Note: If you link to this post, the cut won’t be there, so be sure and let people know that if they don’t want to read spoilers for the latest My Little Pony series then they shouldn’t follow the link.
When I hear someone describing themselves as “good with” an entire category — “good with animals”, “good with autistic people”, “having a way with cats” — it immediately sends warning flags up. (Not absolute warning flags, but certainly warning flags.)
But I never expected a children’s cartoon to give such a good example of why. (I’ve had a stomach virus lately and for awhile children’s cartoons were the only thing I could follow.)
The following is a series of clips from an episode of the latest My Little Pony series. They deal with a character named Fluttershy. Fluttershy is a normally sweet, soft-spoken, sensitive person whose talent is basically “being good with animals”, whether butterflies or bears. (Each pony has an innate talent or affinity that they discover as they are growing up. Once they discover it, a symbol magically appears on their butt. Fluttershy’s symbol is a bunch of butterflies.) Given this characterization, I never expected them to show the dark side of believing oneself “good with animals” to the degree she’s normally portrayed as.
Don’t click on the cut unless you want spoilers for a fairly late episode in the series. I’ve done my best to transcribe it since there’s no captions. The clips show only Fluttershy’s parts of the episode. Some parts may not make sense without context, but the basic gist of it is pretty clear after awhile. And I have to say — some of that is barely, if at all, exaggerated from interactions I’ve had with people who believed themselves “good with autistic people,” “good with nonverbal people,” or whatever else in that vein they believed. I’ll write more about that after the transcript, because I don’t want what I say to give too much away about the episode.
At the gala
In the garden
I am going to see them all
All the creatures
I’ll befriend them at the gala
All the birdies
And the critters
They will love me big and small
We’ll become good friends forever
Right here at the gala
Your dreams will come true
Right here at the gala
Oh my, a meadowlark!
[Someone else whistles a few notes]
Fluttershy: I think she’s calling to me, it’s exactly what I wished for!
[Fluttershy sings the same notes]
[Someone else whistles the same notes]
[Fluttershy whistles the same tune a little lower in pitch]
[Someone else whistles the original notes]
Fluttershy: My little meadowlark is right around this bend!
[Around the corner is a brown pony with a tall hat]
[Brown pony whistles the same notes]
Fluttershy: Was that you?
Brown pony: Yep! I love whistling while I work.
[Brown pony whistles the same notes]
Fluttershy (sounding upset): Oh. Yes. Well, excuse me…
Fluttershy: Oh! I see a [toco!?] toucan, and a spider monkey. And oh! Is that a wallawoo?
[The animals rush away in an instant]
Fluttershy: Oh Fluttershy, you’re such a loudmouth.
Fluttershy has set up a drop trap with a carrot as bait.
Fluttershy: I just have to be more bold like Twilight says.
[Fluttershy backs away from the trap, pulling the very long rope with her towards the exit to the garden.]
Fluttershy (to animals, in an odd voice): I’m so sorry to have scared you, my friends. You can all come out!
[Fluttershy quickly ducks behind a bush with the rope still in her teeth]
[Some sounds are heard, and Fluttershy pulls the rope]
Fluttershy: It’s okay, I promise not to hurt you, I just want to be your —
[The brown horse from before is munching on the carrot]
Brown horse: Mmm. Sounds good to me!
[This whole scene is set to music someone else is singing, similar to the hokey pokey.]
LYRICS: You stomp your whole self in
You stomp your whole self out
You stomp your whole self in
And you stomp yourself about
[This whole time, Fluttershy is throwing herself at various animals, who run away before she can touch them and can be seen hiding in trees and bushes.]
LYRICS: You do the pony pokey and you give a little shout
Fluttershy: COME OUT!!!!
LYRICS: That’s what I’m talking about
Fluttershy: I’ll catch you yet my pretties. Oh yes. As soon as one of you little birds, or monkeys, or bears touches this net, you’ll be mine! MINE!!! [Evil, shrieking laughter.]
[Fluttershy trips her own trap, which pulls her up into a net. A rabbit comes up to investigate.]
[This is inside some sort of huge room at the gala.]
Twilight: Well… it can’t get any worse.
[The entire building starts rumbling and shaking. People look really confused.]
[The doors burst open and a huge bunch of animals from the garden come rushing in, terrified and trying to get away from Fluttershy]
[Fluttershy appears in the doorway after all the animals have come in. She looks worn out and angry.]
Fluttershy (words increasing in volume and anger): You’re… going to LOVE ME!!!!!!!!!
[The various animals run away.]
Over the years, I’ve had many interactions with people who either had some specific category of people that they had an emotional investment in believing they were “good with”, or who generically had a “thing” for being “the only one who could get through to those Hard-To-Reach People ™”. (Just like girls who fantasize about being the only person who could ride a certain horse.)
It didn’t really matter if I considered myself to be in their category of choice. It only mattered that they put me in that category. So it wasn’t just “good with autistic people”, it could also be “low functioning autistic people”, “nonverbal people”, “severe/profound people”, whatever. Generally they wouldn’t pay attention when I rejected the category in question anyway.
These interactions rarely ended well. Unless I could remove myself from the situation before it deteriorated into a state of complete FUBAR. Because people who have an emotional investment in believing themselves able to understand a certain kind of person better than anyone else, don’t take it well when confronted with the idea that their imaginary version of the person in front of them is not real. (Which is one reason that I always find it suspect that such people so often choose categories of people who are less able to stand up for themselves or communicate in words at all.)
It would go something like this (this is a mishmash of several people I’ve encountered, but all specific stories are true):
I would meet someone who believed herself good with people she referred to as “autistic”, “low functioning”, “nonverbal”, “severe/profound”. She would put me in this category. Potentially against my wishes. Then she would begin to interpret my behavior.
She would wait until I was too shut down to use words, and then bask in the attention she would get for telling people what she believed I was thinking and feeling. She especially enjoyed contradicting what other people had to say about me. Even if what they had to say was true. She liked telling people that they were approaching me wrong and that only she could understand me well enough to know how to approach me.
Meanwhile, I would be so flooded with sensation that I could not tell until later what she was saying, and unable to react or leave the room or anything. This left me wide open to her. She would positively glow. Meanwhile, every word she spoke, every movement she made, caused me immense pain and drained me of what little energy I had left.
She was immensely good at figuring out how to manipulate me. One time, my body was so out of my control that I was running around my apartment as fast as I could, jumping on and off the furniture, slamming into walls, waving my arms around, and making weird whooping noises. I was coming dangerously close to either dropping from exhaustion or having an asthma attack. I kept trying to signal for her to help me but it took awhile for her to notice, despite her supposed heightened understanding of any and all people like me. Finally, she understood and came over to help me.
But she didn’t just help me in an ordinary way a person might have helped me in a situation like that. She put her hands up in a way that she knew would kick in my echopraxia. My hands flew up to match hers. She pressed her hands into mine. I continued trying to run but she pressed back. The pressing back triggered another automatic response to press her back. Then she made this sound, I don’t remember what it was. But it triggered me into a mode I call Cute Client Mode, and I giggled a childlike giggle while she got that sense of glowing condescension about her.
Underneath, I felt trapped and violated. There were ways to help me when things like that happened, but she’d chosen a way that would satisfy her need to substitute manipulation for understanding.(*) I felt like my body was just her puppet. And she was using me to feel good about herself. I don’t know if it’s even possible to convey this to people who don’t have certain experiences,(**) but I’m sure trying.
Other times, she would deliberately drive me into overload, shutdown, or uncontrollable crying. She would then declare that this was an amazing emotional breakthrough. She said that I was connecting with her more at these times than any other. She was oblivious to the amount of pain she caused me in order to create these so-called connections.
When I was able to contradict her opinions of me, though, things didn’t go too well. It ranged from her acting a bit put out, to her screaming at me at the top of her lungs. Or sending me long emails about how “hurt” she felt that I would “attack” her by saying that she was wrong about my thoughts or feelings. It got really confusing and barely anything she said at these times was rational.
At some point, though, she started getting really sick of me not allowing her to pass off her interpretations of my thoughts and feelings as true. At this point, a number of different things could happen depending on who she was.
There were the people who told me I just didn’t know how I really thought or felt.
There were the people who would bluntly say that they understood autistic people, and if they didn’t understand me then I wasn’t autistic.
There were the people who would accuse me of attacking them or being cruel to them in various ways. (For doing nothing other than saying how I really felt.)
There was the person who believed that she could understand certain kinds of autistic people because she supposedly was such a person. She started telling me that my daily living skills were much worse than mine. She had lived on her own for over a year without assistance, and remained well-fed, her house clean and neat, her body washed and otherwise taken care of, and all kinds of other things that I could never do (or never sustain longer than a week at best) even when I first moved out on my own (and had a lot of skills I don’t have now). But this was part of her attempts to claim that I was actually “higher functioning” than she was, and this was why she couldn’t understand me.
Some people would just start doing a long string of passive-aggressive bullshit tactics to try to manipulate me further into doing what they wanted.
Some would enlist other people they knew to talk endlessly about how wonderful they were and how I ought to be honored that they were “helping” me. And that I was just a little ungrateful shit if I didn’t want the “help”. (Professionals of this type pull that kind of thing all the time. You can get a lot of recognition for being able to manipulate disabled people.)
Some people would haul off and physically attack me.
If I instead tried to avoid the person, or told them to stop trying to communicate with me, they’d rarely actually listen. I totally identify with the animals who ran shaking into the trees to escape Fluttershy’s attempts to pounce on them. I’d find them tracking me down when I went outside (no matter where I went), knocking on my door, calling on the phone, sending me long emails, and otherwise just utterly refusing to allow me to get away from them. I wrote a poem about such people, that ended with me and Fey hiding under the bed to escape someone who believed themselves “good with autistic people” and “good with cats”, but who was utterly tortuous for either of us to interact with. And that’s not far off the mark.
Refusing to be manipulated has consequences when the person manipulating you is doing so to maintain a self-image that isn’t true. And many people who get their self-image from “being good with autistic people” (or with any other sort of people) are capable of acts of great cruelty to various kinds of people, in the name of maintaining the idea that they “have a way with” us.
Edited to add:
I completely forgot this part of the post, and I don’t have any clue how I forgot it, because it’s important.
There are situations where people truly do have a heightened understanding of each other. For instance, people who are very much like me tend to be able to read me very well, and I tend to be able to read them very well. But it’s very rare in my experience for people to want status or recognition for this ability. (Although I’ve had people try to give me status and recognition for it, but that’s a whole different story.) I can really only think of one example where I’ve seen that happen. And that ability to understand each other so well can be a really wonderful thing in a world where so few people understand us.
On the other hand, I’ve seen people who assume that, for instance, because they’ve been in the psych system, then they’ll totally be able to work in it without any power issues coming up. One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen of that was a community project run by and for people who are in the psych system. It was just assumed that they’d do a better job. But when I went there myself, I experienced all kinds of creepy power plays going on. If I couldn’t express myself in words, people would try and “translate” for me — and get it totally wrong, sometimes offensively so. When I found out that they sometimes committed people to mental institutions straight from that building, I freaked out so much that I ran behind a big television and crouched on the floor shaking. What followed was a long discussion by everyone else about how “low functioning” I was and how “unsafe” I made them feel. Mind you — I was reacting to an actual lack of safety (things that happen in mental institutions can kill me more easily than they kill most people, for instance my reactions to the most common drugs used), and they were talking about “feeling unsafe” because rather than talk detachedly about my feelings, I had the audacity to actually go and show them in my body. And that’s just one of many awful experiences I had there that meant I’d never go back. Meanwhile, to be there you couldn’t just drop in, the name of your psychiatrist had to be registered with them, and if you didn’t have a psychiatrist you were out of luck. I noticed many times that the place resembled the dayroom of a mental institution more than it resembled anything freeing or good. But they honestly believed that because it was run by “consumers” then it was better than the psych system. It makes me shudder just to think about it.
I have had experiences, where I needed someone to interpret my behavior when I was unable to express myself in words. I tend to use people who are disabled themselves, who are similar enough to me to be able to understand my behavior at least fairly well, and who have known me long enough to be able to predict my thoughts. And I’ve rarely had that work out badly — but that’s because it’s been my choice and nobody ever went on an ego trip about it.
So I’m not saying that such understanding can’t happen. I’m just saying that it can go very badly when it’s used wrong, or when it’s mostly self-delusion on the part of the person doing it.
(*) Many people in this position do that. They know how to manipulate disabled people, and they honestly and truly believe that this is what “understanding” is. Rather than it being more a knowledge of our physics than of our personhood. By physics I mean, like you know a ball will fall and then bounce when you drop it. She knew that if she made certain movements, my body would respond in certain ways. But she didn’t know me. Never. Not at all. Not even a little.
(**) That is… at times my body is barely, if at all, under my control. There are two ways that this can happen, but they feel very similar to me. One of them involves freezing in place, either totally immobilized or heavily slowed down. The other involves making a lot of motions that are not under my control at all. The thing the two have in common is that my body isn’t under my control. I often think of it as, sometimes my body’s “default state” is motionlessness. Other times, it’s motions I don’t intend. Sometimes, I am able to direct my body, no matter which one of those is happening. But when I cannot direct my body, whether it’s moving or not just depends on which of the two default states is happening.
Anyway, sometimes even when I can’t do something on purpose, I can do it if something triggers the action. Even at the best of time, I rely heavily on triggered actions. Most of the time, especially these days, a lot of these triggers are things that I either set up myself, or have in advance directed other people to set up for me. So while there are plenty of ways actions can still be triggered that I don’t want (such as in the video where I go into the kitchen and end up “pulled” to various spots and manipulating objects when al I’m trying to do is boil a tea kettle), a lot of the triggers are helpful ones that I use in order to be able to do much of anything at all. (I also use triggers for things like memory and words. Otherwise I can barely if at all remember or write things. But if I use triggers, I can write long complex things and remember things in more detail than most people.)
Anyway, the flipside of all that is that if someone knows all the wrong things about how to trigger my actions, they can control how I behave. They use this ability to control and predict in various ways, but none of them are good for me. They use it to convince other people that they understand me really well. Sometimes they convince themselves as well, and are doing this entirely to inflate their egos and gain status among other people. Other times they have more sinister motives. But no matter what their motives, it’s one of the most extreme kinds of violation I’ve ever encountered. And I’ve encountered a lot. It’s like watching someone else drive my body. And knowing that they will get a lot of praise from other people for violating me in this way. And it seems like they think they own me or something, and I’m just there to serve their egos.
But I’m lucky in that I sometimes have the ability to control my body enough to wrest myself away from such people and contradict their opinions of me. There’s many people who never have this degree of control over their bodies, and if such a person targets them they’re stuck with it.