I'm autistic, not a child: Are casual cruelty and condescension neurotypical traits?

It's been socially acceptable to belittle me for the way I converse. I'm not being silent anymore

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 3, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)


"I'm tired of hearing you talk on and on, one motherf**king topic after another! It's obnoxious and annoying and I don't want to hear any excuses for it!"

These were the words of an adult, spoken to me when I was an undergraduate — and while he didn't explicitly state that his prohibition on "excuses" was meant to silence me from bringing up that I'm a high-functioning autistic (then known as Asperger's Syndrome), that was the undeniable subtext. More than a decade after I was screamed at in this way at length — and in a car, with no exit strategy and thus no socially acceptable option but to silently take the abuse — the words still sting. In my own mind, the segue from Tim Burton's movies to German expressionism to World War II was a natural one, interesting to others because it was fascinating to me. To the adult driving us to an airport, it was an intolerable breach of social norms that could only mean one thing: I deserved a swift, sharp rebuke.

When you're on the spectrum, it is easy to get lost in your own little world of sweeping ideas and tumbling verbiage. The intention is never to steamroll other people, and when it is noted that we're doing this, most of us will apologize and stop. But our brains are wired to be unable to intuitively pick up on the unspoken social cues that neurotypicals — that is, non-autistic people — can take for granted. They are also programmed to monologue at length about subjects we enjoy, a habit that is rewarded in certain contexts and brutally punished in others.

This is one of many, many, many stories that I have of being humiliated, rejected, set back in my life goals or otherwise harmed because I am on the autism spectrum. Each one provokes feelings of shame and self-loathing, a sense that I probably deserved it because — after all — isn't saying otherwise tantamount to precisely the kind of "excuse" that authority figured regularly forbid?

Emotionally, I doubt that I'll ever stop feeling this way. Intellectually, though, it is gradually dawning on me that the correct response to being treated like this isn't resigned silence combined with deeply-felt shame. No, the correct way to respond is to be pissed off at neurotypicals who act like jerks — and to proclaim that the burden rests on them to grow up, not on autistic people to magically stop being autistic.

Despite the protests to the contrary from some neurotypicals, this isn't asking for a lot. Medicinenet has a fantastic article that details the common symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome, but the bottom line is that autistic traits are not actually problematic. We simply have a different way of functioning, and neurotypicals who act like jerks do so because they have the privilege of being a majority (or at least dominant) group in our society.

Like every other privileged group, neurotypicals have a responsibility to be aware of their privileges and behave in a way that is empathetic to those who are less privileged. Since not all privileged behavior is born from malice, here are some tips for those neurotypicals who may act like jerks unintentionally and wish to become one of the good guys.

Acknowledge your neurotypical fragility.

I've noticed that most people who discriminate against non-neurotypicals don't consciously think "I hate autistic people" or anything to that effect. It is simply that, because they are used to people presenting themselves in a neurotypical fashion, they react with hostility or disdain for those who do not present themselves in a neurotypical fashion. As a result, when someone points out that they're being ableist or discriminatory, their instinct is to get defensive, particularly because they may not realize what they're doing.

Here's the thing they need to realize: Discriminatory behavior doesn't become okay simply because you don't realize that you're discriminating. It is fair to say that you shouldn't be judged as a bad person if you didn't know you were hurting someone... but only if you admit your mistake and correct it. If your response to being told that you've discriminated against a neurologically atypical person is to deny it and continue being intolerant, then you lose any sympathy that might have been earned through initial ignorance. At that point, ignorance has become your choice, not a mere accident.

If someone's behavior could be plausibly explained by an autism spectrum disorder, that's probably the explanation.

One of the most common arguments I hear from neurotypicals is that someone isn't really on the spectrum, they're just "choosing" to act like that. Setting aside the puzzling question of why someone would deliberately alienate other people and set themselves up for a lifetime of poverty and rejection, all in the name of behaving oddly, the reality is that enough information exists about the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome that it is easy to pull out your phone and determine whether a person's abnormal traits can be explained by it.

If they can, then being a jerk to that person because of their autistic traits is no different than being a jerk to a person because their voice is raspy, or their hair is blonde, or their skin has blemishes. If you find those traits off-putting, you have the right to do so — but that is your problem, not the other person's, and you don't have the right to make it their problem.

Don't compare mere awkwardness to autism.

This is another thing you'll hear all the time when you're on the autism spectrum: Someone will say, "Oh, I get what it's like. I'm also awkward in social situations!"

Not the same thing. Not even close.

The analogy I use is that this argument is like someone who is clumsy comparing themselves to someone who has a disability in both their legs. Neurotypicals often assume that they can understand what it's like to not be neurotypical because of situations where they have been misunderstood, felt awkward or been bullied. While those situations are unpleasant or worse for those who aren't on the spectrum, they are not even remotely comparable to being systematically mistreated because of an invisible condition which directly impairs your social functioning ability. These are not the same thing, and arguing otherwise is offensive and stupid.

Get rid of the idea that you shouldn't have to accommodate someone else's autism because "that's just not how the world works."

The aforementioned assumption is more than just a flawed opinion; it is a philosophy that underpins a lot of discriminatory behavior. People decide that, because it is normal to not behave like an autistic person, that means it's "right" to not behave like an autistic person.

Yet being on the spectrum isn't the same thing as being a murderer or a thief or a pyromaniac — that is, it isn't something which, by its very nature, makes it impossible for you to coexist with other people. The reason the world doesn't work in a way which is amenable to autistic people is because neurotypicals who are dominant don't like non-neurotypical behavior and choose to penalize it in a number of contexts. If neurotypicals chose to stop doing this, the world would work differently — and better.

Accommodating autistic people is as simple as (a) being nice to people who are different and (b) expressing yourself in clear, direct and polite language if they say or do something you find upsetting.

That's it! It's really just that easy! No further elaboration required.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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All Salon Autism Spectrum Brains Bullying Neurodivergent Neurotypicals Psychology Science & Health