I don’t remember how I came across the term “microaggression”, but apparently I did, and I’m guessing that it was a post on Facebook or Twitter made by someone who is on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. I can’t recall if it was posted specifically in reference to Asperger’s/autism, but I do know that as I researched the microaggression topic in more depth and learned more about it, it seemed as though it could be quite fertile ground for the experiences I’ve had as an Aspergian/autistic person and heard about from other people on the spectrum.
I was a little surprised when I went on a Google safari in search of more information on how microaggression might intersect with Asperger’s/autism; I couldn’t find much.
So, what the hell; let’s change that.
In typical Me-Form, let’s start with defining the vocabulary.
In the USA Today article “What are microaggressions?” Derald Wing Sue, author of the book “Microaggressions In Everyday Life” defines microaggression as:
“the constant and continuing reality of slights, insults, invalidations and indignities visited upon marginalized groups by well-intentioned, moral and decent family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students, teachers, clerks, waiters and waitresses, employers, health care professionals and educators.”
Isn’t that exactly what many of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum encounter every day? (Please note that I’m basing this on my own experience and the Twitter tweets, Facebook group discussions, and especially blog posts that I have personally come across, which may or may not be a representative sample of the entire Asperger’s/autism spectrum community.)
Consider the first part of the definition alone: “the constant and continuing reality of slights, insults, invalidations and indignities”.
Is that not what so many of us write about and lament over? I can’t tell you how many posts and comments I’ve come across that specifically describe this phenomenon with firsthand experience.
When I would talk to my family members about my different health symptoms, I would sense the ghost of an inward eyeroll. On the outside, they gave the appearance of nodding, listening, agreeing, sympathizing, but on the inside, you could almost hear them saying, “uh-oh; there goes Laina again, on another one of her wild-goose theories.”
This held double for my Asperger’s/autism spectrum disclosure. I’m not ignorant; I can sense these things. I might not interpret or translate their meaning perfectly, but I get the gist of the vibe. It’s for this and other reasons that I went for my formal diagnosis. Someone can only be subjected to doubt and skepticism for so long before they start resorting to laborious processes to prove points.
I’ve heard so many stories from autistic parents of autistic children who are regarded with legitimacy and respect from other parents and school administrators…until they open up about their own status on the spectrum.
Then there are the folks who, during a conversation with other people, disclose the fact that they’re Aspergian/autistic, and experience a complete change in demeanor in–and treatment by–the other person. They describe it as a talking down or even like they’re being talked to like a child. These were adults who were having a perfectly ordinary conversation a split-second ago.
These are just a handful of specific stories from people I know personally or have personally come across.
This doesn’t begin to canvas what goes on on a grander scale. Words and phrases like “disorder”, “disease” (in 2004!)”, affected by”, “devastating“, “illness”, “mental impairment (!) (in 2015!)”, “pathogenic mechanisms“, and so on, pervade the general conversation about autism. The old-school-style medical literature still maintains that it’s a problem that must be solved.
Some people on the spectrum have taken this a step further: if autism is a pathology, and we’re inherently autistic as part of the definition of who we are, then “they” must be under the impression that we’re disordered, broken people (to paraphrase their general message).
With so much negativity continuing to come from the world at large, which is primarily a non-autistic one, built according to non-autistic thought and dictated by people so convinced that their neurotype is “normal” and that everyone who deviates from that “norm” should be classified under groupings of arbitrary “disorders”, then it’s no wonder why we/I might at times appear to have a chip on our/my shoulder(s).
How are these words not a form of microaggression? How are these attitudes, whether perpetrated and perpetuated by people in our own lives with whom we’ve had personal interaction or those in the Ivory Towers making up the “rules”, not examples of “the constant and continuing reality of slights, insults, invalidations and indignities”? Isn’t that exactly what microaggression is?
For non-autistic people (hi!!), I would like to invite you to engage in an exercise with me. Some (probably most?) of you have done this before (but if not, please don’t feel bad), but whether you have or not, please bear with me and humor us both. 🙂
Consider, if you will, that you’re visiting a different country. The language sounds similar, and you can pick up the words themselves, but the meaning is different. The culture, too, is different; giving someone a “thumbs up” or an “OK” sign by hand is actually considered akin to giving someone the finger or insulting their mother or inviting them to participate with you in a lewd act. Mannerisms are different; suddenly you have to watch how you’re sitting so as not to inadvertently send the severely insulting message that you hold them in lower esteem than that of the bottom of your shoe. Phrases, practices, customs, and business procedures are full of potentially devastating and extremely embarrassing (but invisible!) potholes that may land you in very hot water, with no friends or support. You speak gingerly if at all, but mostly you sit back and observe, just to be on the safe side.
That’s kind of the way I perceive the world and the approach I feel I must take in interacting with it. It matters not that I live in the same culture into which I was born and raised; it often feels awkward and clunky to me just the same. I might as well be a foreigner. My levels of understanding and competence feel the same.
The response from others, however, is less forgiving. There is less leeway. I live in the US, and I’m fairly obviously a “native” American, whatever that entails. I reckon that to mean that it’s immediately recognizable that I speak the language, complete with the local dialect. I blend in as well as anybody else.
This creates certain expectations within other people. They likely assume that the rest of the cultural package is intact as well. They come to expect that I’ll meet the other social benchmarks, such as a firm handshake and unwavering eye contact. They’ll expect me to meet the other cultural criteria as well, and I’ll receive odd expressions and a distancing vibe from them if (when) I don’t.
Suddenly, my differences make the unintended transformation from simple quirks into “symptoms” of a “disorder”, for which it is assumed that sympathy or even pity is in order. The default position is that I’m broken, defective, diseased. After all, my collection of traits is recognized and categorized in a diagnostic index of “mental disorders”, after all. The rest of the song goes that I must therefore be incompetent, not of sound mind, the rebuttal of which falls on unlistening ears because everything I say is automatically suspect. After all, to be autistic is to be “locked in”, somehow warped and disabled.
I personally don’t think that my spectrum status is a defect. It’s simply a part of me, an explanation of my various idiosyncrasies. There are certainly days when I feel limited by what I can do, but that feeling primarily rears it head when I’m trying to swim in a world that, relative to my perspective, seems incredibly odd.
The principal driving force behind this feeling is not a disdain for the way I am or a desire to be like “everyone else”; it arises from the everyday language, responses, misconceptions, and assumptions made by others, and the implications thereof. It can really wear a person down when to simply be themselves is considered to be “affected”, when to dare to reveal my quirks is met with objection and rejection, and when my alternate way of being is constantly (and inaccurately) associated with being mentally ill and continuously results in the inability to be taken seriously.
I call upon the world at large to dilate its collective mind. To check its terminology at the door. To check its responses, attitudes, and bias. To check its neuro-privilege. To replace certain words and lines of thinking with healthier, more contemporary viewpoints. To actually put its money where its mouth is and celebrate the diversity it claims to laud. To celebrate diversity also means to not merely accept but embrace neurodiversity. There is, after all, “diversity” in “neurodiversity”. 🙂