[CW: ableism/NT misinterpretation]
Autistic people get run over, socially speaking, especially in new environments or with new people (and unfortunately it can be with people you know, too). I’ve been yelled at at least three times by medical professionals, and also by a patient because I failed to close the door within one second of entering. I then tried to apologize to them, and was yelled at again, because I should know that if someone is wearing earbuds, that they don’t want to be talked to. I was yelled at by a medical professional for simply existing in a space that they told me to wait in (I was literally standing completely still, not doing anything – they yelled and asked why I was standing there). I didn’t get the results that I was told I would get, because they told me to leave. I similarly got yelled at on the phone for trying to book an appointment, due to them misinterpreting my tone of voice, when asked to repeat myself louder. I was so anxious, I was worried that the woman actually didn’t give me the appointment because the phone call escalated so much, to her yelling “do you want an appointment or not?!” I asked a simple question that I wanted an answer to, and she failed to give me one. I was very anxious when I went because I was worried I didn’t actually have an appointment. I was lucky I did.
And honestly, I believe non-autistic cis men are just as likely to do these things, but all of these encounters have been from non-autistic cis women.
Though I know I have my own biases and judgement myself, non-autistic cis women judge people a lot. I’m only referring to cis women because that’s who I know about, and who I’ve been around the most (at least in real life). Because I’ve seen women judge people so easily and so quickly and I don’t know how they move past all of the assumptions they make in order to make such a judgment. In general, we are taught to judge people. I’ve been in groups of people where I ask “but maybe they were just doing X, and they’re actually not trying to be defensive?” and many of these comments get brushed aside as “speculating,” while judgments are thought of as some kind of great analytical power they have.
I feel as if I’m often the only one trying to find the reason behind the way someone acted. And honestly, I think it’s because I’ve had to live in a neurotypical society as an autistic person. This comes with a lot of extra work, and a lot less social privilege.
The Inoffensive Autistic
I don’t think we realize just how much autistic people have to work to make themselves look/sound/exist as less defensive, less passive aggressive, less submissive/pushover, less cold, less arrogant, less entitled, less heartless, less “robotic,” etc., regardless of how we actually feel of course. We don’t feel any of those things. We’re not trying to be those things. But everytime I say something when I’m absurdly tired (like, “your voice is stabbing my eardrums”) , or when I’m in a ridiculous amount of pain, or when I’m mentally foggy from keeping myself together all day, this is what I have to deal with – apologizing is my default. Being the submissive, meek, quiet person is my default. Because if you play that role, then maybe they’ll stop yelling at you, or maybe they’ll go away, or maybe you can leave, or maybe – just maybe – non-autistic people will have a little empathy for you. Then maybe – just maybe – they’ll accommodate you.
Tips for Being a Successful “Neurotypical” Autistic (/sarcasm)
What my life was (and still sometimes is) like as an autistic masker, for survival:
- I’m startled constantly, and have to deal with random pain daily that most people don’t notice or even hear
- Keep facial expressions in check, don’t grimace or blink too much
- Don’t look where the sound was because that looks weird and people will wonder what you’re doing
- Make sure to look at the sound if it’s really loud and everyone else can hear it, then you’re okay to complain about it. If you don’t look at it, that also seems strange.
- If someone is talking far away from you, don’t act like you heard their conversation, because most people don’t hear that well, and would also assume you were trying to eavesdrop, even if you’re just answering a question they were going to ask you later, or trying to be helpful.
- If you haven’t talked for over 2 seconds in a conversation, the silence is deemed awkward, and you need to start a conversation topic before the other person thinks it’s awkward and talks about something you don’t know anything about. Talk about the weather. Ask them how they are. Back up topics – tell them that you’re a student, or ask them what they do.
- Make a facial expression like you’re half-laughing so it looks like you’re smiling.
- Nod a lot.
- Say “oh yea, totally!” and agree with whatever they say because you don’t have the verbal and working memory capacity to respond in a filtered neurotypical manner that wouldn’t ever be misinterpreted
- Keep doing all of that. They’re still talking because you didn’t start a different subject.
- Make sure to properly align with their emotions, and use scripted lines if they’re sad so you don’t sound insensitive by simply stating something neutral or factual. Make sure to tilt your voice when you say things like “wow that’s awful” so it doesn’t sound monotone and “cold.”
- Make sure to agree even when you don’t agree with them at all and you wish you could say something without making them assume that you’re being rude or defensive.
- Make sure you’re looking near their eyes.
- You can look at the floor for 3 seconds, but then you have to look back up, especially towards their face. If you look down or away for more than 4 seconds they’ll think you weren’t paying attention.
- If you don’t respond to them after every 2 sentences, then within 5 seconds, they’ll think you don’t understand something, or you weren’t paying attention, so make sure to use those scripts!
- say “mhm” and “yep” and “interesting” for extra emphasis if you’re out of words.
- Make sure you don’t sound “defensive” or “aggressive” even if you’ve never been offended by anyone else that sounds like that, and even if you’re not aggressive, but passionate or excited about something.
- Make sure to talk slower if you are stressed out, otherwise people will think you are mad or upset when you are not.
- Make sure not to get too excited about something, otherwise the other person may think that you’re arguing with them or attacking the thing that you’re complimenting them on, because it doesn’t sound right when you verbalized it with your mouth compared to when you thought it in your head.
- Remember that when in doubt, (which you always are), apologize, even if it’s totally unnecessary but you’re not sure if it is, or you’re not sure if you talked too long and didn’t notice they made very very very subtle hints to show they were bored. If they ask if you need anything, like in healthcare, always say no, and always say that you’re doing fine and nothing’s bothering you even if you’re in pain. Otherwise you’ll have to explain further when you can’t, or they’ll just gaslight you anyway and assume you’re not in much pain, cause you’re not making a “big deal” out of it.
- Oh, and just in general, never show them how anxious and overwhelmed you are, no matter how anxious and overwhelmed you are.
That list up there – that’s not all of it. That’s just when I’m having a conversation with one person. There are so many other factors to consider. It’s quite frustrating when neurotypical people say “well we all mask” or “well everyone has to mask at work” because it is not nearly to the same extent that we have to.
Yes, in many places, for many autistic people, we have to. It’s survival. For most of my life I was masking 12 out of 15 hours a day. I am privileged and lucky enough to not have to mask 24/7 as I am in a relatively safe and supportive environment, and as a white woman, am much less likely to have interactions with the police if I do something “weird.” A lot of people do not have this privilege or supportive environment at work or at home.
The “Neurotypical” Neurotypical
They go about their day with underlying subconscious social processing, while projecting their social intentions through their face, and assuming everyone else totally understands their own social intentions. They also think they can read emotions really well for all other people, even if they’re still projecting their own emotions onto them. They often use The Golden Rule as a guide to treat other people, even if it’s not what the other person actually wants to be treated like, or if the other person is uncomfortable, or even if the other person voices being uncomfortable. They often think that you cannot be compassionate if you do not completely understand someone else’s point of view, all while continuing to ignore autistic body language and assuming that the person is completely fine, without actually asking them or listening to them. They very much do not like to listen to other people, especially if it is against their own interests, or against what they would want, because other people can’t want different things than them, right?!
Neurotypical people don’t spend much time learning about non-neurotypical people, and assume that if they cannot make sense of someone’s behavior, it is because they are [insert judgment here], rather than doing the work to actively listen or try to understand why the other person behaved, said, or acted a certain way. They also love to ask questions that seem quite intrusive, and think that good intentions make up for treating other people with less respect or thought than themselves, and that if they didn’t think they did anything wrong, they really shouldn’t be held accountable or have to worry about it. They have more important things to do, right?
Oh, and if you’re bothered by sound, you have no problem speaking up about it, even if it is something out of someone else’s control, such as a crying baby. If sound bothers you or hurt your ears, you complain about it a lot and let everyone know it is happening, because it is unusual to you, rather than a common occurrence. You don’t understand how a public space can be inaccessible to you daily, as that doesn’t happen to you.
This description is an absurdly vast generalization. It puts a whole bunch of people into one category and says “this is what neurotypical people are.” Frustrating, right? Not every neurotypical does these things. However, I have come across a few who have.
It doesn’t feel good to be generalized like that and grouped in with neurotypical who don’t treat autistic people (diagnosed or undiagnosed) with respect, right?
Unfortunately, this is what the DSM does to autistic people. And there’s still this giant assumption that autistic people don’t have empathy, or that if they don’t show emotion, they must not have any. I hope this post explains that this is a wrong assumption to make for every single autistic person, as I’ve spent most of my life, and 110% of my autistic effort, trying not to make other people feel bad. And I think I’m going to try to not feel guilty about my existence anymore.
An Aside on Privilege
Masking and survival:
I will say that at an airport, I was so exhausted from socializing that I nearly didn’t “pass” the test for checking IDs. A very intimidating security man started to ask how I was. I was completely overwhelmed and couldn’t make eye contact with him. I found it weird that he wasn’t talking to my husband at all. He asked where I was flying to and I stared at the floor and said “uhh..” and couldn’t access the word for 30 seconds. Then he stared at me and I tried to look at his eyes (I knew something was weird, but didn’t know what). Looking really hurt, he was really close to me. I looked back down at the floor. At some point I got my verbal cognition back enough to say “Oh sorry, it’s just been a really exhausting trip! We just went to X!” and his stone façade dropped and he let us through security. Only five actual minutes after the encounter did I realize (after my husband told me) that he was worried I was on drugs or being trafficked.
Not masking has real consequences, and I don’t think we would’ve been okay if my husband or I were not white. That is the closest I’ve come to dealing with authority, which means I am very much privileged. In many places in the world, autistic masking is literal survival.