Being talked around rather than to.


Joel wrote, in Walking While Autistic (something in itself I have way too much experience with, but that isn’t the topic of this post):

I’ve written about having a restaurant bill handed to someone else because I communicate differently sometimes. I know of other times when I went shopping with a wheelchair user, and because I don’t use a wheelchair, it was assumed I must be my friend’s “minder”. In some of these cases, my friends handed the store clerk money only to find the clerk handed the change not back to the customer, but to me instead. The obvious implication is that my friends were not competent with money, and needed someone else to do that for them (also that they weren’t competent to hand someone else the money themselves if they truly weren’t competent with money). I know other times when even people who are involved in the disability rights movement are very surprised when they meet someone in person, and find out that they don’t look or act exactly normal, or even disabled in the way which still “allows for the possibility of competence” in the eyes of the advocate.

I had a strange experience of this sort today.

I went into a hair salon with my staff person and my dog (it was too hot to leave her in the car). Since it was a short distance and the day was good for it and so forth, I was on foot, and not using any mobility aids. While I had a keyboard with me, I was not using it either. I was not even to my knowledge rocking or doing anything else unusual. We just sat and waited.

But even so, when it got to be my turn, the hairdresser talked to my staff person, and talked about me in the third person. She was surprised when I typed something, and did eventually redirect her attention to me in the first person. But I have no clue what quality in me caused her to do this. I’d been blaming a lot of it on the adaptive equipment or on overt stimming, but I wasn’t stimmy today, I wasn’t known to the hairdresser, my staff person wasn’t known to the hairdresser, and I wasn’t using any adaptive equipment that would’ve given me away. So there must be some other cue that people are picking up on. Maybe similar to the invisibility Bev talks about (and that I have seen Jim Sinclair and others discuss in the past).

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.

33 responses »

  1. It happens to NT people too. Maybe it’s the eye contact thing, outward appearance or just seeming “different”. My Mom used to get the “invisible” treatment when we took her to see the doctor because she looked too old and feeble to be able to speak sensibly for herself. My 12-year old “normal-looking” aspie son tells people bluntly “I can talk now”. It works sometimes.

  2. A mild version of it happens to me whenever I’m in a room with a doctor and my Mom, who’s an RN. A couple times now I’ve had surgery as an adult and I’m always very interested to know what’s going on, ask questions, etc. But as soon as the MD finds out there’s an RN in the room, I become invisible and he directs all information to her. I finally started asking her to wait in the waiting room.
    I wonder what it is that makes the person ignore you in your case? I suspect it’s just plain old fear and prejudice on seeing someone with a service animal, staff, different eye contact, etc. I hope the staff was helpful in directing the person’s attention to you.

  3. I think it may be an NT thing…and it may be leftover from the caveman days when you clung to your group and noticed with suspicion anyone who was not part of your group and had differences, subtle or pronounced. Whatever the reason NT’s in particular do notice subtle cues…be they differences in grooming or dress or just the way one holds themselves…From these differences inferences are drawn. Unfortunately the inferences do not always equate to reality
    but they may not even be questioned or thought about and just accepted as fact…Such things as
    a woman not wearing a bra…or not removing facial
    hair can be interpretted by some as not being aware of cultureal norms and therefore gets equated with not being able to think about things at all and questions are put to another person…
    It sounds trite…and it most likely is…because you would not think subtle things like that would
    take on much importance but they can even invoke fear in some…as in if that person doesn’t follow
    the norms then what else might they do unexpectedly. I think this line of thought shows a shallowness of our society in general and for sure it is a flaw…but it is there none the less.
    I think it a sad reality of our times and not one
    I agree with…but for sure it exists.

  4. Of course, I have a visible disability, but I’ve even had it with peopleto whom I late rhad to explain that I’m blind, that they would start talking ot others instead of me. It’s like I sort of look disabled even when people can’t tell what exactly is “wrong”.

  5. OT announcement: I am organising a public meeting at City Hall in London (near Tower Bridge) for the 12 September, entitled ‘The Politics of Autism’. Dinah Murray and Larry Arnold are both tentatively lined up as speakers. The purpose of the meeting is to promote neurodiversity, and also hopefully to kickstart some kind of genuine activist movement – I have some idea of holding an actual Autistic Pride march in June next year. Anyway, the meeting will be free, but as only 200 places are available attendees will have to register so if anyone is interested please email me at rocobley at hotmail dot com (I assume leaving my email here is safe to do?) giving your name, contact details & how many people you are booking places for.

    Thanks and now back to your regular service.

  6. Philip: Howard staff don’t wear uniforms, so it shouldn’t have looked any different than any two people walking into a hairdresser’s place.

    Mountain Rose: I’d suspect some of the gender nonconformity stuff, if the woman in question hadn’t assumed I was male to begin with.

  7. Mountainrose,

    It is, in my opinion, at least part “caveman.” Most people process information around them using heuristics, or rules of thumb. (NT) people’s brains are designed that way to keep the amount of information we encounter from being too overwhelming. Of course those heuristics are shaped by culture and experience, hence the prejudiced outcome. I don’t think it makes sense to try to eliminate heuristic processing, but people can be educated so that higher level processes, like thinking “Here is someone who may be perfectly competent to explain her hair wishes, despite my assumptions. Because of my commitment to treating everyone as a human, I’ll address her first.” take over the more automatic processes. I also don’t agree that it’s a feature of our society in particular. I would guess that most societies have these kinds of “blind spots” in how they deal with people who are different from the norm.

  8. I get the opposite of invisibility- apparently, I have some sort of social cue that stamps “Tell Me Your Life Story” across my forehead. Random people walk up to me in stores and malls and streets and start relating to me their entire life story. I’ve been thinking about writing a book: Adventures in Grocery Shopping.

  9. I used to get the invisible treatment all the time and I always made excuses for it. Someone was talking about me as though I wasn’t there, even though I was sat very close and within sight? They were bullying. Which they were but I think now they didn’t realise I could hear them perfectly and wasn’t daydreaming. Docotrs and dentists prod about without talking to me, or explain things to my mum when I’m sat next to her? They’re old fashioned and don’t believe a 15 year old should be spoken to. Ok, they were daft as well :D. Nowadays because a lot of things where I need to speak to other people I’m on my own (and if I’m not my husband usually directs them to talk to me if it concerns me and they approach him first). I do have people trying to push their way in front in queues but a long double buggy shoved sideways does wonders for making them think again.

  10. I was in the hospital a few years ago and even though it was clear (both from the ID I presented and from what I said) that I was an adult they continually asked if they shouldn’t call my parents. And I’ve gotten that in other situations before. I was picked up by the police at twenty and even after seeing an ID the guy took me back to station, called my folks and had my aunt come and pick me up.

    And now, people talk to my boyfriend sometimes instead of me when I think I should be the one being addressed.

  11. You say this happened “when it got to be my turn.” What happened when you first got there? Did your staff person talk to the person at the desk? If so, the staff might have assumed that your staff person was “in charge,” so to speak.

    If it wasn’t that, then I would suspect (a) the dog’s presence threw them off; and/or (b) there is something about your affect, lack of eye contact, etc., that suggested disability. The problem, though, is not that they suspected disability, but that there response to it was to assume that they should ignore you and talk to your staff.

    Alot of this is cultural, though. I get so steamed when I see parents go onto daytime talk shows with their autistic offspring and proceed to chat with the host about all of the details of their childresn’ lives, as if the children are just furniture or accessories. This kind of thing sends a message to the general public that that is the proper way to deal with a nonverbal person.

  12. I’ve actually been *reprimanded* to the point of ridicule by staff people because I addressed the people they were working for. “Oh, no, honey — don’t give that to him, give it to me.” “What are you doing? He doesn’t know what that’s for.” I’ve also had staff answer on behalf of a person when I clearly — and deliberately at times — was *not* addressing staff. I even had a nurse’s aide at a particular institution, after I’d partially closed a door upon leaving a person’s room, sneer at me and say very loudly, “What did you do *that* for? You think she wants her privacy or something?” (Um, yes.) These were lousy staff, of course, but it’s interesting that their desire was so strong to uphold a definite power dynamic and to, uhh, “correct” me — harshly, like what I’d done was ludicrous.

    Anyway, yeah — I see what you’re saying about assistive devices. It’s certainly not excusable to talk around somebody because they use assistive devices (and yeah, I’ve been on the receiving end of that one too . . . wrote an unfinished 12-page poem about that concept in general), but it’s not even comprehensible when, as you say, it’s just two people entering an establishment together. I think it is a neurotypical instinct, though, to attempt to pick up on the dynamics within a group of two or more people, and identify which is the “leader” or whatever. (Mechanic talks to the husband rather than the wife, etc.) And since it’s apparently not rooted in outright behavior, it must be also related to superficial (superficial in every sense of the word) factors. So even though you weren’t doing anything that indicated you were disabled, simply looking “different” evidently was enough.

    But your staff person could have been your friend, your relative, your coworker — whatever. There’s no way to tell, and assuming one *can* tell is bad, albeit somewhat natural, but acting on it with no qualms and no questions is, well, just assholish. So even though it may be nearly instinctual to size up other people, it might be sound advice for everybody to to try to choke that back when it comes to interacting with folks.

    It really irks the hell out of me, too, that it doesn’t occur to folks that two people might perhaps be hanging around each other because they *like* each other, and not because one is “taking care” of the other.

    Interestingly, I made an *opposite* assumption of sorts just yesterday, and was pretty disappointed. I saw a man and a woman walking from a distance, holding hands, and thought, “Aww, they’re a cute couple.” I discovered as I got closer that the woman was actually leading the man around by the hand — and was getting ruder and ruder about it — and then I saw her call to a person halfway down the block and say something about the man that made it clear she worked for an institution where the man was a resident. Kinda sucked a little to see that.

    Again, not trying to bash staff in general; I know there are damn good ones out there. I just find it particularly irresponsible to reinforce the idea — from both sides — that you’re not supposed to talk to the disabled-looking person.

    Another thing, too, is that a lot of folks get downright jumpy when they have to address somebody who might communicate differently or physically interact differently (like, take money from their hand more slowly) from themselves. It’s more comfortable, I think, for folks to communicate with people who match their patterns of communication, so it seems a lot of non-disabled folks are relieved when they can address somebody who’s with the disabled person and who shares a more similar communication style to their own. The “caregiver/care-getter” dynamic (i.e., “the getter wouldn’t understand anyway”) is a welcome excuse for those people.

    And of course, it goes both ways; for example, auties are often more comfortable communicating with other auties, and often clam up around NTs. It’s just that NTs are so dang insistent that it’s really hard to talk around them. :P

    If all that’s disjointed, feel free to play a paragraph cup game or something; it might make more sense that way.

  13. Amanda – you *do* have “that look” (different)…
    but to anyone with “two fingers worth of imagination” to adapt a colombian phrase i have heard, it’s as good a look as any other.
    but male?! wtf?! even bald you look female.

  14. That sort of thing has happened to me on various occasions. For example, I’ve been to the dentist recently. Everytime I go there (different dentists even), they treat me like a child, or at least they seem to somehow pick up those autie-vibes and somehow realize that I’m different. I don’t know how they do it, but they do. They sort of start talking slowly in simple sentences, explaining all sort of stuff as if I’ve never been to a dentist before. It must be in the way I walk, speak
    (speech can be difficult but I usually can get by without the use of assistive technology. I usually speak very little), behave, move (or don’t move). Maybe I don’t ask the same questions other people would ask, or don’t show the same emotions or no recognizable emotions on their faces as others would. It’s probably even in my face. I’ve seen a recent foto of myself which was taken while I was listening to somebody else talking. I *know* I was really paying attention, and I was very interested in what was said, but seing this picture and comparing it to what info I have stored about body language in my brain my features and everything about me would not say “she’s concentrating very hard”, but rather “she’s totally spaced out and not paying attention”.

    I often have no expression at all on my face I guess. I have not the ability to monitor that. I never know if what I feel is visible on my face.
    Maybe that’s the same with you. People find that unusual.

  15. Ooh, that sounds like the perfect opportunity to shamelessly plug my new Flickr group, This IS my happy face.”

    two men

    Amanda, if you consider this wanton abuse of your blog, feel free to filter this comment out. :P

  16. sorry about my language. I’m really exhausted and stressed, so my grammar and general ability to produce more than very basic English is virtually nonexistant. I just re-read what I typed *ugh*..

    [btw. “…or no recognizable emotions on *their faces* as others would.” should be “no recognizable emotions on *my face* as others would”. Sorry !]

  17. I don’t understand why people would think you’re male – most men don’t have big breasts.
    Besides that…
    I volunteered for this one ABA gymnastics program with both autistic and neurotypical kids in it. I remember seeing this one boy who I wasn’t sure if he was autistic or NT, until a therapist there came up and greeted him in a high-pitched patronizing voice with sort of patronizing body language. So perhaps in some cases the staff are giving off ‘staff’ body language that people pick up on.
    Of course, I’ve also found that many disabilities supposedly ‘invisible’ are actually visible by things like body language, etc. I have learnt to spot autistics fairly easily.
    Regarding the blind person who described people treating her as disabled even thopugh they don’t realize she’s blind – it seems a lot of blind people have odd body language, probably because of not seeing & emulating other people’s body language. The same kinds of oddities in body language are present in many developmentally disabled people.
    And I’ve been mostly mistaken for older, not younger. It really upsets me when the bus driver demands extra fare from me because he thinks I’m an adult, or men treat me like an attractive woman instead of a girl.

  18. And, btw, “she liked it; see?” is a classic defense used by rapists since the dawn of time — perhaps this *is* where our feminist allies can produce the best counter-action?

  19. about blind mannerisms… i always thought Ray Charles (becos you see him on tv, not like most nonfamous blind people) had an autistic-like thing, with the rocking. i am trying to remember my parents’ blind friends, people I used to know years ago… i think they had some non-standard mannerisms, too. do some people maybe not really worry about matching their facial expressions to what is standard, for example, because they were blind from an early age and didn’t see the other peoples’ facial expresions? whereas, as autistics, we might have bad proprioception about what our own faces are doing, which would be almost the opposite reason. (or it might not be natural to us to make the standard faces)…
    does this make any sense? i hope blind or visually impaired readers here could answer my question and i hope it is not rude or over-assuming or something. i am not even sure if the autistic reasons are correct, for that matter. i think i am often not sure what faces i am making, because sometimes students make comments about strange faces i am making, or think that my faces mean other things than what i meant by them.

  20. From what I’ve seen on the videos, your body language tends to stand out as abnormal, even when you’re not doing anything people would obviously associate with disabilities, such as flapping, rocking, or using a wheelchair.

    Beyond that, I think it’s the same prejudice as people have about obvious disabilities. I’ve had people assume complete strangers were my caretaker, because I was standing near them (for instance, next to them in line), and I use crutches (and being able to speak without full use of my legs is apparently a rare and exotic skill in some people’s eyes). It may be more of an NT thing, because NTs are more likely to unconsciously read body language, and arrive at a conclusion of “different” or “weird” without thinking why they concluded that.

  21. I’ve also gotten in trouble for speaking to people directly rather than to staff. It annoys some staff. Particularly the control-freak kind.

    I remember a guy coming into my apartment and leaning on something of mine, and the staff (there were two) told him not to do that, and I told him “It’s fine, you can touch anything you want,” and the staff got really mad and tried to insist on what he could and could not do in my house. (He clearly needed to grab things for stability to avoid falling over, this wasn’t a “random touching for no reason” thing.)

  22. Strangely enough, I got the opposite effect at times at university. People in restaurants would often assume that I was looking after my best friend and sometimes ignored her until she spoke up. This was despite me have Asperger’s Syndrome, she being both neurotypical and three years older than me and usually arranged the restaurant trips in the first place. (Both of us were students, so the “staff/client” dynamic wasn’t in play). Only in places where she’d placed a pre-order beforehand (she has an Asian name and looks the part) did this not occur.

    My theory is that people automatically look for the one who looks like the group leader. When total strangers are seen in a group, often the most extroverted one seems to get tagged as “the leader”, whether they are or not. Others often get ignored, the ignorance being to the proportion of power that appears to exist.

    Since extroversion is conveyed through social confidence, certain items of body language and a few other things I can’t get my head around, this would go a long way towards explaining your experiences. Especially when you are with staff and you are used to staff holding power. NTs seem to be quite good at detecting power imbalances, and less good at balancing them once they are seen (to put it politely).

  23. Yeah. My best friend and I have taken to stiffing a particular waiter for sport; every time we go to his restaurant for lunch he only speaks to me and puts the bill on my side of the table.

    Interesting thing is, my friend is usually the one with the money. ; )

    I’d say she and I have about equal “assertiveness” vibes; and, in fact, I’d probably say that she comes off as more in control than I do. But she’s black. And that’s the *only* factor she and I can determine is at play when the waiter freezes her out. And it’s funny; bleeding heart that I am, I always feel bad that we don’t leave the guy a decent tip. But he still hasn’t figured it out — *she’s* the one paying!

    Similar situations occurred in the past with a friend who uses a wheelchair; I for some reason quite regularly got the bill placed under *my* nose — and that friend is male, so that particularly enraged me — and, again, it sure as hell wasn’t understandable for the waiter to do that either. But I’m trying to show contrast with the situation with my female friend — in her case I’m quite certain the presumption has nothing to do with body language or assertiveness or anything besides just “looking” a certain way. We can only conclude that that waiter just doesn’t like black folks. The notion that certain folks aren’t worth acknowledging *at all* doesn’t lie too far away from outright hate.

  24. And yeah, Amanda, that thing about the guy in your house reminds me of situations in which somebody’s kid is rude to a stranger and it’s embarrassing to the stranger, who, after the kid gets reprimanded by the parent, says, “Oh, it’s okay,” ’cause there’s really nothing else to say, and the parent insists on making the kid apologize anyway ’cause it’s the appropriate thing to do and you shouldn’t let your kid get away with something that’s wrong just because a stranger doesn’t want to reprimand you. Meaning, the staff in question were behaving as though they were parents and the person you were talking to was a misbehaving kid, and further, they took it upon themselves to “teach him a lesson” and not “let him get away with” his “misbehavior” like they would a child.

  25. Adding to what Evonne says above:

    What makes it worse, above and beyond treating this visitor as if he were a child:

    1. They did not account for the fact that this guy apparently NEEDED to hold on to something. If there honestly was a good reason for him to avoid touching certain things or putting too much weight on them, and not just them trying to cling to power (which is what this sounded like), they could have offered him a seat or explained the problem. (Eg, “oh, that counter isn’t as strong as it looks, it might not take your weight for long” or whatever) they shouldn’t have prohibited him from one approach to meeting his needs (to lean on something) without some alternative.

    2. This was Amanda’s home, so she’s the only person with a right to say who can and cannot touch or lean on her things. It wasn’t the staff’s place to decide or lecture, and abominable that they overrode her clear wishes. So they weren’t only treating the visitor as a child but also Amanda.

  26. I’m boycotting a particular restaurant because they treated my blind friend badly when I went there with him.

    The real kicker? His credit card has his picture on it, and the waitress handed it to me.

    He’s blind, not stupid, not incompetent, and not deaf. Sheesh. And not needing someone else to do his talking for him.

    There are a few other restaurants we’ve been to together where he’s treated like a competent adult who just happens to need someone to read the menu to him, and we go back to those.

  27. I’m deaf. If I boycotted every restaurant in which waiters seemed to assume that me being deaf means no one can talk to me (hello? Ever hear of lipreading? Or writing things down instead? Or just TRYING instead of freezing? Apparently, for many waiters, the answer is no) then I’d never eat at ANY restaurant when accompanied by hearing people. UNLESS it were an exclusively Spanish speaking restaurant and no one else in my group knew Spanish. Judging by one experience I had in Costa Rica, waiters do manage to overcome their fear of talking to deaf people right quick when they realize that the deaf person is the only person in the group who knows how to communicate with them.

    If you’re able to actually find restaurants that still treat your blind friend as an equal even when accompanied by a sighted person, then maybe waiters must have an easier time adjusting to blind customers than deaf customers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s