A pervasive stereotype of people on the Autism spectrum in popular culture is that we are arrogant, rude, tactless a**holes. The perception is prevalent across all media and seems to be believed by a lot of non-Autistic people, particularly those who have not known a lot of Auties. I often find myself getting very cranky with people who respond with ‘Are they on the spectrum?’ when I vent about someone or describe rude or inconsiderate behaviour. As somebody who tries my very best to be thoughtful and considerate to others this is certainly something of a concern. And given that I am a fairly passionate advocate for the rights and respect of people on the spectrum, I find these perceptions very challenging. Most of the Autistic people I know do not go out of their way to be rude or unpleasant and most of us find it quite upsetting when people accuse us of rudeness.
So why does this happen? Why do neurotypical people think Autistic people are arrogant and rude when the Autistic person is not trying to communicate anything of the sort? The answer may lie in our different communication styles. If you look at the diagnostic literature, Autism is described as involving ‘communication deficits.’ I’m not so sure about the nature of it as a deficit thought. Rather I think that Autistic people and neurotypical people simply communicate differently. The neurotypical style seems to utilise a lot of nuance and subtlety (although some neurotypical folks claim they struggle with that too). The traditional neurotypical communication style involves a number of levels and layers of meaning within conversation and the awareness and reciprocity of things like body language and facial expressions. Humour often centres around sarcasm or dry wit and there are particular signals which carry meaning for the non-Autisitc people, like flirting. Autistic people on the other hand often communicate using the power of words without a lot of emphasis on non-verbal cues. Autistic communication is very honest and things like white lies and tact are not so easy for us to accomplish or see the point of, for that matter. This is not to say that Autistic people can’t use white lies or tact, more that it is not our default setting and we have to almost consciously engage ‘tact mode’ in order to achieve it. Our humour is often based in the creative use of language and puns. We tend to value clear, honest communication and state what we mean and what we want.
So on the one hand you have nuanced, symbolic neurotypical people who put up a sort of barrier of protection and politeness around themselves. Then there are Autistic people who often view the neurotypical communication style as dishonest or underhanded. It is very much a case of different communication cultures and as with any cross-cultural interaction, there can potentially be problems.
I’m sure she will not mind me saying this because it is said with immense love and respect, but my mum is an Aspie and has a very strong Christian faith. As such, mum has two fairly strong drivers for honesty in conversation – her faith and its emphasis on truth and her natural ‘settings’ as an Aspie. Growing up I would sometimes marvel at the very up front things my mum said to other people. When I had a conversation about tact on one occasion, she responded that it was just dishonesty. I knew a man when I was younger who was almost certainly on the spectrum. The worst insult you could level at this man was that of dishonesty. He recalled – with some merriment – the day a friend asked him over to look at their new baby. When faced with the infant and asked what he thought, my friend responded ‘He looks like a monkey!’. You can imagine that this den;t go off too well with the parents, even if it was true.
Going back to the introduction for this article, you can see why some neurotypical folks view Autistic people as rude. We often miss their non-verbal cues and hints and we might say whatever is on our mind. However, we are not usually trying to be rude. Instead what is happening is the meeting of two communication styles which are very different.
And it’s certainly not just the domain of neurotypical people to criticise Autists about our communication. Autistic people can really struggle with the confusing and apparently rather dishonest way non-Autistic people try to get us to understand what they mean.
Neither one style of communicating is ‘right.’ They are simply different. In my mind saying one is a ‘deficit’ and the other ‘normal communication’ would be like saying that English is a better language than Italian. So instead of focussing on ‘fixing’ Autistic people’s communication or trying to make us change, having that view that it is simply a cultural difference may be more helpful. If people tried to understand this cultural difference, it would make things easier for everyone. Instead of telling us that our honesty is ‘rude’ it is much better to appreciate us for our qualities and understand that we simple speak a different ‘language’. Then a proper cross-cultural dialogue can begin.
Mr Kitty is direct and will let you know when he needs something with a gentle bite