “extremely-stable.” That is wrong. You only use a hyphen when you change a word’s part of speech, from, say, a verb to an adjective, like in “word-based communication.”)
I just want people to mean what they say. I want people to be more honest. Every time I read or hear a statement by a company accused of some sort of wrongdoing I feel like it’s pointless, because all they will ever say is some variation on “mistakes were made by a few individuals and do not reflect who we are as a company, we take this very seriously, blah blah blah.” Why even bother asking? Or printing the response? Why not just print “We asked for a response and they gave us the usual BS?”
Just once I’d like a company to say something like “We did this even though we knew it was wrong because we made money doing it.” That would be delightful. Or, “I’m not getting a vaccine because I don’t like being told what to do.” Ooh, that would be delicious. Just own up to your stuff, already. Stop pretending everything you do and say was done and said with nothing but the most honorable of intentions. Stop pretending you’re not self-centered.
Everyone is self-centered. Autistics just don’t hide it automatically like NTs do. It would be such a relief for someone besides us to admit it. The differences between us and NTs would contract. And NTs would get a little glimpse of the world as we see it, as full of contradictions, of things not being what they are supposed to be. If only. If only even for a day. That’s what National Autism Day should be. It should be a day where everyone has to answer every question literally and truthfully. Like, “How are you?”
“I’m mad at my husband because he dumps coffee down the drain and doesn’t run the faucet afterwards and it stains the sink.”
Now THAT is a conversation starter, you know? In a way that “fine” will never be.
But it will never happen. Wrong things will still be real. And real things will still be wrong.