Punishing Bluntness: Honesty and Politeness

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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.

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