I was in Melbourne last week, giving presentations on Autism. When I was done I went to visit a close friend, Alex* (not her real name – don’t worry she didn’t do anything terrible, I just prefer to de-identify anyone I put in my writing)!
Alex and I have been friends for many years and she is one of a tiny number of people who knew me before my autobiography was published and I went from being an unknown poor person to a published poor person….thankfully followed by published employed person and then to all the things which make me who I am right now.
Alex has the dubious honour of being someone I feel conformable enough to have meltdowns in front of. This is not very good for her because my meltdowns generally involve me getting stressed and defensive and sometimes very angry and rude and insulting to those around me. Alex is a beautiful person though and can see beyond my anger to my terror and distress. On one occasion I was in full yelling and swearing mode – via Facebook messenger – and Alex wrote one thing: ‘Are you OK Jeanette?’ I think at that point I realised just how much she liked and valued me. The meltdown sort of eased at that point and when I got back into being the positive person and proponent of ‘gentle power’ that I usually am. I thanked Alex for seeing beyond my stressed, overloaded self and into the person she has known for years.
When I was in Melbourne last weekend I did something while in my right mind, consciously and intentionally, which was a pretty bad ‘sin’ for an Autism advocate.
There has been a lot of (mostly very useful) discussion around Autism and gender lately. A number of authors – Autistic and non-autistic – have written about different male and female ‘types’ of Autism. Women on the spectrum tend to have some different attributes to men on the spectrum. This does not apply to every Autistic person of course. And when you factor in gender identity differences as well as the more typical (‘sis’) male and female genders then defining Autistic traits for different genders can be difficult and even at times quite unhelpful.
I don’t think I mentioned that Alex is also Autistic. I have a number of the typically ‘female’ Autistic traits but Alex – in a lot of respects – fits the more ‘male’ Autistic characteristics.
I spent much of my teenage years and early adult life being a ‘social chameleon’ – trying to fit in with peer groups and individuals, hiding my Autistic identity as much as I could. This is apparently something a lot of women on the spectrum do in order to navigate the world and try to avoid discrimination and victimisation. My friend Alex is not a social chameleon in any sense of the world and has never been one. She is 100 per cent herself all the time. What you see is always what you get. This is one of her qualities which I really like. She will challenge me and question what I say, which I am very grateful for.
It was this quality that resulted in me doing something which I am still feeling ashamed of now. I did something I frequently advise non-autistic people never to do. I viewed my friend Alex through a non-autistic lens. I interpreted her statements about a mutual friend as being insulting and rude. And if a non-autistic person had said them, they probably would have been. In fact Alex was genuinely interested to know something about the mutual friend and her experience of the world. I thought Alex was being intrusive but she was being curious. No offence was meant. Imagine her reaction when I berated her for doing something which would have been offensive if a non-autistic person had done it but in fact was completely innocent.
I learned a lesson that day. Even Autistic people, – and sadly many times published authors and sought after public speakers on all things Autism – can make unhelpful and incorrect assumptions about other Autistic people’s motivations. I could make an excuse. I could say my misinterpretation of Alex’s motivation was due to my spending time in the neurotypical world. I will not let myself off that easily though. I have been telling audiences this lesson for many years and the fact that I messed it up myself is something I am not proud of!
Thankfully Alex and I have talked through this and I have come to a better understanding. I will not make this mistake again. But if I could make this error in the first place, then it follows as to why this is such an issue for non-autistic people, some of whom know very little about Autistic experience and communication.
So what do we need to do to address this?
- If in doubt of anyone’s motivation, ask and listen. Assumptions are the mother of misunderstandings.
- We should all build our understanding of the fact that all Autistic individuals are individuals. Just because someone shares a diagnosis with you may not mean much more than that. We are all beautifully, wonderfully unique and individual.
- If you make a mistake around assuming meanings try not to beat yourself up over it. Apologise to the person and add the experience to your library of other experiences where it can become wisdom.
- As we all go through life, we can not only learn to ask and listen before making assumptions but we can show others this example too.
- Many non-autistic people have very little knowledge or understanding around Autism and Autistic communication. Imagine that when they meet an Autistic person – they will probably struggle to question their own assumptions. We can help them on this path with examples and shared knowledge.
And I am really very sorry to Alex for my poor performance at being human. Thank you for forgiving my very large and unhelpful error and helping me to build my own understanding. It seems that a person is never too old or accomplished to screw up royally and learn a life lesson from it.