On Asperger’s and labeling

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I keep hearing this refrain from disabled people all the time: “[Insert disability] doesn’t define me!”  And the related, “I don’t want to be labeled!” I get it. If you’ve lost part of your body or the use of it, being thought of by people as nothing more than a person in a wheelchair or “the blind guy” or “that deaf girl” is horrible and limiting.

Clearly there is more to a person than a visible difference. That blind girl has talents, interests, and interpersonal relationships and that deaf guy has a job and a family. Being known or recognized by a superficial difference is unfair. They are not their disability. It doesn’t bear on who they are as an individual and has little to do with their personality.

But being on the autism spectrum is demonstrably different.

What I’ve learned as a person who only just “discovered” being disabled, even though my personal history is proof enough, is that I’ve been carrying labels around with me my entire life and I’ve got little to no control over this. Most of those descriptive labels are included in the word collage above, but a few are missing:

  • weirdo
  • slut
  • prude
  • retard
  • nerd
  • spaz
  • loser
  • wannabe

Notice anything about those words? Not only are they negative, but several are contradictory. For instance, some people conclude I’m a super-smart nerd and others talk to me like I’m a 5-year-old. It never made sense to me before, but then I figured out that context is everything. If I’m in my element, which is talking about subjects I love, I come off as erudite and insightful. When I’m out of my element, say in a casual social scene, I’m at a loss and my “retarded-ness” comes to the fore. I stay on the edges creeping out the people just trying to have a nice evening. When I do speak it’s by blurting lame shit, stuttering, and bringing up the very things I know I shouldn’t bring up. Like politics, religion, and book-learnin’.

The hard truth is that we ultimately have no control over what other people are going label us. And they will label us. All the politically correct lectures will do no good. Garbage humans are always going to be cruel and define us by our differences; especially the superficial, hyper-social hierarchy climbers. All they see is someone insignificant because we don’t play the same game or have a “killer instinct.”

And no matter how hard I try to pretend normalcy or whether I disclose my condition or not, eventually people will find me off-putting or simply hard to define. When your presentation and personality are difficult to place within a known social group or “type,” it makes people deeply uneasy and they won’t understand why. They begin to talk to one another about me or suspect me of I-don’t-know-what. People become stand-offish and wary, but increase their scrutiny of me. This makes me nervous and I seem even more strange. Things fall apart.

Negative feedback loops are a bitch.

I reside in the Uncanny Valley, but not because of how I look – because of how I behave. It’s the Uncanny Valley of Social Interaction. Unless you are on the spectrum and are therefore able to observe social skills, presentation, and language from an outsider’s perspective, you can’t see how proscribed and deeply embedded are the social skills of neurotypicals. Most of the time they can’t even put their finger on exactly what it is about me that disturbs them so much, but it is what it is.

And there are consequences.

By self-labeling as someone on the spectrum, at least they know what makes me seem odd. Of course, there are always the people who will discriminate or talk down to anyone on any part of the spectrum, but those assholes are going to be problematic sooner or later no matter what. I would rather people who are in my day-to-day life know why I’m invisibly different. It’s the speculating and confusion that makes people the most uneasy.

The unexplainable is disturbing.

Another reason I don’t mind being defined by my differences is that Asperger’s does determine most things about me. While a person isn’t their inability to walk or hear or see, everyone is in a very practical sense who their brains are, and mine is autistic. We are our neurology. Everything from my interests and personality traits to my life history and physical problems are encompassed by my diagnosis. That’s why person-first language isn’t important to me. “Autistic person” or “person with autism” adds up to the same treatment at the end of the day. Whether I want it to be true or not, people are going to define me by my Aspien traits – knowingly or unknowingly. And if they don’t know, they’ll come to wildly incorrect conclusions on their own.

Look at it this way: No one is up-in-arms about positive labels. No one is chanting, “I will not be defined by my awesome career as a rich CEO.” Or, “Being a mom has nothing to with who I am.” Or, “I don’t want to be labeled as an amazing lover.” These are the first things people say about themselves when they meet a new person. (Maybe not that last one.) The furor over “being labeled” or “defined by” something only applies to negative labels that people are ashamed of.

I’ve been embarrassed and embarrassing for my entire life – I’m not going to be ashamed anymore of who I am because of my unique mind and social presentation. We need to work on changing how people view the difference; not what words people use to describe it.

Here’s an excerpt from American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent that makes this point better than I can:

There’s a scene in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time, narrated by a teenager who could be described as having Asperger’s Syndrome . . . He’s on a school bus full of children on the way to the special school he attends, children who would have once been called “mentally handicapped,” “retarded,” or “mentally ill,” but who are now referred to as having “special needs.” The kids from the normal school run alongside the bus and scream “Special needs! Special needs!” The point is that stigma doesn’t accrue only to people who are given inherently stigmatic labels. Any label becomes stigmatic when it means you go to a different school or turn from a central hallway into the room set aside for children who have needs beyond or different from what other children have.

Now I’ve noticed in the entertainment and social media that referring to someone as “on the spectrum” or “having Asperger’s” is the new “retarded.” On one Netflix show, Big Mouth created by Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg, cartoon pubescent Andrew is looking for a seat on the bus and has this little exchange with his imaginary goad called the Hormone Monster:

Hormone Monster: Don't sit with the kid with the rolly backpack.
        He can't read social cues.
Caleb (to Andrew): Hi, you're looking at me.
       How tall are you? There's a monster next to you.
Hormone Monster: Eh, what's up, Caleb? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

I don’t think it’s meant to be blatantly insulting, and the other kids are being superficially nice to Caleb, but the implication that he’s unacceptable even as a seat-mate on the bus is still heartbreaking. However, I want to point out that Andrew is the only one who can see the Hormone Monster except for Caleb. Asperger’s always invites both insults and a strange admiration from neurotypicals. They reject us out of hand, but believe we have magical abilities and powers of perception. Caleb makes a few other appearances in subsequent episodes and he always comes out with the most astute and truthful (although blunt) observations.

Which is often true of us. So at least we’ve got that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How neurotypical women are a huge problem for autistic women

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What a friggin’ weirdo!

For most of my life I have been an observer of normal girls and women in order to figure out a way to not make them uncomfortable and perhaps even make a friend or two. I typically fail at this.

 

Most autistic women, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, have the same problems with neurotypical women: they don’t like us and find us confusing and very annoying. This results in bullying, gossip, and subsequent shunning. You become a pariah and a ghost at the same time.

I’ve always been the first to admit that, whether one can help it or not, it’s not cool to make other people uncomfortable. Annoying is annoying. This is a main reason autistic people isolate themselves. After so many failed attempts at forming connections with peers, we give up and would rather avoid the criticism and pain. But we need a supportive network of relationships and validation just like any other human, even if it’s more difficult for us.

Around the turn of the century, I thought I had finally met a group of women who would accept or at least tolerate me. While some of them liked me, others in the group, let’s call them the “Gin Tuesday Ladies,” were less enthused about me being included in their boozy gatherings. No matter how hard I try to be normal and engage with NT women, I never get it quite right, I inadvertently say things that are inappropriate, I trample their boundaries, and my reactions and interests are not acceptable. I don’t get them any more than they get me. Eventually, I’ll do something that is either misconstrued or a deal-breaker and it hurts horribly every fucking time.

facepalm2
Dammit – not again.

Most spectrum women have the same problems as I do with normie women and girls.  When I began reading about the consequences of oppression and the gender expectations applied to women, the reasons for this sad pattern began to come into focus.

It’s no big secret that little girls and little boys are socialized differently. The result of this is that men define themselves by what they are good at and the content of their character; women are defined by their relationships and who they are on the surface – both physically and socially. Aspie women are amazingly accurate observers of typical females. This increased ability to “figure out” how to behave and show empathy is NOT because our neurology is significantly different from the guys and we are born with better social aptitude. (This is matter of great contention.)

Being kind and socially adept is the culturally imposed core of female identity. Aspie women systematically study how to converse and help others like our lives depend on it – because as women our survival does depend on our ability to conform to social norms and build relationships.

Isolation puts women at significantly greater risk – physically, emotionally, financially.

So how women and girls are supposed to look and act is very proscribed and enforced – by our families, teachers, peers, the media, and especially other women. For instance, the phrase “She think she cute.” The biggest faux pas a woman can make is admitting out loud that she considers herself smart or attractive. Men can brag on themselves (See Donald Trump, Kanye West) and not suffer consequences, but women have to be consistently self-deprecating. Women get their hackles up when they see another woman bucking the system and deviating from our acceptable roles (See Hillary Clinton.) Self-esteem is OK; ego is verboten.

Autistic women don’t care for gender conformity. We can’t see the sense in it. We don’t recognize arbitrary psycho-social constructions. In fact, I’ve always been able to perceive that the nasty things women do to one another is a result of how we are shit on as women in general. Boys are taught to stand up for themselves, express anger, and confront people who give them problems. Girls are taught to be unfailingly agreeable, say the right things, and never openly show negative or assertive emotions.

oddgirl
Just read this.

We’re don’t feel free to confront one another about differences and disagreements. We are allowed to judge, sabotage, shun, and be passive-aggressive. Women bully one another in different ways and tend to keep the girls they don’t like in their social groups because – well, I’m still figuring that one out. It’s complicated.

 

I’ve totally fallen out of favor with the Gin Tuesday Ladies, just like in every other group I’ve tried to join. (Hence the title of this blog.) On our closed-group Facebook page I called out a member for being historically harsh to me about my mental illness and differences. She is an extremely neurotypical woman and I’ve always known that she’s not crazy about me. I’ve learned to spot “shade” when it’s thrown in my direction and she’s tossed a metric shit-ton of it.

The final straw for her was when I had a meltdown at a restaurant where we were both employed. While at the time I didn’t understand why I totally lost it and yelled at a table of genuine deplorables at the end of an insanely busy night, I do understand why she and the other Tuesday Ladies were upset about it. I was a liability to the organization they worked for. I was giving the place a bad reputation and potentially scaring away business and their tips. As usual, I apologized profusely to them.

After that incident, I sought an explanation for my emotional and behavioral problems and involuntary meltdowns. I was (incorrectly) diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. One evening we were both at the Gin Tuesday Ladies’ meeting place, The Gherkin Jar, and none of the other Ladies were there. Begrudgingly, and because women in the same groups are obligated to try to get along, we sat and had a conversation. It consisted of me attempting to explain how having “bipolar disorder” made it difficult to control my emotions, be less annoying, and act more normal and her shooting me down. She was kind enough to hear me out, but she was pretty condemning of mentally ill people in general. She didn’t understand why I couldn’t just get over it and handle my shit like an adult. She said all the typical things that reflect the stigma that those with neurodevelopmental conditions and mental illnesses face.

That conversation cemented for me the pervasive awfulness of that stigma.

Screen Shot 2017-11-22 at 1.52.17 PM

Now she works with the mentally ill, and, to her credit I suppose, raises money for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Please donate if you can.) But she hurt me deeply and things were never the same after that. The Ladies pulled away from me and I from them. I became more aware of how many of them thought of me as a freak to be tolerated because our de facto leader, Denise, saw something special in me. But I noticed none of them reached out or seemed to connect to me like they did with one another. A common enough trend in my life. I was so embarrassed for myself that I never attempted to fix these friendships. I wouldn’t even know how.

You see the irony of her career choice, though. I sincerely hope she has a better opinion of people who struggle with invisible disorders and mental conditions. Unsolicited apologies are nice, but rare. I have to admit I’ve not looked at the Facebook replies yet from the other women in the group. Too chickenshit at the moment. I don’t want to ruin my day because I have this feeling that they will not have my back – they’ll have hers because she’s central to the clique and I’ve drifted away.

Like defends like. Neurotypical women have a tendency to gang up on eccentric women with poor social skills. When I build up the courage to see what they said, I’ll certainly post an update.