I’ve been participating in a group and a class recently that both sometimes have autistic adults present; engaging a lot of materials, mostly written, from autistic adults; and continuing to participate regularly in groups and organizational work that involve autistic children, autistic adults, and their families.
I had some thoughts the other day, which I thought were worth “saying out loud” on this blog, even though this entry is likely going to be a tad less viral online than, say, a top-10 post about autism. Rather, these thoughts involve common (and related) misperceptions on the part of autistic adults, encountered in person and in writings, which parallel misperceptions allistic adults often have as well. Allistic means non-autistic.
But, specific to autism: Just as allistic people can’t “take on” an autistic mind but can only listen, watch, consider, and extrapolate to get a better notion of what being autistic is like — mind you, I’m not advocating spending one’s life doing this; we would be better instructed to start with simple, unanalyzed, unalloyed acceptance — similarly, someone autistic who self-identifies as autistic can only guess what the non-autistic mind and life are like.
Allistic folks never-endingly generate and assign stereotypical categories and assumptions to autistic people. It’s a problem and a consequential one. But autistic people also often do so for themselves. They assume a behavior or way of thinking they have is because of their autism, because it looks like their concept of what autism is, whether that is self-generated or coming from the outside: “I do this because I am autistic.”
But some of those things — many of those things — are present or true for many allistic people, as well. Autistic people, then, have to guess at what being non-autistic is to generate conclusions even about their own autism, much less autism generally.
There’s some aspect of the basic human condition here — the only mind we’re ever truly inside is our own — but just like autism and the autistic mind, whatever those are, hold a great sense of otherness for allistic people, for autistic people a non-autistic identity is every bit as unknown and mysterious.
Autistic people are as poor at guessing what the non-autistic mind is as allistic people are at “understanding” autism. And assignments and conclusions about what being non-autistic is tend to be just as speculative and reductive. As a result, since autism is too often almost entirely defined by its distinctions, even conclusions from autistics about what being autistic is are, at a minimum, pure guesswork.
It’s the same for other identities and categories we consider important or essential to who we are: race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, language, region, religion, weight, height, skin color, education, age, parenthood, profession, family — the identities to which we cling.
Their only meaning is that which we assign to them — the meaning we make up.
The point is simply that we are only inside ourselves. Perhaps we’re all more alike than we’re different. Perhaps we’re not. Perhaps our subgroups are internally more alike than different. Perhaps not. But when we assume something about us is simply a consequence of our differentiated category, we’re certainly prone to mistake and misunderstanding.
For example, autistic people who may be having a hard time in life sometimes think non-autistic people have it easy. But many allistic people struggle in life, too. That seems obvious to most non-autistic people. But common messaging about autism sometimes misleads autistic people about what being allistic is like.
Such notions and conclusions — either that we’re all more alike than different, or that we’re equally different within subgroups — threaten the notions of identity that comfort us and help us feel like we belong. (Please see the post On Blackness and Autism, Identity and Essence for a very personal take on this discussion.)
But they also foster, I hope, a shared human identity that ultimately has even greater value and consequence. Either we are all basically alike and we share our common humanity in that way. Or we are all in the same boat regarding the unknowability of others — in which case that becomes an essential, shared, and perhaps defining human quality.
Defining accurately using otherness is impossible, because it relies on what we don’t know, and maybe definitions of identity themselves quickly all become impossible, besides that shared knowing that we don’t know. (Wait, I think someone else suggested that as the starting point of human wisdom a few years ago — a guy who walked around the neighborhood.)
Ultimately we’re each ourselves. Even “human” is just a label, as are certainly all the other labels we conjure, assign, and claim.
We can only truly know ourselves, if we can even know that. As I was typing I was reminded of words about reality and differentiation — that is, lies or unreality —from Byron Katie in my interview The Turnaround that you can read in full here, so I’ll close this post with some Katie, an excerpt with an unmarked divot, offering a lesson taught by diverse spiritual teachers:
It’s like this, to take a simple example: Your mother says, “That’s a tree.”
And you’re a little kid. You don’t have a reference for it. For you, the whole world is one unseparated reality.
And then she says again, “Honey, it’s a tree.” You still don’t have a reference for it, but eventually you hear it enough times and from enough people that there is a moment when you believe it. And it’s separated out the moment you believe.
You actually see a tree.
What are you believing? It seems benign to think, “There’s a tree.” It seems to be a beautiful thought.
But the moment you believed that there was a tree, there was the thought I — there was a you believing that there was a tree. And in that same moment there was a mother teaching you, “There’s a tree.”
There was a whole world of separate things, rather than the reality of what is.
And, really, your mother didn’t teach you, “It’s a tree.”
You taught yourself, the moment you believed.
A final note, then, as I meander about the agora today: My son, Nicholas, a 13-year-old autistic boy — to use some of the most common labels assigned to him — struggles with the idea of differentiation. It sometimes makes it hard for him to find acceptance in a world in which most of us insist upon differentiation, hard for him to understand how people use language, hard for him to know how and where to be just physically — even as his own acceptance of everyone and everything is unqualified.
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