I got treated fully and consistently like a real person throughout the entire conference I just went to last week [note: “conference” is not the same as “MIT”, this was not at MIT], to a degree that I am still stunned about. But it was all done in a very natural way. There was just this background knowledge that people are people.
And one thing I learned from that is that not everything that I’ve attributed, and seen others attribute, to autism, necessarily is. Because in being treated like a person, actively rather than passively, by the majority of a large group of people around me, I discovered aspects of myself that I didn’t know existed, and whose non-existence I’d previously ascribed to being autistic.
Which got me to wondering something.
How many of the emotional and social problems autistic people have are actually related to being autistic?
I’d be willing to bet it’s less than it looks like.
I have a depth of emotion and social relatedness that I did not know existed until roughly last week. It has totally changed the way I perceive myself, and it has totally changed the way I perceive other people. It’s very difficult to perceive certain aspects of people in general if you don’t know they exist, and if the reason you don’t know they exist is because you’ve basically blocked them out of awareness in order to survive.
I was an incredibly emotionally sensitive and empathetic kid — like a lot of autistic people I’ve talked to, actually. But as an autistic kid I was also a walking target the moment I met other kids. Autistic kids, for some reason, seem to get more than the usual share of this. In fact before we moved when I was still a baby, my older brother was the scapegoat of the entire town we lived in. And as I got into school, I became as subject to bullying by teachers as I was by other students.
My initial reaction was just sheer emotional overload. I came home and screamed and cried for hours. I couldn’t understand why people hated me so much, I hadn’t done anything to them other than exist near them. And eventually I just went numb. Nothing the few people in my life who did treat me like a person could do, was enough to counteract the fact that in the majority of my life I was treated more like a target. The only way I could deal with it was to cut off the parts of me that knew what it was like to be treated like a person.
I’m not telling this story to make you feel bad for me as a person. I’m telling it because assorted variants on these experiences are so close to universal among the autistic people I’ve known. How can you get a good idea of the social abilities or emotional range of a set of people who are treated like this from the moment we encounter other children, sometimes from the moment we encounter other people at all?
Because even the most well-meaning of our relatives can also cause problems for us in this regard. As autistic people, our responses to our parents are often (not always) different in some way than non-autistic people. Many parents unfamiliar with autism will conclude that we are uninterested in them, or even averse to their presence. Even some who see us as socially related to them will be told by doctors that, if we are autistic, this is an illusion, and that autistic children don’t relate to our parents. (Scientific studies, by the way, say otherwise. We do in fact generally have the same degree of attachment to our parents as any other kids.) The myth of the refrigerator parent has been replaced with the myth of the refrigerator child, and many of our parents will believe the new refrigerator child myth.
This in turn affects how they relate to us. If you think that your child is indifferent to you, even rejecting you, you treat them differently than you would treat a child who isn’t. You might either spend less time with them, or spend an inordinate amount of time trying to force them to connect to you in ways that might be physically uncomfortable to them. You might talk in the child’s presence as if the child is not there and cannot hear you. You might characterize the child as lacking in some fundamental attribute of humanity. You might bombard the child with overbearing social approaches that cause the child physical pain without meaning to.
Any and all of which can give us a pretty warped experience of social situations within our own families. Note: I am not trying to blame parents for children being autistic, or for their own ignorance of what being autistic is. I know that discussing parenting in autism in this manner is a taboo subject because of the old psychoanalytic theories of autism (theories I’m familiar with because my own mother was subject to them even as recently as the nineties and I’m very aware of how much pain they cause for families). But I know no way to discuss the effects of growing up autistic around families who don’t understand how to relate to autistic children, without getting into these topics, taboo or not.
An interesting aspect of this in action was the “Autism Every Day” video in fact. I showed the video to the people at the MIT Media Lab recently, but instead of watching it straight through, we stopped it and focused on the social behavior of the children in the video, and the parents in the video. The interesting part to me was that the social behavior of the children was not only often invisible to their parents, but often invisible to the people who worked at the Media Lab as well. I had to point out to them things like one child speaking to her mother and inquiring about her mother’s emotional state, another child’s affection, another child looking up at his mother’s face to gauge her feelings. We concluded that somehow through the camera person focusing on the mothers, combined with the mothers focusing on the camera people, the viewer’s focus was not on the social overtures of the children, who were then possible to describe as not engaging in social overtures even when they were very clearly affectionate, social, and concerned with their parents’ feelings.
So again, how do we measure innate level of social skill in this context? This is a context where autistic people’s parents are somehow (possibly by training from doctors, possibly through instinctively looking for a different set of social cues than the ones we use, possibly because of some other construction they have in their heads that overrides what’s in front of them) clearly not noticing our social approaches or our concern for them.
But it is also a context where many of the things — such as eye contact and physical contact — often used by parents to show affection for their children either panic us or cause us physical pain, and where our “emotional growth” might be measured by others in terms of how much we can deaden our bodies and emotions and allow ourselves to be subjected to terror and pain on a regular basis. Imagine growing up somewhere where to be hit upside the head and locked in a room with a large predatory animal are the two highest forms of affection, and your emotional development is gauged on how well you learn to put up with those situations. To people who experience certain kinds of touch as pain and eye contact as a predator-style threat, that is some part of our experience growing up. And that is an experience we can have in the most loving and caring of families, if our families don’t understand what those experiences feel like to us (and not all of us show pain and discomfort by pulling away, either, so it’s not always possible to gauge our reactions by that sort of thing).
So most of the family situations available to autistic people are some combination of the following, at least at first:
1. Not noticing or understanding the way in which we show affection, social relatedness, and emotion.
2. Using, with good intentions, social approaches that cause pain or fear in us.
3. Forcing social approaches that cause pain or fear in us in the hopes that it will make us into more socially related people.
4. Gauging the appropriateness of our social development in terms of our ability to silently endure that pain and fear.
5. Lacking the sort of social approaches that we can actually process and handle as autistic people.
6. Hearing things said about ourselves, in our presence, that are not true but that we might absorb really early. (Both hostile things and innocent misinformation, potentially.)
This is not to say that our families don’t love us, don’t care about us, don’t want to be doing the right thing. We are born into the usual range of families that any other group of people are born into. But these sorts of things happen even in most well-intentioned and loving families.
And most of our social experiences outside the family are of some combination of rejection, ostracism, hostility, and hate.
What does this do to us?
Can anyone say that in all the time that autistic people have been studied, from the days of the refrigerator mother theory to modern-day genetic theories, anyone has ever separated out what is intrinsic to autistic perceptual structures and what is other things, such as the adaptations that we have to make to a world that is so consistently hostile to us even in environments that would seem loving to most non-autistic children (and we’re often in environments that would not even seem that)?
Because I don’t think they have.
I still have the perceptual system that makes me autistic. But many emotional and social connections are no longer walled off the way I had to make them to survive earlier in life. It’s sort of like the bruised nerve I just got at the dentist, that started out making half of my chin numb, then flooded with pain, and now subsiding to something near normal. I’m past being numb, and getting past the flood of pain, and getting to some level of whatever is normal for me.
There was a level of detachedness, selfishness (the genuine thing, not something mistaken for it), and other things, that were there almost all the time before but have melted away along with the numbness. (I know I must have caused problems for people with some of this stuff. I’m sorry.) I can feel parts of myself internally that I couldn’t before, and I can now perceive parts of other people that I couldn’t before because I was too busy denying that they existed in myself. Things are changing very fast, and although this was gradual in coming, it feels sudden.
And I want to know how many of my emotional and social problems of that nature could be truly blamed on autism (the cognitive and perceptual state), and how many could be blamed on growing up autistic in an extremely hostile environment for autistic people. And I want to know how much this discrepancy exists for other autistic people.
I want to know what a world would look like where autistic people were really and truly accepted in all areas of life, and interacted with in ways that were accessible to us. At least, to the extent anyone else is. I wonder if we would look more empathetic and more social if we didn’t have to deaden those parts of us to survive the onslaught that awaits most of us at school and other places, and if we were around enough people who resembled us that we had early exposure to people whose body language and such made sense to us. I wonder what people with autistic perceptual systems would look like in an autistic-friendly world, and whether our differences would still be too often described in terms of “social skills” and so forth.