[For people who don’t know, the term allistic means anyone who is not autistic.]
I’ve learned a lot recently after asking allistic people on twitter what they truly want to hear from other people when allistic people say “be honest.” In short, most of them want a very specific “type” of honesty. At least, neurotypical people may consider this honesty.
Depending on the context, a neurotypical person may want the sugar-coated truth. Other times, they may want more honesty or honesty without the sugarcoating if you’re a close friend. Other times, they want to be supported and encouraged, or reassured about a choice they made.
I’ve learned that most of the time, neurotypical people don’t really want honesty. They want curated honesty. They don’t want the first thoughts that come into your head. They want a rephrased “nice” version, which to me, changes the interpretation of those real thoughts. So to me that’s not honesty.
To allistic people: If you don’t want non-sugarcoated honesty – do not say “be honest” because that’s clearly not what you want. Just tell us what you want, with your words. You can utilize phrases such as “Be supportive please” or “be gentle,” and honestly, it’s a lot more honest!
Even while discussing this topic with allistic people, they act as if there is some clearly stated, obvious boundary of what is “offensive” or what is “brutally honest” and what is a better version of honesty. This notion of clear boundaries between those things can be thrown out the window entirely due to allistic people’s negative interpretations of autistic body language and tone of voice.
We, autistic people, don’t get the benefit of the doubt when we say the same exact words an allistic person says, because our body language may be interpreted negatively. To tell autistic people just to “not say anything offensive” is like asking a cat to do advanced calculus. The idea that we know what will be interpreted as offensive by non-autistic people is laughable.
How Lack of Honesty Can Hurt Autistic People
The worst part is that this dynamic, this difference in the definition of honesty, also affects autistic people’s well-being! This idea that non-autistic people must be nice at all times, even if it’s not 100% (or even 50%) truthful, actually is a detriment to autistic people who prefer honesty, even brutal honesty at times.
The number of times I have heard non-autistic people tell me “good job!” or “you did great!” when we both objectively knew that I didn’t made me feel even worse about myself! I’d rather people acknowledge what happened because I will interpret their attempt to disguise their true feelings as infantilizing and actually frustrating, as if I am not emotionally mature enough to handle the real truth, or as if the adults in my life are hoping I go along with the illusion, and refuse to ever acknowledge that it is, in fact, an illusion. It’s similar to walking up to me and telling me the sky is green. I know that’s not true, so why are you saying that to me? What does that accomplish? Because it sure doesn’t make me feel better.
When I wanted real feedback on something and wanted to know if someone thought something was good, I knew I could never trust what allistic people told me. Even before I knew I was autistic, or that certain family members may be autistic, I knew who I could go to to get an honest opinion – and guess what, it wasn’t the non-autistic people!
When Compliments Lower Self-Esteem
Neurotypical comments disguised as compliments actually make me feel worse about myself because I know what they actually mean, and they just refuse to say the brutal honesty part out loud. For example, a neurotypical person saying “I don’t think that outfit suits you,” in my mind, is the same thing as them saying “You look really bad in that outfit” because they are constantly softening their words compared to what they actually think. When neurotypical people say something to me, they’re often making it sound a lot “better” than what they think, or what they say behind other people’s backs.
So when an allistic person compliments me, most of the time I don’t know if it’s genuine. To be on the safe side, I simply don’t believe them especially if I don’t agree. They are more likely to err on the side of being nice to not hurt someone’s feelings than give me the real truth.
I’m not sure if non-autistic people will understand this, but these kind of “nice” critiques or even compliments definitely have hurt my self-esteem, especially growing up. When you know someone is hiding the honest truth from you, it’s hard to believe anything they say especially when it’s positive or spun as a positive. If I am specifically asking for people to be honest, I’d rather know exactly what they thought than have them rephrase it to something that might seem more palatable, but actually doesn’t convey the meaning that’s in their head. It makes me wonder what they really think of me if the words they always speak are not what they think.
Who’s Right? What Does Honesty Mean?
Of course there are drawbacks to trying to be 100% honest all the time. Of course there are drawbacks to trying to be 100% nice (and therefore only 50% honest) all the time. I’m not saying one is better than the other, or should be considered better than the other.
However, expecting autistic people to know when it’s okay to truly “be honest” without hurting an allistic person’s feelings, when allistic people are specifically asking us to be honest, is simply unfair and even ableist.
And again, non-autistic people seem to forget that in our current society, being autistic is a disability. I do not have the foresight to even know what may be considered offensive to a non-autistic person (and no, I’m not talking about direct attacks or outright bigotry or name-calling). I literally don’t know, when I have thoughts and consider speaking them, if non-autistic people will have their feelings hurt, because for me those words wouldn’t upset me.
What’s Real vs. What’s Nice (and Socially Acceptable)
Most of the time, I would rather know what’s real and what’s the truth than live in a sugarcoated reality of the truth. The truth actually gives me comfort. I’d rather know that I’m bad at something than have people tell me I’m good and only realize how terrible I was on my own years later.
A message to non-autistic people:
If you don’t want honesty, please stop using the phrase “be honest.”
Please say “I need emotional support” or “Please be gentle” instead.
Your honesty is different than ours and no, we’re not trying to hurt your feelings when you specifically ask us to “be honest.” So please just be clearer with your words.
And if you want “sugarcoated honesty” explicitly, you can let us know that too. It would be very helpful to know. It’s not that autistic people refuse to provide sugarcoated honesty, it’s that non-autistic people refuse to ask for it. So make sure to ask for it, if that’s what you want. We will try our best to accommodate you. So please accommodate us, too.