Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a handicapped parking space?
Obviously, this can’t happen – the whole point of handicapped spaces is that they provide the physically disabled with closer proximity to buildings than the physically abled – but an equivalent is possible when it comes to social interactions. To understand what I mean, though, it is first necessary to explain a form of ableism with which high-functioning autistics (HFAs) are confronted every single day.
I’m referring to how, when you are an HFA, friends, and other associates will often discontinue their relationships with you without ever explaining why.
This has happened to me more times than I can count. Most recently I lost my best friend when, after I apologized over what I’d believed was a simple disagreement, he stopped talking to me without explaining why (and despite repeated requests on my part that he do so). This was even more hurtful because he has known for years that I have autism, and I made it clear that I didn’t know why he was upset with me for that reason – but he simply didn’t respond.
Like I said, though, this is only the most recent example, and at least there had been a minor disagreement (or what I perceived to be minor) that precipitated it. When a friend I had known since middle school froze me out, it had come out of nowhere; the same is true for a fashion blogger with whom I had often collaborated. “I can safely say there is nothing more infuriating than me misreading a cue, this causing a large problem, and then being left for dead – radio static, nothing,” explains my friend Josh, who is also an HFA and one of the most brilliant men I know (he is currently an undergraduate studying physics). “It’s happened enough times between friends and significant others to warrant a small novel. The problem is, neurotypicals (like any other advantaged group) approach these social playing fields as if everyone is on the same level.”
Josh isn’t the only HFA I know who has complained about this; indeed, being arbitrarily dropped is BY FAR the number one complaint I’ve heard from fellow HFAs since I began discussing these issues as a public figure. It is also, by far, the concern that neurotypicals are most likely to dismiss when it is brought to their attention. Three reasons are usually given for that dismissal. The first (and most despicable) is that this is simply a part of life and HFAs simply need to get used to it – a statement that belies privilege if there ever was one.
Then there are the people who claim that, while the neurotypicals who do this to HFAs are wrong, we need to understand that it’s because explaining why they want to discontinue an association makes them “uncomfortable.” The flawed reasoning here is that they say this as if it ends the conversation. What they’re ignoring is that systems of privilege are usually supported by the discomfort that dismantling them would cause the privileged (think how often people who use racial slurs complain that they don’t want to police their speech). Because people who can’t read nonverbal social cues are at a disadvantage, not verbalizing why you’re distressed with them is ableist and abusive – regardless of whether you intend for it to be that way. Your discomfort at the thought of accommodating HFAs isn’t where the conversation ends; it’s where it begins.
This point is so important that it bears repeating. It doesn’t matter how many yellow ribbons you wear or how much change you drop into those little charity containers for autistics at your local supermarket. If you are unwilling to show the most basic kindness in your interpersonal relationships with an autistic person, then you are abusing your ableist privilege. That doesn’t mean you have to maintain an association with an autistic person if you don’t want to, but unless you have sound reason to feel threatened by that individual (and I’m talking extreme situations here), it is ableism to freeze out someone who is neurologically incapable of understanding why. Just as I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened to me, so too have I lost track of how many HFAs have discussed how traumatizing it has been when this repeatedly happens to them.
This brings me to the third point I usually hear from neurotypicals when I bring this up – namely, that everyone gets frozen out. While I don’t doubt that this is true, there is a traumatizing aspect to the experience for those who are socially disabled that the socially abled simply cannot comprehend. Of course, that doesn’t make it okay when it happens to neurotypicals… and so I return to my earlier parking space analogy. Although we can’t live in a society where everyone gets a handicapped parking space, we can live in one where every individual is accountable for their social decisions. Indeed, because high-functioning autism often isn’t self-evident, perhaps it would be better if each person erred on the side of caution and simply treated each other… Well, like human beings.
Then again, perhaps the notion of actually applying The Golden Rule to every man, woman, and child is too radical even for an article like this one. At the very least, though, if you know someone who is on the autism spectrum, learn that freezing them out is no better than parking in a handicapped space.
Photo: Flickr – hepingting/”siblings-of-kids-with-autism”