LIFE ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM: THE AGE OF IGNORANCE
By Brian Lafferty
March 12, 2012 (San Diego) – Have any of you encountered the **** People Say Internet meme that recently flared up on the Internet? A great friend of mine introduced me to it weeks ago. Among them are **** Rich People Say or **** Guys Don’t Say Out Loud. I’m not one to get caught up in Internet memes, so I forgot all about it.
That is until a former college professor posted a Youtube video of one on my Facebook Timeline and asked what I thought. It was called **** Ignorant People Say to Autistics. It was eye and ear opening. For the next few days afterward, I thought about what I’d say if someone happened to utter these things to me. Here are the ones I found the most egregious.
And yes, these things have actually been said to Autistic people.
“People can see you.” I know people mean well when they say this. Sometimes I’m unaware of how others can perceive my behavior. But telling me, in public, that people can see me is as impolite as a grade school student correcting another student’s mispronunciations in front of the whole class; you’re genuinely trying to help, but you’re being rude. It’s embarrassing and doesn’t make me feel better.
If you’re concerned about what people will think of me, please understand that it’s not for you to worry about. I do believe first impressions are important, and there are certain instances when I have to make myself look good. But if I constantly concerned myself with what other people think of me, I’d feel insecure. That’s not a healthy way to live life.
“You’re Autistic? Oh, I am so sorry. That is so sad!” Being Autistic is many things, but sad isn’t one of them. I see no reason for anybody to pity me. Maybe you’re sorry because you think Autistics have it harder than others. Autism presents its own unique challenges. I don’t feel different. I think different. I’ve accomplished a great many things in my lifetime because of my Autism, not despite it.
Yes, there are certain things in my life right now I wish I could change; acquiring a full-time job and living independently are the two biggest. They’re not impossible tasks, and an Autistic person can do both. I know I will, too. Despite losing my mother and struggling to find a job, I love my life. When I become a paralegal and move out, it will be even sweeter.
“You seem so…normal.” That may sound like a compliment, but it’s not. It’s nice that you noticed I don’t exhibit obvious Autistic traits. But saying I seem normal implies that Autism is an abnormality, or that Autistic people are different from people who aren’t on the Spectrum. It’s demeaning.
“What are you, retarded?” If you’re an adult telling me this, I wonder how much you’ve matured since grade school. That word has officially been used in the medical field. But like certain words, its use has evolved into a pejorative. I was called a retard many times in grade school by kids who noticed I didn’t act the way they felt “normal” kids should act. They used the word “retard” against me to make themselves feel safer and more secure. When you use that word against me, awful memories resurface.
“I like Autistic people almost as much as I like real people.” Number one, I am a real person. Number two, Autistic people are real people. They just think differently. Number three, why do you like them almost as much as so-called “real people?” If you’re going to make such an ignorant “complement,” don’t include the word “almost.” That says to me you feel something’s wrong with Autistic people that you don’t see in “real people.”
“Stop making excuses to be rude to people.” I never, ever blame Autism for my failures. Everything I say and do is of my own volition. Do not think Autism gives me carte blanche to be rude or an excuse to behave badly. I always think very hard about what I’m about to say or do before I do it. Sometimes I say the wrong thing or I do something that rubs someone the wrong way. I never mean anything by it and it’s never my intent to offend people. It’s unfortunate, but I learn from it and move on. It happens. I’m not perfect, and neither are you or everyone else..
And before you single Autistic people out, keep in mind that everybody, not just Autistics, is capable of rudeness. Autistic or not, there is no justifiable excuse for bad manners. For you to tell me I make up excuses for social mishaps is insulting.
“Quiet hands!” One Autistic trait I possess is repetitive and self-stimulating behavior. I often “write” stuff in the air with a pen and “swing” it like a baseball bat with my fingers to simulate a baseball player hitting a baseball. Sometimes when I talk, my hands move around. I’m often unaware of it because so much of my energy is spent on formulating thoughts, words, and phrases that I neglect to think about everything else.
I do all of this to concentrate, or to keep myself occupied. Don’t grab my hands. It makes me very uncomfortable and some Autistics may get really upset when someone touches their hands or body in the manner shown in the video.
“I don’t think you have Autism. You’re so smart.” Don’t think that just because someone is Autistic that they aren’t smart. It’s uninformed comments like this that make me strive to provide not only a positive image of Autistics, but an accurate one. I may struggle socially sometimes, but there’s absolutely, unequivocally no connection between intelligence and social skills.
Autistics have just as much a chance at academic success as anybody. Just ask Temple Grandin, the world’s most notable Autistic. She got a Ph.D and is a university professor. I met her in person once, and she is very smart and knowledgeable.
Never, ever say to an Autistic person you don’t think he’s Autistic. I don’t care what you say, I don’t care how you say it, I don’t care what you mean by it, or how entitled you feel in expressing your opinion. Would you like it if you had a non-obvious disability or disorder and somebody told you you’re not disabled because he thought you function too well? I didn’t think so.
Fortunately, only a fraction of these things have been said to my face. I attribute it to spending my life in the company of understanding people. I hope it stays that way. If everybody was as well-informed about Autism as the people I’ve known over the years, there wouldn’t be a lot of such ignorant comments.
Brian Lafferty is an Autistic adult currently living in Escondido, California. He is also the film critic for East County Magazine. He graduated With Honors from California State University, Fullerton in 2009 with a degree in Radio/TV/Film and is the author of I Love Lucy in the anthology book Voices of Autism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.