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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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Autistic Adult Phobias about Asking for Things
--On Social Rules of Polite Discourse
and Raised Toilet Seats

Roger N. Meyer Copyright © 1998


[This article contains an explanation for special terms found in Stephen Nowicki and [This article is based on a response to a writer on Martijn Dekker's InLv later posted on the St. John's University ASPERGER listserv. The writer expressed frustration about her difficulty in asserting herself in public settngs. She was especially concerned about self-advocacy with others who "should" know her better because of her long association with them. The discussion first arose when the writer expressed outrage that the autistic men in her life still left the toilet seat up.]

Is there a possibility that the more you "know" a person, and he/she accepts you, the less sure you feel about your own self-worth? When we are in control through maintaining distance from someone, or relating to them only through formulae and well-rehearsed scripts, we are not as vulnerable to feeling hurt or rejected.

I speak for myself only here. In the past, this was the one thing that made me more conscious than ever in asking folks for things, or expressing my needs. I was so fearful of rejection because I could not believe they had accepted me, that the closer we got, the more shaky my self-esteem got. For every self-revelation, I felt increasingly vulnerable.

Funny, one would think the reverse would happen, but it didn't.

With my AS diagnosis a year old, I now feel more accepting of my own reactions to other people, and more understanding of their reactions to me.. It's as though with the diagnosis, I am able to take a few steps back from a developing relationship and regularly test my suppositions by checking in with the other person more often. For example, I know I talk too much. Before, I used to really think it was the other person's problem. I really couldn't appreciate the value of reciprocal conversation, or know how to repair a conversation gone bad. I knew I needed to fix this, but couldn't fathom how.

I have a better inkling of what is going on now. Perhaps because of what I know about my own AS, I seem more aware of what I am doing when I do it. If the person doesn't know me at all, I will often preface our first conversation with a brief statement about what I sometimes do when talking. Even this amount of advance preparation for the other person allows both of us to know that something may come up that one of us is more aware of than the other. When "it" happens, I then feel more comfortable in my recognition of the excess (usually after I have gone on way too long anyway), stop, ask the person's forgiveness, and ask for help, either through their providing hand-signals or words, when I am "losing it" the next time. I've found most folks, at first, are reluctant to work with me in monitoring and correcting my behavior, but things get easier as I encourage them to do more of it. That way, whatever imbalance has developed, they feel more in control and empowered to stop the dynamic and restore it . Through their example, so do I.

I've never been reluctant to assert my needs. This may be a function of difference in the way boys and girls are socialized. Boys are more aggressive. Girls learn the softer, subtler skills of persuasion and negotiation much earlier than boys. But men can learn these skills. Many do. Autistic folks often benefit from direct, concrete instruction and training. That's true for both men and women.

While it is interesting to hear some psychologists and brain experts suggest that women's reluctance to assert themselves over their basic needs needs may be partly a function of a difference in the way their brains work, it still makes me uncomfortable to think that regardless of cause, an "essential difference" saddles women to a one-down position throughout their lifetime.

I don't think things remain static. I don't think people are incapable of making corrections or equalizing certain playing fields when there are known differences. The way things are balanced comes down to the difference in cultures, but all human culture makes allowances for differences as they tip scales in favor of the less powerful members in their midst. If power is denied in one venue, it is often accorded in another one. Otherwise men and women would have a difficult time of relating to one another at all. Granted, the arrangements may not seem all that equitable in the eyes of an observer from another culture, but somehow, persons of all sexes have found ways to get along with one another.

In a civilized society, I do not believe in social Darwinism. I also don't think women's reluctance to assert themselves is "target oriented", in that women may be more reluctant to express their needs to men than to women. They just do it differently. While they may remain more publicly reluctant to express their different take on matters than men, many women have found ways to do it that allow them to be quite self-actualized. Also, I do not think scientific findings about physical differences in the brains between men and woemn should justify maintaining a patently unfair distinction between them. Women and men have different anatomies, and just because men can pee comfortably (but messily) standing up doesn't mean that toilet seats aren't needed, or that men should leave them up. Being in a work or family environment where autistic men do not understand autistic women's basic needs is always a challenge. There is always the chance of a communication misfire. That's still no reason why the business of staying together cannot admit of negotiations that would make that co-survival easier for all parties.

Obviously, if culture can take an anatomical difference and foster an "accommodation" (God, how I hate that word in this context) that works, however badly, it should be capable of constructing social rules, conventions, and expectations that allow for full human expression, regardless of sex. That it doesn't do so is saddening. To me, even the issue of the toilet seat is telling: Even with its invention, women are demeaned when they always have to remind their autistic male partners to put the seat down. All the time. For men to continue to insist, "It's a guy thing," just doesn't cut it for me. No one should be allowed to excuse inconsideration towards -- indeed non-recognition -- of others with thoughts and words to that effect, regardless of how "acceptable that seems in their own subculture.

I do think that autistic people have a generally greater sensitivity to intolerance, disrespect, and social injustice. We are subject to so much of it that many of us have become hypersensitive to its expression in society. Sometimes that's good. Sometimes it's bad. But it is a fact that the more vocal among us aren't reluctant to hold our tongues in the face of obvious injustices.

Since this discussion arose on a closed-to-members autism listserv, the issue on this more public forum, involving non-spectrum sitting parents and caregivers, is a good one. By expressing our outrage at injustices, adults on the spectrum can share our concerns with adults who see the effects of intolerance "against" their own children expressed by authority figures in education and public social services.

I must admit that although I'm a special education advocate, I am still uncomfortable when persons speak of "disability."

There's another term I find awkward: "Accommodation." The term accommodation still reeks of patronizing of and "special" -- often highly stigmatic -- treatment of persons who are different.

"Equality" is also a beggar's term. What is wrong with equity or decency? Both terms have meanings which take them beyond the disarming effect of emphasizing differences rather than focusing on the human commonality of people. Equity and Decency do not, as terms alone confer a special status on anyone. They are values, not notions of rank, and they are universal human values at that. They're present in every human social system I know of. They can't be given; they simply are. Granted, each culture has a slightly different take, but every major language has terms with equivalent meaning, and the rule of law in modern societies operates from a basic valuation of human life.

Intolerance practiced by individuals on the autistic spectrum is no more excusable than intolerance displayed by others. It takes us longer to understand that others have a different take on things than we do. The point is, though, that we can learn to appreciate this fact. It may not fit our logic but the very process of becoming an adult demands that we recognize the logic system of others is due as much respect as our own idiosyncratic take on the world. Autism provides no excuse for the perpetuation of power plays and disrespect that many autistic adults mimic from their differently-brained, non-autistic peers.

In the end, autism is no excuse for bad manners. Manners can be learned. It may take us a bit longer to do it, but we aren't stupid nor are we unteachable. If we demand our place in the sun, we can learn to expect to have as much sand kicked in our face as anyone else on the beach. No one likes it, but everyone understands that by becoming a part of the beach crowd such assaults come with that territory.

Wanting to belong is supposed to be one of those markers distinguishing Asperger Syndrome folks from High Functioning Autistic Folks. Frankly, I don't believe that there's any defensible difference between both terms other than the spelling itself. Even if a difference is, in fact found, I'll always consider it specious. Why exclude folks from consideration on the basis of a label any more than on any other ground? Does the act of excluding others from respect or understanding somehow enoble the person?

I don't think so.

I think it demeans the excluder as much as it much as it shows what piteous attempts the arrogant among us still use to somehow call ourselves out for special consideration, for "special treatment."

It would be different for us if we didn't want to be included in the world of others. Then we could indulge in all kinds of excuses for our insensitivity, rudeness, and lack of awareness. However as long as we demand the ticket we should expect to observe the same rules as others along for the ride.



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This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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