Why we need to stop talking about “understanding” and “acceptance”
We hear a lot of talk about understanding and acceptance of autistic people, and while the intentions are good, I think we'd all be better off if it stopped.
Yeah, I know.
That probably sounds wrong and almost segregationist.
But hear me out.
Why "understanding" ain't never gonna happen
There's no point in sugar coating this one, so I'll be blunt: with the best will in the world, NTs are never, ever going to understand what it's like to be autistic. They can be as genuinely sympathetic or mealy-mouthed as they like, but the result is the same.
They'll never understand.
It's no different from a man trying to "understand" being a woman, or vice versa. Sure, you can read a long shopping list of differences, but you don't understand them beyond the most superficial meaning of the word.
And think on this: if we can't understand them them and their strange NT ways, why should it be any different when they try to understand us?
We are and will forever remain as mysterious to them as they do to us.
Thing is, it's not just amusing or a bit of semantic tomfoolery: their protestations of being able to understand us are actually harmful.
Because they base their decisions on how to deal with us, and their often-laughable advice to us on how to manage and deal with our "condition" on their flawed understanding of how we experience their world.
I don't want or need your "acceptance"
Your acceptance is misplaced, in my opinion.
Because if you’re doing me a favour by not rejecting me out of some sense of altruism, you can shove it. It’s patronising.
And if you do want to reject me because I'm different, I have no problem with that. Your loss.
Let me use an analogy. My son came out and told me he was gay when he was 15 or so. His comment to me later was, "Thanks for being so accepting, Dad".
I said, "I'm not accepting at all, Son. Because your sexuality is none of my business. It doesn't matter to me. You're my son, and I love you, and as long as you're happy and living with integrity and courage, and harming no one, I don't care".
Well, it's a bit like that. My autism is none of your business. It's not for you to judge me on, in other words.
What I do need
All that said, there are two things I do need from you.
The first is awareness.
I need you to be aware of how I'm different and why this it.
I need you to be aware my lack of affective empathy does not mean I lack compassion or the ability to be solicitous of your welfare; nor does it make me dangerous (well, not unless you attack or threaten my wellbeing).
And I need you to be aware your giving me a message isn't the same as me receiving it. It might seem like a cop-out but if you want to have any kind of relationship with me you sometimes have to come down and meet me at my level, because I can't meet you on yours. As I said to my son recently: "Sometimes you have to explain things to me as you would to a child because if you don't I won't hear or understand the subtleties and hints in the complex message you're trying to send".
And I don't need you to accept any of this. You're free to ignore and dislike me for any reason or no reason at all. What you think of me is none of my business.
The second thing I need from you, presuming you do want some kind of relationship with me, is your forbearance.
I need you to have patience with traits I have I know are frustrating for you, like my taking things literally, missing the point of your many nuanced and subtle hints, and taking a looong time to answer your questions while I think about the most accurate, precise, and unambiguous way to phrase my answer.
I need you to leave me alone in silence and not get angry or irritated with me when I don't want to talk (and while what you think is none of my business and I can't do anything about it, I'd be happier if you didn't assume my silence has anything to do with you at all).
I need you to take my word for it when I say bright, busy, and noisy places are unbearable for me and I need to get out of there — maybe with your help if you'll give it to me.
I need you to count to ten when I get frustrated and even angry if my routine or plan has to change without warning. I can't explain why I react like this; more crucially, I can't help it, either.
I need... hell... I need lots of things from you at different times and often I can't offer you anything but my clumsy thanks in return.
Hence... I need your forbearance.
Frequently and often.
And lots of it.
On the bright side... I'm easy to please, low-maintenance, and the easiest person in the entire universe to buy presents for.
Oh, and I laugh at myself and encourage others to laugh with me. After all, autism is a serious thing, but it's also ridiculous and definitely not something to be solemn and po-faced about.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate