Matthew Rozsa discusses why people with Asperger’s Syndrome, and all so-called “misfits,” need to unite.
I’ve been writing about living with Asperger’s Syndrome for more than three years, and during that time I have received a curious response from many readers outside of the HFA (or high-functioning autism) community. Although many of them strongly identify with my descriptions of not understanding “the game” behind social interactions and therefore struggling to “fit in,” they’re not sure what to make of the fact that they have these problems but aren’t autistic themselves. Three questions usually arise:
- Do my arguments imply that most of these misfits are on the autism spectrum but simply haven’t been diagnosed?
- If not, what is my explanation for why so many people aren’t able to fit in?
- What do I think should be done to help all misfits, as opposed to merely those who are on the autism spectrum?
The first and second questions can be addressed with the same answer. Although psychology and neurology have made great strides over the past century, the human brain remains one of science’s great unknown frontiers. Because we currently understand so little about the mind, it is impossible for anyone to effectively comprehend the complex challenges facing those who for one reason or another are regularly marginalized, rejected, and abused just for being themselves. I boldfaced and italicized the phrase “for one reason or another” because, while autism is an explanation for some of these individuals (including those who haven’t been diagnosed), there are plenty of people whose social difficulties are caused by entirely unrelated conditions – including, I suspect, many that haven’t been discovered yet.
Even though our knowledge of the psyche remains incomplete, though, that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps to improve the experiences of misfits everywhere. In fact, I would argue that the three lessons society should learn from HFAs – i.e., the attitudes and expectations that, if they became the norm instead of the exception, would make it exponentially easier for us to fit in – would actually benefit everyone whose internal wiring has turned them into outcasts.
1. Don’t jump to conclusions when someone behaves in a way that could be considered weird, rude, obnoxious, or annoying.
Regardless of why another person comes across as weird, rude, obnoxious, and/or annoying, it is important to remember that quite often they aren’t doing this because of poor choices or character flaws. Societies come up with thousands of unspoken rules that govern how people interact with each other, and the ability to follow them has as much to do with neurological good luck as it does with personal agency. On one extreme, there are the men and women who are instinctively attuned to these unspoken rules; on the other, there are those who are entirely unaware of them and wouldn’t be able to master them even if they were explained in detail. Although most people fall somewhere between those two poles, those who are closer to the latter end are destined to “come across the wrong way” in social interactions because their gaffes veer too far from the normative margin of error.
Here’s where things get tricky. On the one hand, it’s understandable that people who are unfamiliar with abnormal behaviors – particularly those which are poorly understood, like autism, or not understood at all – will initially feel put off by them. The problem is that, instead of dispassionately trying to figure out why someone is behaving in an unusual way, many people are inclined to assume the worst. If you come across as rude, it must be that you’re a jerk; if you’re pushy, it must be that you don’t respect other people’s boundaries; if you make inappropriate or hurtful comments, it must be that you’re a boor or mean-spirited; and on and on it goes. There are literally countless ways in which someone who desires to interact on a normal level can come across abnormally – and thus be regarded as weird, rude, obnoxious, or annoying – because, for whatever reason, their brains do not pick up on all of the frequencies necessary for social proficiency. Even if we don’t precisely understand the why and how behind this, it’s still possible to create a system that benefits everyone. All we need to do is…
2. Encourage honesty and openness above all else.
There are two dimensions to this advice. For those who find themselves on the receiving end of socially awkward behavior, they should honestly and directly explain to the other person both what they are doing wrong and why they find it objectionable. For those committing the social awkwardness in question, they should be open with the other party about the nature of their struggle and accept the new lessons they are being taught.
This maxim may seem absurdly simple, but you would be amazed at the frequency with which it is disregarded… and, although my biases may be unduly influencing me here, my sense is that the normals are far more likely to ignore it than the abnormals. If nothing else, the power dynamic is entirely skewed in their favor, so they have no immediate incentive to extend their empathy and alter this behavior. What’s more, many of them are uncomfortable with bluntly explaining such delicate matters to other people and as such react negatively to being put in that situation in the first place. Finally, there is the pervasive prejudice that – regardless of the science and the lived experiences of millions – people who make social mistakes must be doing it because of a character flaw, and are simply using their condition (diagnosed or otherwise) as an excuse. This last assumption is especially pernicious because it discourages struggling individuals from being open with others, including those who could be understanding, because they assume they won’t be believed.
In a society that encouraged honesty, however, people dealing with awkward individuals will have a way of communicating their own needs while treating the other person with respect. Similarly, in a society that encourages openness, awkward individuals won’t have to worry about losing important personal and professional relationships because they mishandled a social situation; their errors will instead be correctly viewed as the interpersonal equivalent of blindness, with the condemnation falling on those who would reject or scorn them rather than on themselves for being disabled.
This isn’t to say that no burdens fall on the awkward…
3. Misfits unite!
In the end, anyone who has ever felt marginalized has a moral and practical responsibility to show empathy toward other marginalized people. While this may seem as self-evident as my second piece of advice, I have been shocked by how often I observe marginalized people mistreating others. Many of the socially maladjusted men (autistic or otherwise) that I meet harbor virulently homophobic views, ignoring the many structural similarities between the attitudes that cause anti-gay and anti-transsexual discrimination and the assumptions that perpetuate mistreatment of HFA and HFA-like individuals. Similarly, I’ve met many people who suffer from one type of psychological syndrome who – though rightly insisting on fairness for others with their specific condition – seem incapable of extending that same empathy toward all misfits in general. Instead of learning that the problem is a society which creates misfits in the first place, all they’ve picked up on is that they personally do not want to feel among the misfits.
If we’re going to make this a better world for marginalized people, we need to start by realizing that everyone who is marginalized is ultimately in the same boat. The specific issues may differ, but the underlying cause is always the same: Because someone is different, and that differentness is misunderstood, it is considered acceptable to reject or mistreat them. Anyone who suffers in this way – from HFAs and other people with conditions that make them socially awkward to victims of oppression based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation – deserves empathy and understanding. When we support each other, we are stronger than when we go it alone; and when we sympathize with each other, we are better people than when we only extend our empathy to those who are like us.
Even though there is so much we don’t understand about our own selves, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by promoting a culture of honesty and openness and discouraging actions that pass harsh judgments and close off communication. If we achieve those goals, there will be far fewer misfits out there in the world, just a lot of differently abled people whose conditions will be better understood over time.
I feel the need to end this essay on a personal note. Looking back over my own life, I find innumerable occasions in which I have been penalized socially for reasons that I did not understood and could not control. One of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been connecting with others who face similar predicaments, but even as I learned that I wasn’t alone, I became increasingly frustrated at the knowledge that so much of what makes our lives difficult would be GONE – evaporated, poof, in a cloud of smoke – if the prevailing assumption was to be honest and communicative. This frustration is heightened by the knowledge that, save for the deliberately malicious and duplicitous, everyone would win by adopting this ethos, not just HFAs and people who are like them.
This needs to change… and it needs to change now.