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.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

23 responses »

  1. Great post.

    The following of course isn’t conclusive or designed to be a lecture either. Monologues and all.

    According to domestication (which we can use synonymously with industrial, State societies) and domestication’s dicta, austists of all stripes ARE taboos (in line with focus on the individual). When someone gets to “know” someone who’s different, then they look beyond that and notice “behaviors”.

    It seems that contemporary cognitive science basically assumes (as bolstered by evolutionary psychology) that “statistically normal” humans are fundamentally all the same with slight surface variations from culture to culture (“religion”, “morality”, “language”).

    But when looking at Indigenous philosophy (again, the typical word for it is “religion”, but that word is completely inaccurate), it’s clear that there are radically different ways of understanding and perceiving the world. The fact that most english speakers think in *objects* translates into a lack of perceiving relationships of all kinds (yes, I’m linking language and perception here). Many of us do not think this way and it is a struggle to be able to convey why two apparently unlike things are so very closely related.

    There are roles in traditional societies for the observant and those who would be rendered “deviant” in domesticated societies. Of course, they would not be thought of as “deviant” simply because there’s no social stigma that is part of equating “different” or “anomalous” with socio-moral weight. Everyone and everything has to fit in somehow pluralistically rather than {insert prefix here}-typically or -normatively. The latter is what we’re contending with.

    That all said, I still think that the fundamental violation of taboos is indeed determined by culture simply because perceptual oversight is driven by social regulation in four key forms: a) sanctions against those who perceive differently, b) equating “different” with “bad” or “wrong”, c) considering all things “different” as foreign and d) not including variability in one’s/a group’s worldview or social paradigm (i.e. culture). If one is able to successfully convey their perceptual differences, these differences would be–in a just society–incorporated into the overall worldview, rather than removed.

    But as there is a harmony of biology and culture at various meeting points, I wonder how much of the perceptual differences among autists/aspies/and even ADD/ADHDs are shaped by external stimulation? No one was born, raised, or lives in a vacuum (beyond, of course, their own paradigm). “Acculturation” has gotta be a two-way street! I think the only real taboo (if Earth is being the judge here) is object-oriented thinking (which is why “culture” becomes monolithic, let alone “behavior” and “us” and “them”). Your focus on communication is spot-on. Tools help out a lot, but where’s that leave the rest?

    Yeesh! Sorry to be so long-winded. Keep up the good work (and thanks for your previous comments)!

  2. The idea of autistic people as taboos was something I was going to bring up directly in the post, but somehow never did except indirectly.

    I do think some of the things that have been considered part of being autistic (such as “social isolation,” which can depend greatly on the environment an autistic person is in) are related to the environment a person grows up in, and I do think that that environment can also shape a lot of manifestations of being autistic.  (For instance, I think I’d look “higher functioning” by non-autistic standards if I’d had less “intervention” of some kinds…).  But some of the differences appear to be formed at a certain period in fetal development.  I think the fundamental difference in the perceptual brain-wiring stuff probably happens at that point, but that various manifestations can be shaped by things at later points.

  3. “Guarding against the pedestal effect” is a great phrase–I also think of a sort of “my child is at the end of the day an angel” effect.”

    By breaking taboos, perhaps, one shows how “culturally”–or rather neuro-culturally-based–taboos and notions of disgusting, forbidden, dirty, clean, are.

  4. Believe it or not, I have met two or three people who were convinced that autistic people were — literally — angels.

    Literally in the religious sense, not literally as in the meaning of aggelos, since I know you’re a word-nerd. ;-) These were people who believed autistics were a form of incarnated supernatural being from a specific religion.

  5. One of the things that I noticed about myself– I can’t remember at what age it became apparent– was that I subscribed to a totally different value system, in certain ways, than the people around me. It felt as though I had been orphaned in an alien culture after having my own people’s values instilled in me, and left to deal with all the ways in which they didn’t match. Some of the things they thought were terrible I didn’t think were bad, and some of the things they thought were acceptable seemed terrible to me.

    I spent a lot of time at one point studying anthropology and mythology to see if there was any culture anywhere in recorded history that seemed to share ‘my values,’ though I never found a good match. I thought for a while of ‘creating my own culture,’ but even among people who are ostensibly and superficially like me, I have a hard time feeling comfortable after a group reaches a certain size.

    I’ve seen the stereotype of the autistic person who is ‘so innocent and pure that they can’t even conceive of hate’, usually used in regards to people considered ‘low-functioning’; and then at the other end of things you get the stereotype of the ‘high-functioning’ person who disregards social taboos because they have a hyperlogical approach to communication and find all socialization to be illogical. There are perhaps some times when my behavior could be mistaken for the latter, these days, but it’s not that I find all social kindness to be foolish and illogical and wish it to be all dispensed with. I think some forms of it are, in any society. However, there are certain other forms of social consideration I wish were more prevalent than they are, and some things that I think should be more honored and respected. It’s not a case of my perceiving things from a ‘more efficient’ angle– it’s that my idea of what constitutes the proper balance of efficiency and consideration, and on what issues, is different.

  6. That reminds me of an X Files episode with the Nephilim – in this story they were mute polydactyl (six fingers on each hand) children with ‘mental retardation’ as it’s called. Supposedly children born from a union between an angel and a human woman. I wonder if they thought you were that? Or possibly I’m just letting my imagination run away with me again.

  7. The Nephilim (as opposed to the Nethinim) were apparently all males and “giants”. The 6 fingered thing might have come from Goliath the giant that David slew, but he was not of the Nephilim. The Nephilim were the offspring of disobedient angels who created for themselves human bodies so they could have sex with human women. But who knows what the people Ballastexistenz is talking about were thinking of.

    This evening I asked David Amaral a question he didn’t really want to answer. I knew it when I asked him that I was putting him on the spot. He sort of said a couple words and looked away, significantly away, not just breaking eye contact.

    I said, “You want to get away from this question.” or something like that, very literally interpreting his body language. He said, “What?” and I rephrased it more typically. He might have said, “What?” or maybe it was “Pardon me?” because my voice gets really quiet at times, anyway… he finally had to say what he didn’t want to say, which was admit that a certain piece of gossip I had hear re: research at the MIND was true.

    Later I did the same thing with a social worker there. I said something very critical about something that the MIND was doing, and said it in such a way as she should have either agreed or disagreed… but she looked at the floor and said nothing and I said, “You don’t want to answer…you might end up being quoted on my blog…like, ‘Jane, social worker at the MIND institute said…’ ” and “Jane” (not her real name) sort of laughed and said, “yeah.”

    I was putting them on the spot and didn’t want them to suffer toooo much.

    Re: taboos. Besides the social taboos of perseverating and not making eye contact and not having the right body language… I’m not sure which taboos I might be breaking… I contradict people more than most people do..

    Here’s an observation I had today while I was at the high school, one of the things that makes nerdy verbal autistic people, the ones who can talk almost like normal people, especially “deserving” of various forms of real, deliberate torture *in the minds of NTs* is laughing and having a good time.

    If the geeky kids would walk around with sad faces all the time and avoid each other they’d be less hated. But what I have noticed is that they gather in little pods and laugh their geeky laughs and throw off all care and enjoy being geeky with their geeky “in” jokes… and for that, the consensus seems to be, they should die, and not just die, but die the most slow, horrific deaths possible. It’s a taboo up there with incest. You must not enjoy being different.

  8. Camille: I’m pretty sure you also break the one of talking about things that it is simply agreed-upon that people “just don’t talk about”. That’s one that gets me into a lot of trouble on a regular basis, anyway. Certain subjects are off-limits, and I jump right into them, and if I’m not talking about them, I’m still reacting to them, and that ends up being very visible.

  9. Maybe it’s just my morbid curiosity, and maybe I should already know this, but I really would like to hear an example of some things that it is agreed upon that people “just don’t talk about”.

  10. Re: the Nephilim. Ho well you can’t assume a TV series is going to be accurate about this kind of thing.
    Going back to this particualar post of Amanda’s, I’m uncertain about the idea of disabled people having a specific ‘role’ or ‘roles’ in society. I don’t know how that role can be defined, to be honest, apart from just ‘to be different’. This is obviously insufficient as, firstly, its pretty vague, and secondly difference in culture, politics, race, sexuality etc is pretty much everywhere anyway – much better surely to talk about the positive nature of diversity as a general principle.

  11. There’s a lot of things that people “just don’t talk about,” and it tends to vary. Autistic people often disregard those things, with differing results depending on how strong the urge not to talk or think about those things is.

    I oddly can’t come up with a good example at the moment, but “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is of course the classic story about it and the most common metaphor used for it. It’s like, everyone sort of knows something is going on, but there’s a tacit agreement not to discuss it. And then, quite frequently, an autistic person will just blurt it out as soon as they notice it.  (I disagree with the Wikipedia article’s thing about “innocence” and “purity”, although I’m sure that the author did mean that.  But I don’t, when I use it.)
    Another common metaphor is the “elephant in the living room”.

  12. I don’t think that disabled people, in general, have particular roles in society defined by being disabled. But I do think that autistic people, in general, do often end up in the role of doing these things.

    It doesn’t mean we’re better than people who don’t do these things, or that this role justifies our existence. It just means that when a person is needed to do these things, it’s often us who end up doing it. And we tend to be very good at it.

    I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with acknowledging that, as long as it’s not used as in “So we’re useful, and other people are not.” We do, very frequently (throughout our lives, not just occasionally), notice things that other people don’t notice, and point out things that other people don’t point out, and react to things that other people don’t outwardly react to, and that’s important. Other people do this too, and some of us don’t do it as much, but as a generality it’s not a particularly inaccurate one.

    It doesn’t mean we’re better than others, or that our most common role defines us or defines our worth. It does mean that this is what we do, and it’s important that someone is doing it.

  13. Very interesting entry, but regrettably a bit fuzzy at times (due to your stated unwillingness to describe certain things). I’m doing my best to guess what they are, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing pieces.

  14. You’re not likely to guess what they are. I never discuss them.

    But it’s not what those particular things are that’s the point, really, although I do wish I’d been able to be more detailed in other parts of it. It’s that we do seem to violate various taboos (not limited to the ones I refuse to discuss, and not limited just to major or minor ones but spanning the whole range), just as a matter of course, and that this probably contributes to the vehemence of some of the responses we get.

    I’m unfortunately trying and failing to think of other examples. I know the shape of what I’m looking at, but I can’t remember the precise words for all of them. I mean, there’s the obvious nudity taboos (in American culture, at least) and stuff that a lot of autistic people violate, but there’s things a lot more subtle and important than that too.

    For some of them, to use the usual metaphor, if there’s an elephant in the living room, then when everyone else is carefully avoiding looking at it or mentioning it, some autistic people are going to be staring straight at the thing constantly, and others are going to be saying “Why is there an elephant here?” or “Get that elephant out of here” or “There’s an elephant here,” while fewer will be joining other people in studiously avoiding looking at it. Both of which (the verbal and non-verbal responses) call attention to the presence of the elephant that everyone has agreed not to discuss or even necessarily perceive. Which is going to scare or anger most of the people who are trying not to perceive it, and intrigue some others. Not that autistic people are the only ones to do this, or that non-autistic people never do this, but I do think autistic people are more likely to do this.

    I don’t know why my mind is failing me so badly on concrete examples of this right now.

  15. “You must not enjoy being different”

    That hits home. I’m not autistic, but geeky, and having so much trouble with this at the moment. Um. Can’t really find the words, but you described it so well.

  16. Yes, enjoying what is not supposed to be enjoyable actually is a taboo of sorts. And enjoying being autistic, among other things, is to the point of being “unheard of” by a lot of people’s prejudices, and will provoke shock and anger in many people.

  17. I say some things that most people are too discreet to say, like how much money I make and how much I pay in rent. In my circles this is a major taboo but I think this kind of information is crucial. So I deliberately violate the taboo. Yes, I know it is one but it doesn’t feel like one to me, so I can make a decision that I will violate it anyway.

    I am also blunt and direct when asked for advice. This one is harder to decide how to deal with, but I eventually figured out that anyone asking for my advice is specifically looking for the kind of advice that I will offer. If they want someone more sensitive and less direct, they will go to someone else. And maybe they will do both, but I don’t have to feel responsible for figuring out what is appropriate to say. If they want appropriate they go somewhere else.

    In my previous job my supervisor and I split up the people we were supporting. She dealt with most of them because she was tactful and most people appreciate that. But some of them were up to me to talk to because they weren’t particularly subtle and needed to be whacked over the head with a 2″ * 4″ in order to get the message. My supervisor was too tender-hearted to be that direct and assertive, so I got that job. Because I’m not subtle either, 2″ * 4″ whacking is my natural mode of communication. I need to be kept away from most people, but for a significant minority I speak their language.

    And no, I’m not talking about assault or cruelty, but about communicating directly rather than suggestively. Most very socialised people prefer suggestive communication (“Don’t you feel warm?”) and feel assaulted by very direct communication (“Won’t you take off your sweater so I can look at your tits?”) which is why I use the whacking analogy. But un-subtle people like me feel mind-fucked by suggestive communication because we can tell that someone is trying to tell us something but we can’t figure out what. Or we have no idea that someone is trying to tell us something and thus have no idea why they are so frustrated that we haven’t understood. When someone says exactly what they mean, we’re very appreciative even if the message isn’t one we find agreeable. So I don’t make all that much effort learning to respect the taboo against directness, because I know someone out there *appreciates* directness.

    So I think I know what you’re talking about, ballastexistenz, and I’m NT! Taboo-breaking must be a much more dominant theme in your life than it is in mine, and I feel it all the time.

  18. Of course, taboos vary from place to place, and some places are more relaxed than others. Here in Ireland for instance, there are I think rather fewer taboos, with the exception of political ones relating to British rule and the like. You can’t, for instance, go into a bar in some parts in Northern Ireland and ask for a ‘Black and Tan’ because you’ll get a nasty reaction (for anyone who doesn’t get the ref, they were the British special forces during the Irish War of Independence – they murdered large numbers of Irish Catholics and you just don’t joke about those kinds of things). People in general, and not just autistic ones, will make mistakes in those kinds of situations.

    Breaking taboos in general in my view is always potentially dangerous and needs careful judgement. It is good to be honest but it is never good in my view to just walk all over someone’s finer feelings. Making off-the-cuff comments about an acquaintance being ‘nuts’ in the presence of a recovering schizophrenic, for instance, is surely an absolute no-no. Sometimes there are very good reasons why the elephant in the room *should* be ignored. I’m not convinced that autistics aren’t at a real disadvantage in this regard.

  19. I do believe that some taboos are there for a reason.

    I also think that, whether we like it or not, and whether we try to or not, we’re likely to be violating them right and left, and that’s one reason we can get so hated so easily.

    I think, to echo an author I know, that one of the most useful things to me has been learning to manage the risks involved, since there’s no way I could avoid them altogether (and in some areas, no way that I should).

  20. Indeed – should perhaps this kind of autistic-specialist social training be taught to autistic children in schools perhaps? It is surely important to teach those skills that will enable autistics to navigate an overwhelmingly non-autistic world successfully. This sounds to be like a good example of that need.

  21. BTW I like the ‘don’t be alarmed’ moderation comment that’s appeared above my last comment.

    “Do not be alarmed. There is nothing wrong with your PC. We are controlling transmission”.

    Do-do-do do-do-do

  22. I found your post very enlightening. I’m NT, and I haven’t met any autistic people–that I know of. But I have met people whose social behavior was unusual and, to me, unappealing. Now I wonder if some of that was due to taboos that I hold that I am not even aware of. Also, as soon as your post brought up the idea of taboos, I became intensly curious to know what they were. If I am subconsciously following “rules that are so strict that thinking or talking about them or even noticing them is not something most people are willing to do,” then I want to know about it! Self-awareness is something I strive for constantly, even if I rarely achieve much of it. To read that there might be something about me that you know and I don’t, and you are unwilling to say what it is, well… that thought makes me sad and self-doubting, and disappointed that I don’t get to learn what it is. I mean, maybe one day I’ll learn that thing, or maybe I have learned it already, but I can’t know if the thing I’ve learned is the thing you are talking about; I’ll always wonder if there’s some taboo I’m holding that you know about and I don’t. So frustrating! Great post, though.

  23. I just want to say that I have not had this many light-bulbs going off in my head since the things I was reading when I first found out about AS some 10 years ago.

    This goes for this post and a bunch of other ones.

    I’m sort of ignoring the bit in this post that I didn’t understand, which was the same bit everyone else didn’t understand…
    But what got me was the whole section about “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.”
    … I once tried to tell someone that he had “a beautiful mind”, and this was what I meant deep down, although I had no idea how to explain it, and ended up insulting him because of that movie and because he had inaccurately been called schizophrenic before. But what I meant was this whole idea of seeing things others don’t see. And I meant it in the sense of things that are a lot more useful than if he were seeing people who aren’t there (although who am I to say that those couldn’t be useful too, under some circumstances)… I meant this idea of the other perspective. And just as John Nash couldn’t get rid of his hallucinations without also losing his amazing math thoughts, so it is with us. We can’t see everything every way at once, no more than NTs can.

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