This past Friday I had my mid-year review at work, the first such meeting since I was hired full-time a few months ago. It was a much more in-depth evaluation than the little “here’s a paper with all 10’s circled on it, let me know if you have questions, sign here” I had at my last job. My manager was very positive and complimentary, gently providing “growth areas” rather than “weaknesses” or criticism. My peers also provided a few positive comments for him to share with me. In a summary section, he wrote something like, “She is different, and that’s a good thing.” He does not yet know that I am autistic, but since I work in IT now, I’ve been able to be a little more authentically me than at past positions.
This weekend I was continuing my way through the book Neurotribes, which is excellent. The problem is, it jumps between stories so cool that I excitedly read them aloud to unwilling victims, to parts so heartbreaking that I have to put it down for a while. I was reading the section on Lovaas and the early days of ABA, and researchers’ use of punishment. It was so upsetting that I was stimming (a lateral hand-flapping movement) and engaging in self-injurious behavior (biting my hand) – two of the very behaviors that were physically punished in these early studies.
I talked to a person about this right after setting the book aside (I will use “they” as a gender-neutral singular here). I was so worked up after talking to them that I was still doing a lot of the rapid hand-shaking while I was preparing some coffee. They then said, “You’d better get that out of your system by Monday if you want them to still think you’re ‘different in a good way.'”
That bothered me. But I didn’t have the words to express to them why it hurt so much. First, it was just the latest in a long line of comments like that throughout my life – those, “I hope you don’t do that in public,” or, “Are you going to shower before you go out?” or, “You don’t say that at school/work, do you?” kind of comments. The ones that insinuate I haven’t yet learned how to behave “properly” around normal people, out in public.
Second, and this is very much related to that category of comment, I only engaged in that behavior because I felt safe to do so. In my own home, with people I trust, I’m going to feel freer to behave in ways that are not seen as “acceptable” in other settings. I’m going to complain about tasks I’ve been assigned at work, but I’m NOT going to have a bad attitude about them around my manager and coworkers. I’m going to skip a shower when I’m staying in, but I’m NOT going to go to class with greasy hair. I’m going to release extreme emotion nonverbally through self-stimulatory behaviors, but I’m NOT going to be as obviously autistic in the behaviors I select when I’m around people I don’t trust with that.
Third, they used something that was an extremely positive, affirming, and accepting comment about me to shame me for my autistic behavior.
I was recently talking to another Aspie-girl about how hard it can be, living with neurotypicals. We talked about how sometimes we trust someone with an explanation for our behaviors, or explain how we feel about something, and they end up using it against us later – even if it’s just what they see as a friendly teasing comment, it still hurts, and makes us less likely to trust again.
So, if you love someone on the spectrum, please recognize that often those “socially-unacceptable behaviors” you see are indications that the person feels safe with you. Especially if you only see the behaviors in a “safe” setting, like the person’s home. And please, if we trust you with an explanation of how we think and feel, don’t use it against us.
And for you autistic people reading. . . what advice should I give? Be more careful whom you trust? Don’t let your guard down and be so “autistic” around people? No. On my drive home today, Jars of Clay’s song “Inland” came on my shuffle. The song I named this blog after. I was thinking about how even though another song on the album is my favorite, I was glad I got an “Inland” lyric inscribed on the ring I wear every day. The words “you keep walking inland” are a constant reminder to me that I must press on, I must engage in community and relationships, I must keep trying. I must keep walking inland – “where no man is an island.” And so must you. Don’t give up explaining, expressing yourself, and teaching. Learn to live among people who are not like you, learn to communicate with them, and treat everyone with the respect and kindness you want yourself. Don’t hide. Don’t retreat.
It’s the only way we will gain more acceptance.