Punishing Bluntness: Honesty and Politeness

[Image Description: a starry night sky]

One of the autism stereotypes often seen on the TV and in movies is the autistic person who is completely incapable of telling a lie. This is usually shown as something along the lines of: neurotypical character asks autistic character if she looks okay, and autistic character responds by nit-picking everything wrong with her appearance until she’s upset and the audience laughs at the autistic character’s expense. She runs out of the room and the autistic character is left blinking, uncertain what he’s done wrong.

This is not a very realistic scene, especially if the character is an adult. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, most autistic people have learned that blunt honesty will lead to arguments and punishment. It is also easy to learn, especially if you’ve had a few decades to do so, that people very rarely want to be told they look bad. So, the autistic character in Generic Bad Autism Movie isn’t a realistic depiction of autism. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to consider in that scene.

Society teaches children the phrase “honesty is the best policy”, but it doesn’t mean it. For autistic children, who tend to take things literally, being taught that phrase often leads to excessive honesty… and to the autistic child not understanding why they’re being called rude and punished for it. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have learned that when neurotypicals say they value honesty, that is itself a lie. Neurotypical humans value honesty in certain contexts and politeness in others.

Politeness has its place in the world, after all being excessively rude will hurt others and lead to a deterioration in personal relationships. Yet at the same time, people are often expected to be excessively polite, and this can be difficult for autistic people for whom this may not come as naturally. Many, but not all, autistic people prefer to be honest and blunt where possible. Which can lead to arguments and miscommunication in a world where honesty is expected to come second to politeness.

For autistic children, it can be hard to understand the difference between honesty and rudeness in some contexts, especially when the adults around them are often giving what seem like contradictory messages. “Never tell a lie”, if you take it completely literally, means that if you’re asked if you liked your Christmas present, you may well respond “no, I hate pink and find dolls boring”. This is then seen as rude, and you’re punished. For autistic children who thought they were just being honest, this can be very upsetting.

“Always be honest” and “always be polite” are not compatible statements. The only way to make them compatible is to add in caveats. For neurotypical people, or for autistic adults who have finally learned what it really means, these caveats are included within the subtext… but for autistic children and autistic adults who have yet to work this out, the subtext isn’t visible. So, it leads to confusion, mistakes, yelling and punishment.

There are two options here for how to solve this problem. Either stop punishing ‘rudeness’ if the intention is to be honest, rather than deliberately rude; or change the phrases we teach children so that they’re no longer so fundamentally contradictory. When adults say “honesty is the best policy”, they mean it is best to be honest about big things that matter (there’s more nuance to this too, but that’s a whole other discussion) not about little white lies about whether or not you like someone’s new haircut. That needs to be explained, explicitly, to children – especially autistic ones.

Some forms of bluntness are valuable. For example, if someone brings you a first draft of a manuscript they want to send to publishing agencies, they may genuinely want you to point out any spelling errors or things that could be changed. It can be helpful as a form of constructive criticism, especially if the person seeking constructive criticism knows they’re asking someone who can be blunt. Not everyone wants total bluntness, but there are people who do, and it has its place.

For autistic adults like me, however, we can end up becoming afraid of being blunt, even when people ask for it. It took me many years to work out what people really meant when they said they valued honesty, years in which I was yelled at and punished frequently for unintended rudeness. Now, I’m simply too afraid of punishment to give honest opinions on anything, and in fact I can get anxiety attacks when pushed to share opinions on minor matters. I can speak for hours on politics, but if you ask me if I like your scarf, my heart rate will double – even if I do actually like it!

Punishing bluntness in autistic children leads to long-term consequences, because it is so rarely explained to the child why they’re being punished. Many autistic people live in fear of the phrase “you know what you did” because we often don’t. Equating intentional rudeness with excessive honesty is a quick way to make an autistic child scared to ever speak their mind. Eventually, the child will learn to hide the truth. When honesty is punished, lies become a shield.

Demands, Principles & Values

[Image Description: humans holding up signs spelling out “bail out the planet”]

Extinction Rebellion’s strategy has numerous flaws that I have detailed before in this post. Yet not all of the issues can be solved by a change in strategy; many of these flaws are embedded in the very founding documents of the movement. XR’s Three Demands, alongside their 10 Principles and Values are deserving of scrutiny, both in their context and their execution (or lack thereof).

Let’s look at the Three Demands. Tell the Truth (declare a climate emergency), Act Now (net-zero emissions by 2025) and Beyond Politics (create a climate citizen’s assembly) The latter demand is not to be confused with the briefly-existing political party of the same name started by Roger Hallam, which was named after the demand and has since rebranded as Burning Pink. There are no huge issues with the first, and I would argue that it has – for the most part – already been achieved.

The second is not offensive in its content, but merely somewhat unfeasible in the current political climate. There is nothing wrong with a group which aims to paint itself as radical pushing for something unobtainable, however. Pushing farther than you expect people to move shifts the window, it’s a basic negotiating technique. It can even be argued that despite how soon this target is, it is needed. That’s a debate for another time and place. The third demand, however?

A climate Citizens’ Assembly, chosen by sortition, is an XR demand that has managed to gain a lot of traction and has spread throughout the climate movement since 2018. Some countries have even began holding such Assemblies, such as Scotland (although it is non-binding). Yet, will Citizens’ Assemblies actually change anything? I’d argue no, there is no guarantee that such bodies will end up backing the radical climate action XR wants.

XR has a slogan used in contexts of promoting these Assemblies, “trust the people”. Internal training on facilitating People’s Assemblies is given this as a title. The belief is that a random sortition-chosen group can be trusted to do the right thing when presented with evidence. However, I would argue that this is a very naïve view. There is ample evidence that many of ‘the people’ often hold racist, misogynistic, ableist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise bigoted views. Trust them? Sure, if you’re a cishet abled white male, maybe then you can trust them. Otherwise, this idea sounds concerning.

Sortition is itself a controversial method of choosing people to sit on a political decision-making body. It is a method best known for choosing juries, but Citizens’ Assemblies have existed before this. XR has come under criticism for wanting to replace democracy with sortition, where only the people randomly chosen have their say. This is a fair criticism in the context of this demand, but it is unlikely many people actually want to end democracy for good. I won’t pretend there aren’t some, though.

XR has three demands, and ten principles and values that people acting in their name are expected to abide by. Most of the principles seem decent at first glance, but deserve deeper scrutiny. Take Principle 2, “we set our mission on what is necessary”. Part of this principle on the XR UK website is “to mobilise 3.5% of the population to achieve system change”. This figure is based on research into non-violent civil disobedience carried out by a number of people, including Srdja Popovic whose work I’m familiar with.

The research, however, studies revolutions targeting the overthrow of dictatorial regimes. Aiming to change how we view climate change, and the actions needed to prevent a catastrophic breakdown is an entirely different scenario. It’s like using polling data from Wales to predict the results of an election in Scotland; no matter how good the research is, and how valid it is within its context, it proves nothing about other contexts.

There is nothing wrong with Principle 5 as stated, “we value reflecting and learning”, but its inclusion shines a light on the hypocrisy of some in the movement. Despite many, many, many reflection sessions which concluded Roger Hallam has caused harm, XR continues to promote his events. Hallam, who is one of the founders of XR, admitted making anti-Semitic statements for ‘shock value’ and in the words of and XR member from the North of England, “immediately divides any room he sets foot into” (quote from a 2020 zoom call).

Principle 6 sounds excellent, “we welcome everyone and every part of everyone”. This means that no matter how many intersecting identities someone has, they should be welcome. However, in practice, there are two issues with this: one, it is rarely carried out in practice, particularly towards disabled people. There is a history of bad blood between the environmental and the disability communities that XR has failed completely to tackle. Second, ‘everyone’ includes bigots. Do you really want to welcome them?

The eighth of the ten principles & values on the list is “we avoid blaming and shaming”. My initial interpretation of this is that XR avoids blaming any individual humans for their actions because it is the system and mega-corporations that are most responsible for climate change. However, there are alternative interpretations that blaming any individual business, or any political party, is against this principle. This makes it rather difficult to push for any kind of change.

Extinction Rebellion did good work in getting the climate firmly on people’s minds and near the top of the agenda. The first demand has easily been the most successful for the movement, which focuses largely on the media attention garnered by mass arrests and roadblocks. But its founding principles contain flaws that stop the movement from growing further or making more progress. If XR wants to continue pushing for climate action, and wants to be effective, they need to revise and re-evaluate these documents.

Marriage Tax Cuts Should Be Abolished

[Image Description: two wedding rings tied together on top of some US currency]

Marriage tax cuts ought to be abolished. Their existence is evidence that the state prefers humans to be in monogamous, legally-constituted unions over all other ways of living one’s life, and this is an outdated view that we must challenge. Marriage tax cuts discriminate against people who cannot be in a monogamous relationship for whatever reason, and if we want equality, they must go out the window.

Polygamous relationships exist, and can be perfectly healthy. If all partners in such a relationship are consenting to a polygamous relationship, then there is nothing which says this is any less or more valid, or that these partners are any less or more in love with each other, than those in a monogamous relationship. Since polygamous marriage is illegal, the existence of marriage tax cuts necessarily discriminates against people in such relationships who cannot marry.

Asexual and/or aromantic people also exist. While we can be in relationships, monogamous or otherwise, we often choose not to be. People who do not feel attraction, who do not want to be in a relationship and are perfectly happy to remain single throughout their lives cannot benefit from marriage tax cuts. Yet another group these exclude.

Marriage tax cuts are state endorsement of one very particular lifestyle, and they penalise people who do not conform to this specific lifestyle. It is a form of cultural hierarchy, whereby those who live as the government thinks they should live are rewarded while others are excluded. It is government overreach.

For those living in poverty, these probably seem like a lifeline, but what happens if the relationship starts to break down? People may fear having to pay more tax if they leave a relationship that is making them miserable. Coupled with the high cost of divorce, the current system in the UK encourages working class people in abusive relationships to remain with their spouse regardless. If we’re serious about tackling domestic violence, we need to change the system.

The institution of marriage is not, in itself, a bad thing. Yet the way our society places value on this institution to the exclusion of all else is a problem. There needs to be wholesale reform of the legal implications of marriage to bring relationship law into the 21st century, or people will continue to be excluded or trapped when they shouldn’t be. Therefore, we need to look at ending marriage tax cuts, and streamlining the divorce system.

Not all Autistic People like Computers

[Image Description: a laptop sitting in front of a desktop monitor, both displaying a webpage titled “World of Bees”]

It’s 2014. I’ve just started studying Mathematics at university. I’m interested in the statistics route; I’ve always been fascinated by politics and even though I decided to choose maths on shaky grounds of “I should study a STEM subject so I get a job”, encouraged by teachers, I want to lean towards politics as much as possible.

In my second semester, I get to take a statistics module. I’m excited. I go to lectures, I do my homework, we’re told to go to the computer lab to start work on a project. We are introduced to R. I don’t like R. It doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t get the computer to do what I want it to. In another module, we’re learning Python. I can’t make it work either. I panic, I cry as the deadline approaches and I’ve done nothing. I get poor marks on both computer projects.

It’s 2016, I go to a careers adviser. I say I’m worried about finding employment, I’m not good at interviews, I can’t work while I’m at uni because it would lead to severe burnout. I only have so much energy thanks to being autistic, I say. “Oh, you’re autistic? There are these great employment opportunities for autistic people, you don’t need to interview, just show them how good you are with computers.”

I think back. It’s 2008, I’ve just started secondary school. We’re learning photoshop in art class. I still have serious anger management issues. I can’t do it, it’s frustrating. My entire identity is built on getting good grades as I have no friends. I make another mistake. I pick up the keyboard, scream and throw it on the floor, storming out of the room. It dangles from its wire, still attached to the computer.

I go on the internet and open google. “Autism employment UK” I search. The results load. Coding, coding, coding, coding, coding. I have a headache from staring at the screen. It’s too bright, too white, too pixelated. I don’t like computers. They don’t like me. I read about Luddites and angrily think that they had the right idea. This world is not for me.

I put the laptop away and turn on the TV. “Autistic savant creates robot,” reads the headline. I can hear the presenter “… autistic people may lack social skills, but they have excellent computer skills. This young boy, aged only 9, has managed to…”

I turn off the TV. I look in the mirror and ask myself, what am I? I’m not neurotypical, I’ve never managed to survive in that society without severe masking until I’m exhausted and feel sick. But computers hate me so how can I be autistic? There’s no place for me, not anywhere. I’m an aberration, I shouldn’t exist, there is no place for me in this world.

Not all autistic people are good with computers. Not all autistic people know how to code. Not all autistic people like or want to be good with computers. We exist, we are here despite what the media and everyone else says. Stop assuming we are all computer savants. It hurts people.

Au-Ti, Autistic Community and Abusive Behaviour

[Image Description: the word autism surrounded by translations for “hello” in multiple languages, above a rainbow strip with text that reads “by autistic people for everyone”]

Au-Ti, known also as Autists, Autism @ Au-Ti, and on twitter as @AUTIGROUP is led by an autistic man from England called Adrie Cornelis, formerly known as Adrie Van Der Meer. The ideology behind the Au-Ti group is not progressive or supporting true neurodiversity. The group embraces the use of functioning labels and the term Aspergers, despite the numerous concerns raised by various autistic people over both the ineffectiveness of functioning labels and the links between Hans Asperger and the Nazis.

In June I resigned as an admin of this group and wrote an open letter giving my reasons. In light of further criticisms of the group from multiple sources, I wish to expand upon the contents of that letter and talk about the various experiences I had or witnessed within the group that ultimately led to my decision to publicly resign. I have wished to share this since leaving, but felt intimidated into remaining silent on many things.

While in the group, a new member joined and I was tagged as a person from Scotland they could speak to, as they were also from Scotland. This person, through repeated questions, managed to ascertain that we lived nearby to each other. They were in their 40s, I was 24 and presented at the time as a woman. He began messaging me privately less than an hour into our conversation, and asked me for a date. I blocked him.

Upon reporting this incident to Adrie and other admins, I was informed that he couldn’t be removed from the group as he hadn’t had three strikes. This was not the first incident of a man in this group private-messaging a female-presenting member with sexual or romantic comments or overtures. No previous perpetrators were removed from the group either due to this strict three-strikes policy.  

A week or two before I left, a group of three admins reported an Australian Aboriginal immigrant in the US to the police. This was, allegedly, a mental health call. The individual in question asked them NOT to call the police and explained that what he was experiencing were normal symptoms of an established long-term condition that he knew how to treat himself. Adrie, who was one of the three alongside Delia and Erin, brought Erin onto the call specifically so she, a US-based nurse, would be duty-bound to report the incident.

This was at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US following a number of shootings of Black people in the US. Calling the police on a person of colour who was begging you not to, in the US, at that time, is not acceptable. Mental health crisis calls to police, particularly for autistic people, particularly for people of colour, particularly in the US, have a history of ending badly for the person who is being reported. There is a very real risk of shooting or indefinite psychiatric detention.

The group, which is based across multiple platforms including WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook, alongside a Twitter account and, now, their own website, has allowed a practicing ABA therapist and an employee at an ABA school to remain part of the group, and to promote their work. At the time of my membership, openly opposing these viewpoints was called ‘political’ and shut down by the admins. Meanwhile, people were permitted to share pro-ABA studies on ‘early intervention’.

One admin, Delia of the police-calling incident, who is a doctor in Chile, made openly racist and Islamophobic comments in the WhatsApp group in June, calling Muslims “extremely violent” and claiming that Islam is a ‘political ideology’ and comparing it with Nazism. Adrie then ordered us, as admins, to remain ‘impartial’ when addressing racist comments in the main WhatsApp chat. He then accused those members who called out the racist comments of “bullying Delia” and demanded an apology.

After myself and numerous others left the group, a remaining member revealed to me that Adrie had told all members that we were working at the behest of a former member of the group and advised them to block all Cuban phone numbers. He previously removed this member from the group for criticising the Cuban government as it was ‘political’. After leaving, he accused myself and others of following the orders of this individual and claimed we had not independently chosen to leave. This was completely false.

He later accused those of us who left of setting up a group designed to harass members of their group and threatened to contact the police on members of a new WhatsApp group set up by former members of their group who wished to stay in contact. He implied that a formal international investigation was happening and that he was in contact with lawyers. This behaviour was clearly designed to intimidate former members into refraining from speaking publicly about their experiences. People have also been re-added to the group without their pemission.

Since leaving the group, it has rebranded from Autists to Au-Ti and has set up a news website on autism issues. The group continues to attack other autistic people who are not part of it.

The autistic community needs to speak up about the abuse in this group and at the hands of other autistic people. Bullying within the autistic community is, unfortunately, a fairly common occurrence, and is often swept under the rug and ignored by many. Since joining this group and resigning my admin role, I have witnessed continual harm being perpetuated by this group and some of its leaders, and I can no longer stay silent.

Edit notice: this post was updated on the 23rd February to reflect a change in the Twitter username of the group following the publication of multiple articles and posts criticising the organisation. The post was further updated on the 15th March to link to screenshot evidence hosted on Twitter.

The Flaws in Extinction Rebellion’s Strategy

[Image Description: purple boat with the words “the future you fear is already here” painted on the side in English and Gaelic, with a sail that reads “Act Now”]

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an environmental campaign group that first formed in 2018 in the UK and has since spread across the globe. XR has gained much media attention, and has attracted a lot of controversy for both tactics used and comments made by certain founders of the movement. Since the formation of XR, the climate emergency has certainly gained much more attention, but has XR reached the limit of what it can achieve in its current form?

Extinction Rebellion conflates the definitions of “civil disobedience” and “direct action” which are not actually the same thing. Most direct action is also civil disobedience, but not all civil disobedience is direct action. Blocking roads in London is civil disobedience, as it is a form of protest involving law-breaking, but it is not actually direct action as it is not directly targeting what the group wants to change. Blocking the Sun from distribution, on the other hand, is indeed direct action.

The focus on ‘deliberate arrests’ is also a controversial tactic that reveals the privileged position of the founders who developed this strategy. It is far riskier to face arrest if you’re a person of colour, trans, disabled, an immigrant or poor. Deliberately obtaining a criminal record is something only one with an extreme amount of privilege can consider. There is a culture of encouraging arrests, and of viewing those who have been arrested as the ‘main’ part of the movement within XR, which excludes those who cannot or don’t want to do this.

Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution, a handbook to non-violent revolution that was one of the inspirations for XR strategy, contains a chapter about the risk of arrest, the importance of reducing people’s fear of arrest and of making arrest seem ‘cool’ to encourage people to risk it. This was written in the context of Popovic’s Otpor! movement in Serbia to take down Slobodan Milošević, where anyone protesting faced the risk of arrest. What XR failed to grasp is the difference between “this may happen so you need to be prepared” to “let’s deliberately make this happen”.

Popovic and others whose writing inspired XR strategy also inspired the 3.5% figure. This is supposedly the percentage of a population that need to be mobilised in order to change a system. This research, once more, is based on the context of overthrowing (primarily Eastern European dictatorships). While the research which arrived at that figure may be perfectly valid in the context of overthrowing dictators, seeking climate action is a very different context, and XR cannot and should not assume radically changing the context won’t alter the figure.

Even if the 3.5% figure works in this context despite its difference from those which the research studied, XR cannot achieve this with their current organisational structure and their actions. For every new person joining XR, people are leaving as a result of badly-considered actions and comments that make the name Extinction Rebellion toxic to some people. Most of the people leaving are from marginalised communities who have felt unsupported and excluded from XR.

An often-quoted statement from XR is that “anyone is empowered to take action in our name, as long as they abide by our principles and values”. The group is, on paper at least, a decentralised organisation made up of small, autonomous groups who are self-organising and who can act of their own initiative. In practice, this sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t, and there have certainly been top-down approaches to the creation of certain groups, such as in the XR US vs. XR America debacle.

There are obvious problems with this method of organisation. The principles and values are words, and words can be interpreted differently by different people. Therefore, immediately there is an issue whereby people could act under an XR banner that is extremely damaging to the cause, harmful to other people or to communities. We saw this in October 2019 with the controversial tube action in London. People are leaving XR because the structure will allow such scenarios to repeat indefinitely.

Extinction Rebellion appeared at a time when climate action was sorely needed, and their media-focused publicity stunts and deliberate arrests certainly drew attention and changed the narrative. But we’re moving to a stage where we need to discuss solutions & work with those in a position to make such changes, rather than gambling the future of the planet on the public perception of media stunts. XR’s strategy had its time, but that time is passed and we need something different now. It’s time they looked at that.

Meltdowns and Shutdowns – Autistic Experiences

When autistic people are extremely distressed – either due to sensory overload, stressful social situations or something else – it can sometimes present as either a meltdown or a shutdown. These are two intense responses to distressing situations that are common among autistic people and often misunderstood by the general public. Without knowledge of how these work, well-meaning bystanders can often make things worse.

Meltdowns

An autistic meltdown is an outburst caused by overload or stress, resulting in a loss of control of the person experiencing it. This often resembles a child’s tantrum, with two major differences: a meltdown will continue regardless of whether others are present, whereas a tantrum is designed to get attention; and meltdowns can happen in adults as well as children, which can be dangerous.

Someone experiencing a meltdown may: become violent against others or themselves, yell and scream, throw things, run away from the situation without assessing potential dangers (i.e. may run into a road); or be unable to talk or communicate. This can be dangerous for autistic people of all ages, but particularly adults who may attract unwanted attention from passers-by or the authorities.

Meltdowns among children are often misconstrued as tantrums, and thus adults frequently do not bother to tackle the cause of meltdowns or understand the distress the autistic child is in. This means that potential solutions aren’t found, as the cause of distress remains such as an unsuitable sensory environment or bullying. Autistic children are often punished for meltdowns – despite these being uncontrollable.

Adult meltdowns can be even more dangerous. Police and other authorities will often view an autistic adult having a meltdown as a danger, and will react accordingly – often in ways which increase the person’s distress and escalate the situation. This can be especially dangerous in countries like the US where police regularly shoot people they view as threats. Even if nobody is hurt, meltdowns can be intensely embarrassing one the person has calmed down and recalls what happened.

Shutdowns

Shutdowns appear as the opposite of meltdowns, however are often caused by the same things. Different autistic people will experience shutdowns or meltdowns more often; some will almost always react with one while others may react either way. In a shutdown, the person becomes silent, non-communicative and will often block out the world entirely.

An autistic person who can normally speak may become non-speaking during a shutdown; or may be unable to type, point, communicate or acknowledge the presence of other people. It may present as an unwillingness to answer or look at other people, however the person often is unable to do these things, or connect with the world at all while in the process of a shutdown.

Shutdowns are the ‘freeze’ reaction, while meltdowns are fight-or-flight. An autistic person experiencing a shutdown may come across as rude, as if they’re deliberately ignoring you. Inside the person’s mind, there may be a calm after the storm, shutting out the bad things in the world that hurt them and existing in a state of bliss separate from reality. This may seem better than meltdowns, but it makes functioning in society hard – most bosses wouldn’t want employees to become non-responsive periodically.

My Experiences

When I am having a meltdown, the safest thing to do is leave me to calm down on my own. When people put pressure on me to explain myself, or try to touch me, I react by becoming increasingly distressed and unable to communicate, which increases the danger that I may become violent or run somewhere dangerous. Interfering with an autistic person mid-meltdown has a high chance of escalating the situation rather than helping.

I experience meltdowns far more often than shutdowns, but thankfully far less often than I did when I was younger. In school, when I was being constantly bullied and tormented, they were excessively frequent which presented as severe anger-management issues resulting in violence and loss of friendships. Now, they are much tamer, and less frequent, due partly to avoidance of overwhelming situations, and partly to sheer terror of the consequences.

If I feel I’m getting overloaded, and about to have a meltdown, the safest thing for me to do by far is leave the situation immediately, regardless of what it is. If that is impossible for whatever reason, I should put on noise cancelling headphones, shut my eyes and go somewhere I can be alone where nobody is able to burst in and interrupt me – such as a locked toilet cubicle.

Things other people could do to help me if they’re present when I feel overload coming is to help me leave the situation, to never encourage me to stay a little longer, and to leave me alone to work through it and calm down. It is much better to leave me alone than to stay in that situation, as I’ll find arbitrary things annoying and staying only increases the risk of a negative outcome for all present.

Sensory Sensitivities – Autistic Experiences

[Image Description: bright morning sun shining over some tram tracks that appear dark]

Sensory sensitivities are common in many autistic people. We can experience the common senses very differently to neurotypical people. Autistic people can have either hypersensitivity (where senses are over-sensitive) or hyposensitivity (where senses are under-sensitive). These differences can be present in any or all of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell; and for the same person some senses can be oversensitive while others are under-sensitive.

Sight

Light sensitivity is the most common of the sight sensitivities. Others include a strong sense of either revulsion or appreciation for certain colours, patterns etc. It can be difficult to tell whether certain sight sensitivities are due to autism or due to other eye conditions such as short-sightedness, migraines, or Irlen’s Syndrome.

Light oversensitivity can mean the sun is always too bright, even when it’s behind a cloud, and some autistic people wear sunglasses regardless of the weather to counter this. Artificial lighting can also trigger light oversensitivity, particularly fluorescent lighting which flickers at a rate too high for most humans to notice – but some autistic people can. Flashing lights may also be a trigger, such as Christmas lights on houses during winter.

Sensory sensitivities often do not make sense to those who don’t experience them, which is a major issue in the understanding and acceptance of autistic people. Some sight sensitivities, such as being repulsed by stripy patterns, for example, seem to have no overt cause and may be dismissed as ‘silly’. However, to the individual, they can produce intense emotional reactions, or even be experienced as physical pain.

Hearing

Noise sensitivity is perhaps the most well-known of autistic sensory sensitivities. The modern image of an autistic person usually includes noise-cancelling headphones, in media that is both good representation and bad representation. Loud noises or consistent interfering noises, can cause a lot of distress for autistic people. It can become difficult to focus, and culminate in sensory overload and a meltdown or shutdown.

Some autistic people, however, seek out certain sounds that may be comforting to them. Music is naturally a common one, but the tinkling of chimes or click of buttons could also be comforting. Unfortunately, autistic people can also have a strong revulsion to some sounds, like hammering – and two autistic people may find the same sound comforting for one, and repulsive to the other, leading to conflict.

Touch

Some autistic people may hate being touched by other people, or may hate certain fabrics. Autistic people with strong touch sensitivities regarding certain fabrics may find it very difficult to buy new clothes, instead wearing the same old things over and over again until they fall apart. Other autistic people have textures they love to touch and find comforting, either to wear or just to have close by to rub when they’re feeling stressed.

Weighted blankets are popular among autistic people who crave a heavy touch, as the pressure can be enjoyable. For other autistic people, though, they may find the opposite and dislike pressure. Sensory sensitivities are an area which can vary so greatly from person to person that the only real way to accommodate most of them for an autistic person is to ask that specific individual.

Taste

Taste sensitivities can be extreme in autistic people, presenting as ‘fussy eating’ as only certain foods may be deemed acceptable. This is made worse by texture and touch also entering into it, as foods can have different textures too. An autistic person with extreme taste oversensitivity may refuse to eat anything other than a small list of foods – even if the alternative is eating nothing at all.

Other autistic people with taste under-sensitivity may crave foods with lots of flavours as they struggle to detect the taste otherwise. This means that two autistic people with opposite taste needs may never be able to share a meal. Taste-oversensitive autistic people may not be able to eat spicy food, and may find something others classify as ‘not that spicy’ actually extremely hot and painful.

These sensitivities can lead to disordered eating if they are ignored or not accommodated, leading to health impacts, so it is vitally important that they are respected.

Smell

Some autistic people can’t stand strong smells at all. Perfume and deodorants are awful and make the world painful as you can never predict where you’ll smell them. Cigarette smoke is another one that can be painful and distressing – and vaping is not much better, and can often be worse as it covers whole pavements and is inescapable. Some autistic people can’t even be in the same room as someone who has recently been smoking.

On the other hand, there are some smells that autistic people may greatly enjoy, and some autistic people who will seek out nice smells. The smell of fruit, vanilla or lavender may be very calming for one autistic person, but distressingly strong for another. Some autistic people who smoke may actually enjoy that smell, however I personally am unable to understand that at all.

My Experiences

I have light oversensitivity, I wear sunglasses unless it is night or very cloudy. I also get migraines, and don’t like bright white screens – I write these posts with a green background – or indeed staring at screens too long. I don’t want to upgrade my 1st gen Kindle as the new ones are backlit and mine isn’t. I strongly dislike Christmas, as our neighbours across the road put up flashing lights that distress me.

Noise is another one. I have noise-cancelling headphones but despite them being rather expensive they still don’t block out enough. I can’t sleep in a room with other people because their breathing disturbs me. I have a visceral hatred of construction noises due to past experiences. I can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, especially if I’m not eating myself at the same time.

Touch isn’t so bad for me, I don’t mind hugs though I prefer them if both parties are wearing long sleeves rather than skin-to-skin contact – partly because I was a germaphobe even before the pandemic. When I was younger, though, I had to put on gloves after showering because I couldn’t stand the feel of my recently-wet fingers touching my other fingers! I don’t use a weighted blanket as it doesn’t seem necessary.

I have extreme taste sensitivities and that has been really damaging in the past. If I go to events with a set menu, I usually eat nothing at all. Pot-luck dinners and other food-sharing social activities are impossible as I just can’t partake. I tried becoming vegetarian but instead of substituting things, I just stopped eating more than 3 times a week until I became sick due to malnutrition. I hate and feel awkward at food-based events and try to avoid them where possible.

Bhutan is the only country in the world where smoking is completely illegal. I know this random fact because I looked into where I could move to get away from the smell; that’s how bad my sensitivity is to it. Unfortunately, I think I would rather struggle with the language – and food! – in Bhutan. I also dislike strong perfumes and deodorants but not so viscerally, and I actually like the smell of fruit a lot.

Neurodiversity vs Aspie Supremacy: The Differences

[Image Description: a multicoloured drawing of a brain]

Neurodiversity and Aspie Supremacy are two different ideologies in the discussion of how to view autism (and, in the case of the former, other neurodivergent conditions). Their fundamental principles conflict with each other, and thus it is impossible to genuinely support both ideologies; though supporters of one may claim to support the other as a way to gain legitimacy for their views. Here, I will describe both ideologies and their differences, as a way of countering claims that they overlap.

The neurodiversity paradigm is a way of viewing conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and others as natural variations of the human brain, rather than ‘diseases’ to be cured. Neurodiversity applies not only to autism, but other conditions also, however I will focus on autism here as Aspie Supremacy is an autism-specific ideology. Supporters of neurodiversity believe all brain types are valid and deserving of rights and respect, including the neurotypical majority.

Aspie Supremacy is an ideology that claims those with Asperger’s Syndrome or ‘high-functioning autism’ are superior to those with other brain types, or in some cases are the next stage in human evolution. They tend to view neurotypical people and autistic people with higher support needs or non-speaking autistic people as ‘lesser’ or less intelligent. Aspie Supremacists tend to place emphasis on IQ as a marker of worthiness. Think Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory & his claims of being ‘more evolved’.

One of the fundamental principles of neurodiversity is that everyone is equal and deserves equal rights regardless of the structure of their brains. One of the fundamental principles of Aspie supremacy is that some people’s brains are naturally ‘better’ than others. These two statements cannot both be believed by the same person. Due to the connotations associated with the term ‘supremacy’, however, Aspie supremacists will often claim to be supporters of neurodiversity to make their views sound more palatable.

Allegations that neurodiversity advocates “hate neurotypicals” are widespread, but are not true. Jokes about the majority are not ‘hatred’ and are jokes. There is no systematic discrimination against neurotypicals, they are the privileged group when compared with neurodivergent people. Thus, jokes are not indicative of hatred, and are not meant seriously. There are, however, some (but not even all) Aspie supremacists who do look down on neurotypical people, which is likely where the allegation comes from.

The term “Asperger’s Syndrome” itself is contentions within the neurodiversity movement. The term no longer exists within the DSM-5, and will not be in the ICD-11. It is seen as an outdated diagnostic term for autism without a speech delay, and prior to the changing of the diagnostic criteria, there was evidence to show that it was dependent on the clinician if one would be diagnosed with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism. There are also the allegations that Hans Asperger, who the diagnosis was named after, was a Nazi collaborator, thus the term is extremely controversial among neurodiversity-supporting groups.

Aspie Supremacists do not support autistic people with higher support needs, non-speaking autistic people, or autistic people with co-occurring learning or intellectual disabilities. This is another criticism levelled at neurodiversity advocates, which better applies to the Aspie supremacist group. While Aspie supremacists view IQ as indicative of worth, supporters of neurodiversity are often against the notion of IQ, as it measures only a very limited definition of ‘intelligence’. Neurodiversity also includes, and advocates for the rights of, people who would not be deemed ‘high-functioning’ by society.

These are not the only two ideologies in the realm of autism politics. There are also the ‘neurorealists’, aka the ‘Autistic Dark Web’ (self-styled) who are a group of autistic individuals online who support a cure for autism; the ‘curebies’, a term for those who support a biomedical cure for autism; the behaviourists, who support ABA and other behaviourist therapies to ‘correct’ autistic behaviours. That’s not to mention the anti-vaxxers, institutionalists who want to just lock us up, and other assorted pseudoscience peddlers.

Autism politics is a confusing realm that, once stumbled into, it is hard to find your way out. There are many different factions, ideologies and beliefs – and that’s not even touching on the internal infighting that is natural in all politics. Neurodiversity and Aspie Supremacy are only two strands of this complicated picture. Yet, they are often confused with each other or conflated in a way that is damaging for supporters of neurodiversity, and so it is important to point out their differences, so we can move forward and create a neurodiverse society that values all neurotypes.

Glossary

ABA: Applied Behaviour Analysis, controversial therapy that has been likened to torture and conversion therapy
Asperger’s Syndrome: former diagnostic term for autism without a speech delay
Aspie: short for Asperger’s Syndrome, used by those diagnosed with the condition
Autistic Dark Web: internet-based group of cure-supporting autistic people
Curebie: term for supporters of a cure for autism
DSM-5: Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition: a US-based collection of diagnostic criteria for mental conditions.
High-Functioning: autistic people with less support needs; functioning labels are disliked by the autistic community
ICD-11: The eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases, still being rolled out to replace the ICD-10.
Neurodivergent: people with minority brain types; with brain conditions
Neurodiverse: an adjective to describe a group of people with multiple brain types
Neurodiversity: a worldview that says there are many natural varying brain types
Neurotype: term for all types of brain, both neurotypical and neurodivergent.
Neurotypical: a person with the majority brain type, with no brain conditions
Neurorealist: a supporter of an ideology that claims some brain types are less desirable than others.

Self-Doubt, Autistic Masking & Vulnerability to Gaslighting

[Image Description: a white child with short dark hair balancing along a wooden beam surrounded by grass.]

Autistic children whose autism is identified early are taught to ‘mask’ their autism, hide it and act neurotypical. Subjecting a child to ABA is one way to do this, but there are many more less overtly torturous ways to encourage an autistic kid to hide their true self. This can be exhausting, and often fails, which is where much of the myth of functioning labels comes in – non-autistics believe that those who do not mask well are “lower functioning”. Autistic people who learn to mask early are often missed and not diagnosed.

Masking has consequences. Exhaustion, burnout, poor mental health… prolonged masking usually leads to all of these. Lack of diagnosis of autistic people who are good at masking from a young age is another. And a third is increased self-doubt; a lack of clarity about who one really is. This in itself has a third item in the chain of cause and effect: it increases the vulnerability of the person in question to gaslighting. After all, if you’re taught everything about you is wrong, such messages seep through more easily later.

In high school, I put a lot of effort into masking. I wasn’t very good at it, you can see that by the fact I managed to actually be diagnosed as a child. Yet I desperately tried, using a variety of techniques because I believed that was the only way I’d ever be accepted in society, and that was the only way I could survive. I bought teen magazines and tried to transform myself into a stereotype that didn’t fit. And when I failed, I’d construct yet another fake me from various sources.

By the time I left school, I had no idea who I really was. I could switch between four or five separate versions of me depending on where I was and who I was with, but I couldn’t tell which of these was genuine – or even if any of them were. I had to try desperately to rediscover who I was, and this led to a lot of intense soul-searching. I don’t think I ever found out who I was before I chose to mask heavily. I’m a different person now, disconnected in the middle by falsehoods.

A lack of knowledge of who one is also leads to doubting every word that comes out of one’s mouth (or, indeed, is typed). Every statement I made would be analysed, indeed over-analysed, until I no longer had faith in my own beliefs. Gaslighting, attempting to sow the seeds of doubt in someone’s mind until they can no longer trust their own judgement, only adds to this problem. I basically gaslight myself automatically as a result of years of being told my natural self is wrong and broken.

It makes it hard to engage in debate, especially online, given how often gaslighting is employed as a technique in online debates. It makes it hard to have close relationships, because I was vulnerable to it, and now I’m so scared of it that I just assume everyone may be trying to gaslight me, and I cannot believe a word anyone says. I am no longer emotionally capable of trusting anyone fully. I don’t know if I’ll ever regain the ability. Masking has led to permanent psychological scars.

This is why autism acceptance is needed, not just autism awareness. I am trying to trust myself again, and trust in what I believe and see with my own eyes. Trying to find the right balance between trusting myself and examining new evidence is hard, almost impossible. I’m still trying. Encouraging masking encourages self-doubt, and causes a vulnerability to gaslighting we have seen online. Autistic people who have gone through this chain of cause and effect may be more likely to be radicalised by dangerous groups online, especially when these groups praise them in ways those in their lives may not have done.

Masking can be dangerous, for more reasons than one. By encouraging autistic people to mask at all times, and at any cost, society is creating a population of autistic people who have poor mental health and are more likely to join extremist groups. This is a more likely explanation for some far-right shooters in the US having an autism diagnosis. Not autistic people being naturally violent, or lacking empathy. But autistic people are taught to doubt ourselves, and this can lead down a very dangerous path, when someone else decides to place their ideas where our own convictions have failed.