I went to my work Christmas lunch last week. It was lovely and also quite enlightening… The reason it was enlightening was that I noticed something I have never really articulated before. We were playing a game where the organiser gave out cards with the name of each team member on them. The organiser read out a question and we had to hold up the card for the team member who was most likely to do something. For example ‘Most likely to get sunburned on holiday’ and colleagues holding up the corresponding card for the person most likely to do this. All my colleagues tended to pick the same person for each question. I however did not. I don’t think I picked the majority person once! Most of my colleagues are neurotypical and what I was seeing was the thing where autistic and neurotypical people do not see things the same way. It was very interesting.
I also realised the other day that I am quite different to my colleagues in other ways. I sometimes wonder what they think of me and imagine it is something like ‘strange but nice’. People often say I am very honest which seems odd to me as honesty is never intentional. It is just how I approach the world. It is my default setting but apparently that is odd. I find myself doing things that I imagine others think are unusual but I don’t really mind.
Being among mainly neurotypical people is the norm for me. I love that notion of autistic space where the company you are in is all or almost all autistic. In autistic space I don’t have to worry about people misinterpreting my actions or statements as we are all a lot more on the same wavelength. I wish autistic space was all the time but sadly I have only really experienced it a handful of times. Because they are the majority I think neurotypical folks just assume that anyone who communicates differently to them is doing it ‘wrong.’ This is problematic. We are not communicating ‘wrong’, we are simply doing it differently.
In fact I find neurotypical communication baffling. I don’t go around telling them they are doing it wrong but a lot of what they do and say is confusing. Think unwritten social rules. These are everywhere and neurotypical folks seem to pick up on them as if by magic whereas I wonder how such a thing could exist and how people can tell it is happening without being given any advice or instruction. And small talk! Seriously people why? There must be a reason I guess or people wouldn’t do it but if I am talking about the weather it is because I have an interest in meteorology! I always forget to do small talk and launch right into philosophy, art or advocacy – much more interesting than the weather. I also find operating on more than one level confusing. And even worse is when people assume I am doing that too and judge my motivations as if I were communicating the way they are. This usually results in me being judged even when I am not doing whatever I am accused of.
Autistic people tend to be very different to neurotypical people. This is not a failing or a negative but it can become a problem when assumptions are made that we are doing things for the same reason that neurotypical people would be if they were doing the same thing. We get accused of being rude, blunt, disrespectful, lacking in empathy and being ‘crazy’ and a whole bunch of other things while in reality we are just approaching the world from a different standpoint.
The idea of ‘different not less’ – an oldie but a goodie – is relevant here. Autistic people’s understanding is just a different understanding. When people judge us as if we were neurotypical then of course they will come up with a load of judgements and criticism. It is essential to understand us as valid autistic people and meet us as we are, not as we are assumed to be. And if I played the game at the work lunch again with colleagues who were all neurodivergent then I suspect I would get most of the questions ‘right’.