(Beginning note: this is meant to be equal parts satire, seriousness, and helpful. It’s not meant to sound superior, condescending, or anything else. As usual, what follows is strictly my own opinion. Also, the words allistic and neurotypical (often abbreviated “NT”) are, for these purposes, used interchangeably to refer to non-autistic people. And last but not least, please understand that this is not directed at all allistic people…only the people who fit the description.)
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of western civilization lies a small unregarded segment of the population. This population has a problem, which was this: we’re largely invisible. Many solutions were suggested for this problem (Autism Awareness, Light-It-Up-Blue campaigns, etc), but most of these were largely concerned with “fixing” the people on the spectrum, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the spectrum people that needed fixing. And so the problem remained; the rest of the world is mean, and they make us miserable…
And then, one Sunday, about five months after I had discovered my spot on the spectrum, having read through countless books and websites about Asperger’s/autism, having digested every word about our “lack of this”, “impaired that”, and “deficient something-or-other”, and still left feeling semi-clueless about how to decode the rest of the world, I thought it’d be good to write a “handbook” of sorts by one of us (on the spectrum), for the rest of us (on the spectrum).
Here’s what I’ve learned so far…
Meeting Allistic People:
Allistic people make small talk. They start by saying “hi”, even from across the street. Although this can be intrusive to our thoughts, they don’t mean any harm. They do this to feel other people out. Invariably, they’ll ask how you are; just smile and answer with “fine”; if you’re feeling particularly extroverted and your energy levels are comfortably in the green resilience level, you can follow up with a comment about the weather, or if you’re both female, a comment about a piece of clothing they’re wearing that you like (even if you don’t; they probably won’t know the difference, as long as you’re making eye contact and smiling). In fact, you’ll appear really nice and sufficiently social to them. As trivial and as much of a waste of time as that seems, it’s perfectly acceptable; they’re not expecting anything else. Rest assured, they probably don’t really care about how you actually feel or what you’re actually thinking. And if you goof up, don’t worry; they’ll forget about the whole encounter in about twelve minutes (and I’m being generous here).
If you’re entering into a more one-on-one first-time meeting, they’ll want to shake your hand. This tradition is a holdover from times where people established trust with each other by proving they didn’t have a weapon hidden in their hand. These days, it’s more of a confidence-builder (for them; they’re building confidence in the fact that you’re confident they’re confident) and a game of mild one-upmanship (toward you–the one with the firmest handshake wins. It’s almost like a contest for them).
Speaking of one-upmanship, life itself is a contest for the average allistic population. Who has the bigger house in the better Zip code? Who drives the more expensive car? Who wears the flashier, trendier clothes? Who has the more deluxe cable TV/internet combo package? (Seriously, entire ad campaigns have featured conversations between neighbors trying to puff their chests about who has the better Time Warner package – I have proof (link to the video).)
NTs are usually rather shallow by comparison, so if you’re dressed well, appear financially well-endowed, and you have a firm handshake and a booming, confident voice, you’re fine. Just try to pretend you’re an extroverted yuppie.
They have this funny concept of personal space; on one hand, they want to touch you, and they do this without permission or warning. On the other hand, they’re pretty militant about maintaining a distance of about 18 inches to three feet between you and them, and they may get visibly uncomfortable if that invisible, unwritten boundary is breached.
The NT tendency toward shallowness can devolve into judgment and character assassination; if you’re overweight, the NT will see that first, and may or may not be able to get past it to see the complex, valuable human being inside. (They’ll probably take indignant offense at this statement–and many others in this post–but the more indignant they are, the more the truth probably hurts.) Anyway, to get past the judgment (and accompanying–usually incorrect–assumption that you’re a lazy slob), you can downplay the extra weight by dressing in styles and colors that compliment your better attributes and minimize the perception of adipose mass. (And remember, with many NTs, it’s all about visual perception.)
For them, though, weight is paramount; they’d rather be skinny than healthy. They’ll practically kill themselves to be thin. They’ll subject themselves to crash diets, diet pills that cause heart damage, or drastic stomach-stapling surgeries solely for cosmetic reasons. They only care about the here-and-now, often failing to consider the potential long-term side effects. They may think you’re frumpy or that we lack self-respect when we dress for comfort. (Somehow they can ignore that agonizing zipper digging into their skin.) The word “comfort” is not in their vocabulary; these are the same people who would rather endure daily agony and quite possibly permanently deform their feet just to wear those awful-styled “cute shoes”.
Allistic Thought Process:
NT logic is kinda warped, in our view. They usually don’t think very deeply. They don’t consider the future. For them, it’s all about Gratification–Self and Instant. They want to know what’s in it for them, and what’s in it for them now. For them, “tomorrow never comes”.
And they make decisions based on what other people will think of them. These “other people” may not be role models; hell, they may not even be people they know. It’s perfectly acceptable, by society’s standards, to rack up credit card debt, spending money they don’t have, to buy things they don’t need, to impress people they don’t know. Yes, that’s a “thing”; and it’s downright common.
Allistics tend to waste a lot of time, by our yardstick. They watch reality TV and sports. They like to have their “finger on the pulse of the world”, to feel like they’re “up on things”. It makes them feel connected, and connection satisfies a craving for them; it makes them feel validated, like somehow they’re not complete unless they’re getting head-nods from those same strangers they’re slaving away to impress.
They believe mainstream news, too, and they often swallow whatever they’re told. Now, some are indeed smarter than that and don’t buy into the “surface stuff”, and instead they look deeper and contemplate more thoroughly, but that tends to be more the exception than the rule.
NTs experience anxiety, too, but theirs is a little different. They worry about different things. Whereas we get anxious when the spotlight is shone on us, they get anxious when the spotlight is taken off of them. We worry about coming across as acceptable; they worry about not looking good enough, appearing “too average”. NTs are not happy with “average”; they often must stand out from the rest, drawing special attention to themselves in some way. They can’t stand fading into a crowd or being “normal”; they want to make a “statement”, and they do this primarily with material possessions, like (big) houses, (weird, distinct-looking) cars, (flashy) clothes, (highlighted) hair, etc. It’s more of an insecurity or an emptiness. They seek constant feedback from the world to tell them they’re a valid and worthy human being.
Conversation With An Allistic:
Favorite conversation topics include the mainstream news, sports, and reality TV mentioned above. Other predictable subjects may include the stock market, the weather, their job, their kids, or man/woman-bashing (whichever gender they’re not). Unless stocks, weather, or gender critique are “special interests” for you, you could attempt to sway the conversation to pets, if they have any (keeping in mind, of course, that they don’t usually view theirs the same way we view ours).
Conversation flow is different with an allistic person. It, too, is a bit more shallow; they’ve filtered out the details and focused on the main ideas, whereas we tend to perceive (almost) every detail as important. Back-and-forth two-way conversation is the norm for them, so although we may want to explain something further, they tune out after a couple sentences. I say a couple sentences and then lapse into silence; it feels weird to me to do so, but it seems to work; they have no problem picking up the conversation. But then I have to be ready to talk after they say a few sentences; they usually don’t go on for very long–which is OK, because the topics don’t usually delve into deep territory.
They expect eye contact. It sucks and it’s uncomfortable for a lot of us, but it’s perfectly normal for them. They associate a lack of eye contact with dishonesty or the assumption that you’re “hiding something”, because that’s what dishonest neurotypical people do. They don’t understand that we don’t operate the same way. You don’t have to stare directly into their eyes; just focus on a spot between their eyes instead, or maybe at their forehead or mouth; that usually passes. If you do find that you have to look directly into their eyes, don’t worry; I know that I listen better when not looking directly at someone, so if I have to, then I know that I won’t be able to concentrate fully on what they’re saying, but that’s usually OK because remember the small-talk thing: the conversation topics usually remain near the surface and without getting deep enough to require much thought.
NTs say things they don’t mean. Word of caution/advice: question everything they say, and assume there’s an unsaid message that has nothing to do with their actual words. They say what’s expected according to social norms, but it usually lacks genuineness, honesty, or real insight. They preach “diversity!” but move away from neighborhoods when people of a “different kind” move in. They claim to support the plight of disabled (or differently-abled) people, but can’t be bothered to talk to us and gain our perspective. In April (and April only), they “Light It Up Blue” or “share this Facebook status for 1 hour” or donate to puzzle-piece organizations or sport some colored ribbon on their vehicle window or blog about us. But those ribbons, puzzle-pieces, and donations are not for us; they’re for them to feel like they fulfilled their own social obligation. Those blogs aren’t for us, either; they’re for them to express their own hardship in “dealing with” us. They might preach awareness and share posts on Facebook or Twitter, but let’s face it: hitting the “share/tweet” button took them two seconds, and they probably did it without thinking much about it, probably mostly to prove to their friends how sensitive and aware they are, because it’s the hip, trendy, moral thing to do. Those people probably saw it as a society-expected obligation they “should” fulfill, so they did, and now they feel all better about themselves…for about three minutes, before they forgot about it and moved on, continuing to scroll through their Facebook or Twitter feed or blog reader. For them, what they claim to be or to do was never about the people they’re claiming to be aware of; it was all about relieving their social pressure to fit the “tolerance” ideal.
So basically, ignore what they’re saying; wait until they act. Their actions will tell you the truth. But do prepare to be disappointed. Shrug it off as best you can. Don’t put much stock into what they say until they back it up with real action. Basically, assume they’re bullshitting you until proven otherwise (which does happen; some do come through shining, as genuine people).
Because allistic people don’t always say what they mean, it’s confusing to listen to them and try to determine what they’re actually saying. Like I said, you have to pretty much expect that there’s a hidden meaning that we’re somehow automatically supposed to “get”. Don’t feel bad if you don’t. (After all, how are you supposed to imagine a message that’s not being said? We’re not psychic, and we don’t read minds. What’s so wrong with just coming out and saying something? After all, they’re thinking it, so either say it or stay silent, but it’s ridiculous for them to hide the message inside a bunch of double-speak and then get irrational when we don’t automatically “get” the coded message.)
Another problem arises when they also assume there’s a hidden meaning in what you’re saying. They take their yardstick and apply it to us, assuming we’re pulling the same shit that they pull on each other. This is infuriating to a population (the spectrum population) that has been ignored, doubted, second-guessed, and criticized enough as it is. You almost have to preemptively quickly add, “I mean that in this way” (before they can respond) in order to prevent the inevitable irrational butthurt reaction.
And NTs do get butthurt relatively easily. They’ll take something honest, factual, or benign that you said and blow it completely out of proportion. They’ll act like you slapped them. This is because of all the assumptions they make about what people actually mean when they say something; like I said, they pull a bunch of double-speak shit on each other. And yep, that’s how they communicate. That’s how they live. Forgive my lack of cognitive empathy, but I can’t even imagine…
And when they get butthurt…
NTs can be very emotional, and they wear these emotions on their sleeves. They often get all hyped up about what are–to us–complete non-issues. Examples are all around: gender roles, politics (including morality), basketball playoffs, stock market points, job woes, personal drama, celebrities, movies, fashion, etc (see a pattern here? I almost feel like a broken record). And they can become very defensive and offended at times. They don’t get offended about true social injustice, like discrimination, bias, inaccuracy, or disadvantaged people. No, they–suddenly–get offended about transgender people being allowed to use certain public restrooms, or seeing someone breastfeed modestly in a public place, or their mediocre-performing child didn’t get a trophy, or how their children should be allowed anywhere and everywhere, or the US Supreme Court’s strike-down of state-level laws prohibiting same-gender marriage.
Establishing a Bond With Allistics:
Many allistic people are fine, genuine, harmless people. But tread very carefully; some are more shark-like, and that back-stabbing nature might not be readily apparent. They’re usually slaves to gender roles, age-appropriateness, and other societal rules and constraints. It’s almost a mortal sin to admit you like music or hobbies from your adolescence. They’ll look at you like you’re from Mars if you want invite them over and fire up the Nintendo for a trip down Memory Lane. They may assume you’re a cold, selfish, childish, insane prick who hates children if you don’t have at least two of your own. They’ll assume you’re (gasp) poor or that you lack self-esteem if you don’t flaunt everything you have.
The NT Take On Life is often (too frequently) to dumb it down, complicate it with bullshit and distractions, condense it into bite-size pieces, and send it viral. Strip it of substance, complexity, and real-ness, lace it with double-speak, polish it up into something shiny and digestible, package it for appearances, and act like That’s The Way Things Are, assuming broad acceptance and mass adoption.
And above all, (they) don’t disturb the herd…unless they’re trying to stand out as a special snowflake, and make a (hip, trendy) “statement”, that is.