I just got back from a weekend doing wonderfully enjoyable and affirming things. I launched an exhibition of photography by some amazing Autistic artists in Bendigo, a lovely town in Central Victoria. The show was organised by some of my great friends – Beck and Susannah from the Bendigo Autism Advocacy and Support Service. I dressed the way I dress when I’m feeling confident and happy with who I am – lots of colour and on this occasion a space and planets theme. I imagine I looked a bit different from whatever the ‘average’ person in the town looked like but didn’t really care. At the age of 43 with my self-esteem and confidence are at all time highs. I do not expect bullying or harassment from anyone, well, not overtly at least. Sadly my weekend included three instances of rudeness from three separate sources, which prompted this post.
The first incident was at the hotel I stayed in. It was actually a very friendly place and the staff were great. But there were some primary and early secondary age girls who were attending a sports carnival. I encountered their adult supervision once or twice but mostly they were running up and down the corridors and knocking on each other’s door. No issue with that. They seemed to be having fun. However, yesterday evening when I came back to the hotel after my talk I saw three of the young girls and they ‘whispered’ things which I didn’t have to work hard to overhear. Apparently I was a ‘crazy lady’. I heard them say things suggesting they were worried I would go in their room and presumably hurt them. After I dragged myself back from the 1980s being bullied in the schoolyard, I realised how very disappointed and hurt I was at their reaction to me. I would never even think about hurting a child so having kids apparently worried about my actions and motives horrified me. I tried to think about where these attitudes came from. I definitely don’t blame the girls because they had to get those views from somewhere. The notion that people who took or act ‘different’ are dangerous and should be feared is a view across society as well as among individuals.
I thought I’d had my quota of rudeness and invalidation for the week but sadly no. I flew home yesterday. As I went through security the fellow doing the explosives test called me over. While he was doing his job we got talking. He asked me what I ‘did’ (itself quite a troubling question). I have a choice of answers to that question so chose to pick the ‘I am an author.’ response – that one never gets old! He asked me what I wrote and I told I’m what I always tell them ‘I write books about Autism’. I could actually see the decision forming in this person’s mind that I am Autistic and then the way he treated me altered dramatically. I wondered if I had suddenly morphed into a three year old child from his manner. He then shook my hand and said something patronising which I forget exactly what it as but something like ‘Well done’. (i was pretty annoyed at that point.)
Sadly these experiences are incredibly common for so many people. They can come from a variety of sources and are supported by prejudice and a lack of understanding of or respect for ‘difference’. They certainly fit within what I would call bigotry and bias. And to the person on the receiving end they have a number of impacts. In my experience they generally make me doubt myself and feel worthless. They definitely transport me to the times in my life where bullying was an everyday occurrence. They also result in me being monumentally pissed off,
The reason I call them ‘rudeness’ – apart from the fact it is of course – is that rudeness relates to thoughtlessness. The views and emotions of the person receiving the rudeness are unimportant to the person giving it.
Bias and bigotry are all about not caring or being interested in the views of others but they move beyond simple rudeness because some other things are at play. If someone is ‘rude’ by pushing in a queue I doubt they believe that they are somehow better or more entitled to respect than the others in the queue, but bigotry and bias come from that kind of power dynamic. It is apparently OK to patronise me because the views and feelings of an Autistic person are apparently unimportant. Often that is not a conscious thought but that is where those attitudes tend to come from.
When I got to Canberra airport I want to get my luggage. I am lousy at picking facial expressions but I did see a young dad look at me and do what I believe is called a ‘double take.’ He looked at me like I was a penguin that had just walked up to him and asked him if he wanted a drink! I smiled broadly at him and said ‘Hi, I’m Jeanette!’ and he scuttled off. I felt marginally better having at least stood up to one of them!
Paternalism may seem a lesser evil than hostility. It tends to be less distressing than hostility but it is definitely harmful in that it can make us doubt ourselves and it also means the person doing the paternalism is unlikely to respect our views or see us as real people. Imagine if your doctor was like that? Or your parent? Actually in many cases those who we interact with ARE paternalistic or hostile. These biased statements from people – especially adults – can betray deep-seated prejudices. Once again, when it is some school girls in a hotel and a ‘once off’ event, it is not so bad but what if that person who makes assumptions and attacks you for being yourself is someone you see and interact with all the time and cannot distance yourself? Someone like a person’s manager at work or even their partner. This is happening all the time. It is not OK. I don’t think ignorance in adults is much of an excuse. This stuff runs pretty deeply and is fed by attitudes in society which are sort of legacy attitudes, hanging around way too long. This weekend I am sorry to say that I did not respond with a lot of confidence or leadership. This is tricky stuff and I don’t have any particularly useful things to say about what to do. I guess as individuals we can challenge it where we can and as a ‘culture’ of Autistics we can work together to challenge these views wherever they occur and support each other to do this. It is easier to challenge bigotry when you know someone is ‘in your corner.