In light of the recent John Elder Robison interview clusterfuck, I’ve been thinking about something that has long bothered me: the idea that autism—“Asperger’s autism in particular—is so frequently described as “coming across as a jerk without meaning to.”
I don’t doubt that some autistics do experience this, but that’s never been my reality. For me social impairments aren’t as much of a big deal as other autism-related impairments, and of the social issues that I have, I wouldn’t put “being seen as a jerk” anywhere near the top of the list. In fact, on the occasions that I do have this problem, it’s for completely different reasons than what is commonly described. Sometimes I do, yes, act jerky and even cruel—but that’s usually when I’m in the middle of a meltdown or on the verge of one. This is quite different from what JER and a lot of other autism-related material describes. (Of course in JER’s case, I’m pretty sure that a big reason why he is often perceived as a jerk is because he is one. His first book makes this abundantly clear. Hey, autistics can be not-nice people, too.) I’ve said some pretty blunt and possibly inappropriate things, to be sure, but the people who I interact with on a regular basis know that I’m no jerk. That I am in fact a generally nice and caring person. The closest thing that’s come to this was my family “jokingly” telling me that I cared more about the cats than them. But that wasn’t my doing anything possibly jerky so much as a complete misinterpretation of my need for a lot of alone time.
Obviously my experience isn’t representative of all autistics any more than JER’s is. But I’ve met a lot of autistic people, very few of whom can be fairly described as jerks by any definition. And I would be very surprised if a significant number of autistic people listed “being mistakenly seen as a jerk” as one of their top problems. Yet so much of the literature treats this as a central defining feature of being on the spectrum! It’s befuddling, and most likely the product of incompetent, allistic-centric researchers such as SBC fixating—yes, fixating—on the social aspects of autistic impairments to the exclusion of all else.
I meant to include this in my last post, but there got to be so much just about the bit I quoted from that interview that I figured I'd save it for another post.
Anyway, I've been similarly unaffected (well, most of the time --- I can't say that no one has *ever* assumed I was being rude when I was actually having difficulties stemming from autism, like incipient overload, language-processing issues, or whatever, but it is not really a recurring theme in my life) by this thing where people think I must be very rude, or mean, or aloof, because of the way I speak (or don't speak) or act. Some of this may just be because I am a young woman, rather than a middle-aged man, and candor in a young woman might be read as "innocent" or "naive" rather than "rude" --- because I do share some things with Robison, and unthinking candor is one of them --- but it's also because I have other things going on that just social cluelessness. (See: language-processing issues, uneven ability to produce speech, sensory overload, etc.)
Those other things usually mean I get read as stupid, not as a jerk. (Again, that's not to say I absolutely never get read as a jerk --- I might sometimes! That's just not what always happens, or what happens most of the time).
Apart from sharing that, my other motivation in reposting this was to say I very much agree with Sarah's notion that (many) autism researchers zero in on our social difficulties, to the exclusion of other aspects of being autistic that have more of an impact on what we're able to do, and what our lives are like, and how our particular cognitive styles work.