Sunday 31 December 2017
Encounters with Autistic People - The Stages
I see this journey so often, in the encounters with others. In watching how they respond to my autistic family, friends, colleagues.
In this post, I'll talk about some (not all) of the typical encounters with me, as an autistic person who can appear entirely non-autistic. It's called 'masking'. A lifetime of being conditioned to put on an exhausting and demoralising outward appearance, to avoid acts of ostracism, hate or fear by others.
"I can do this!"
This is stage one of the encounter with me. "Ann is just like me. Perhaps she's just a bit shy, or a bit nervous. All she needs is a bit of encouragement, a few reassuring words, and she'll be as 'normal' as everyone else". Sometimes Stage One starts and ends with pity. "Oh the poor autistic person, we must treat them as a special angel and look after them..."
It is a well meaning start. Certainly better than some of the alternatives which have involved altogether scarier reactions. Yet, it's doomed to failure. It's only a matter of time before this well-meaning gambit fails. You see, I'm not like you, and that's OK. I run a different brain 'operating system'. My way of signalling happiness may look different to yours. My way of signalling distress looks different to yours. My way of communicating concern can come across as rude. Sooner or later, I run out of ways to mimic being-just-like-you, and will revert back to my natural body language, my natural lack of eye contact and flattened voice tone (which can sound rude or pedantic). Your brain is expecting me to be Just Like You, so it automatically registers this change as 'Ann is rude'. We now have all the ingredients we need for you to think I'm not interested in your friendship or fellowship, or are malicious, and we enter the second stage.
"No, Ann is Rude"
Still convinced that I'm perfectly capable of being just-like-you, you'll now convince yourself that it's my bad attitude that's at fault. "Ann is rude, Ann is nasty, Ann wants attention, Ann is trying to control people by saying she's exhausted or cannot cope with a sensory environment." I've had it all. It's why I and colleagues spend so much time training Psychiatrists and Psychologists on autism, and healthcare teams, and churches......, because it's so easy for people to entirely misunderstand a social diversity and think it's a 'personality disorder'. It's at least predictable, stage 2. But it's also deeply unfortunate. Because I'm not ever knowingly rude and nasty at all. To me, people are friends, and much loved by God.
Sometimes I'm afraid. Sometimes I'm so tired after a day of trying-to-cope that I cannot do more. Sometimes I'm reverting back to very normal autistic communication, which is factual, straightforward, without hidden meanings. But, once a powerful person decides I'm actually Rude, I'm scuppered, to use a nautical word. I will now find that I'm dropped as a friend, dropped as a colleague. I'll find that others are 'warned' about me, and that people compile careful lists that support their hypothesis of Rudeness, no matter how wrong that hypothesis is. People shun me, stare at me and walk past. It's scary, it's humiliating. It's awful.
Sometimes, this Stage 2 gets diverted into, "I can't do this", and the person trying to encounter me will simply run away.
Some make it to Stage 3.
"Ah, Ann is autistic, and that's OK"
You've no idea what a relief it is to find people who want to get to Stage 3. I'm blessed with a number of them. That dawning moment when they put down their List of Allegations, turn away from the conversations about 'How we should avoid that woman', and encounter the real me. Not the two their brain invented - the 'one-like-them', and the 'one-who-is-nasty'. But the real me. The one who treks for hours to help them, just because it matters to them. The one who prays with them in the darkest moments. The one who wants them to thrive. The one who cheers them on when they need it. The real person who is sometimes too tired to attend something, too exhausted to communicate well. The actual person who is sometimes very afraid and will run away from a situation that is too much to handle...but that doesn't mean hate. The person who is clear with them about what I need in order to function at all. Very little, but it's not negotiable. Autism isn't something I choose. It's hardwired in. A genuine difference, a diversity, and one that society disables with its blinding lighting and its deafening sound levels. My brain takes in too much, and will focus on different information to yours. Walking alongside one another, we can learn, we can laugh, we can love. We can complement each others' abilities.
If you are encountering any autistic person, watch out for finding yourself mired in Stage One and Stage Two. If that's where you are, perhaps take some time to do some reflecting. Because Stages One and Two are about you and your responses to difference, not about the autistic person you're encountering. We can't really help you through those...you have to take that deep breath and say, "Heck, I got that wrong - can we start again, please?" And -provided the behaviour of the person asking never got into dangerous territory [I've had death threats, threats of violence, etc] I'll say, "Yes, of course, my friend".
Because we're all on this planet together, and we all bring things of value to it. You are an important part of this world. So is everyone else. So are we.
Thank you for listening.
The picture shows part of a rainbow-coloured mosaic bowl in which some small cards have been placed. On them are words of kindness such as Gentle, Thoughtful, Love and Peace. Words which remind me of so many of my lovely autistic family, friends and colleagues...if allowed to live without pain and fear.