Daily Archives: May 10, 2006

Taboos and Autism


Autistic people are very different from non-autistic people, and those differences run all the way down to the core of personality and awareness. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s our nature as autistic people to be different in those ways–it’s the way we’re supposed to be… Even though non-autistic people may hate or fear or pity us for being different, I think they really need us to be just the way we are. We’re the ones who notice that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

— Jim Sinclair, What Does Being Different Mean?

I’ve quoted that before, but it’s relevant again. Oddizm says that autistic people are ’eminently hate-able’ by many non-autistic standards, and cites social reasons for that. I think the problem that many people have with us runs far deeper than that. Oddizm urges people to ignore the lack of social niceties and listen to the content. Which is good advice. But quite often, the “problem” is the content.
Autistic people violate more than expectations. We violate taboos.

We do not just violate one taboo, or one particular set of taboos.

We do not just violate the “known” taboos, the taboos that aren’t really all that taboo. We do often violate those, but we also violate the ones that are so taboo that few people speak about them and even fewer know what they’re talking about when they do.

I do not mean that we all violate all taboos all the time, or that none of us ever uphold these taboos. That would not be true. Any given autistic person may violate some taboos and not others, may even uphold still other taboos.

I also do not mean the taboos in any particular culture, such as the society I happen to live in. This is beyond particular culture.

We perceive and react to things that other people have reached an agreement not to perceive. We mention things that there are tacit agreements never to mention. We call people’s attention to things that they’d rather not pay attention to. We do things that everyone else has agreed not to do, and in some cases not to even speak of doing. The agreement people reach is not a deliberate agreement in most cases, it’s a part of the process of growing up within a culture.

We don’t do this because we lack social awareness. We do this because we have a different kind of awareness, and a different kind of reaction to the world. We don’t do this because we are pure innocents who just don’t understand. We do this because we have a different kind of understanding. To reduce this aspect of us to a state of “purity,” “innocence,” or “ignorance” insults us on many levels, and not just the obvious one.

But, regardless, we do it. And the responses we get can range from destructive degrees of violence and hate to destructive degrees of reverence and awe.

I am “lucky” enough to break some of the most fundamental taboos of the society I live in. I am not talking about sex. Sex isn’t as taboo as people think it is, it’s all over the place. I violate rules that are so strict that thinking or talking about them or even noticing them is not something most people are willing to do. In fact describing them can invoke a degree of terror in people that I’m not willing to invoke by describing them. Fortunately, describing them is not all that necessary in life, and I know a few people I can discuss this with.

In the past, I was more obvious in terms of some of the taboos I was breaking. People’s responses were strong. I would be put on a pedestal one moment and stomped into the ground the next. People reacted to imaginary versions of me. People can be very dangerous when terrified.

I learned to follow the conversational aspect of the taboo, to the point of even refusing to name it, but I have never followed and will never follow the behavioral aspect. Still, though I am an extremely honest person, there’s an extent to which I have to, if not actively lie, at least consent to and go along with having lies created around me by people with me, in order to have most relationships with people. A lot of what people imagine of me simply isn’t there, but there is no way to negate that without causing serious problems, so I’ve learned it’s better for everyone involved, even if what others imagine is negative, to let them imagine. Most of the time.

Not all autistic people break those particular taboos, although a large number break at least one of them. But we do break taboos, both strong and weak, both spoken-of and unspoken-of. And breaking deeply rooted taboos means incurring wrath and even hatred. We are calling attention to things people desperately want to avoid calling attention to, and we are not engaging in some people’s most highly cherished but possibly-unspoken beliefs, and that causes a strong reaction.

It’s also our job. Part of our role in society is to notice what other people miss. This is not a better role than the roles of any other kind of people, but it is an essential one. It requires being outside of at least some taboos, because people miss things as a result of taboos as much as anything else. It requires being outside of at least some of the kind of filtered perception that non-autistic people have trouble escaping. It requires autistic people. Not a whole society of autistic people, but autistic people as an essential part of society.

When I say this does not make us better, I am trying to guard against the pedestal effect. We are not, as I have been called, “purer” than most people, and we are not “more human” than most people. The stereotype that all stems from is something that can exist only in people’s minds. Real people are not like that, although real people can be misrepresented that way. We are also not “more necessary” than any kind of people or the “next step in evolution” or any of that. We do have a part to play, however, and we play it, no matter what kind of communication system we have, no matter what our professional labels are. It is not wrong to acknowledge that.

Not all roles in a society are valued, noticed, or loved by most people within that society. The roles autistic people play are often unnoticed, and when noticed they are often devalued, hated, and shunned. This does not make us, or our roles, unimportant. The taboo aspects of the way we operate in those roles, do make us “eminently hate-able,” and make it very easy for people to justify what they do based on rage or hatred. Not all negative reactions to us stem from this, but some of the strongest of them do.