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.

At the end of it all

[Image: group of St Andrews University students wearing red gowns walking past the ruins of the cathedral.]

I have finished university. For so much of my time there, I never thought I would say those words. It has been an incredibly complicated time, leaving me with memories both brilliant and terrible, and more mental health problems than when I went into it, though a scarily large number of students would likely say the same thing.

As someone who had never struggled academically at school, I had huge problems adjusting, and found that my autism made it much harder than I thought it would be. Trying to adjust to all the change was hard, and it didn’t help that there was far less academic support than in my school.

But nevertheless, I made it out the other end. Even with a few moments in there when I never thought I would. University is hard, and when you’re as emotionally fragile as I am, it can legitimately be dangerous. The way students are pressured these days, both academically and financially, is completely awful.

I have been absent from writing for a while due to exams, and I am just so glad they’re over now. I don’t have my results yet, I won’t get them until the 12th June, but I’m pretty sure I passed everything (this time). Now all I need to do is figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

Anyone know of any jobs?

There’s a mix of emotions at this time. One is sheer relief that I’m done, but there’s a lot more fear of what’s next than I expected. I have absolutely no idea what I want to do, and despite how badly most of my undergraduate career went, I’m considering doing a postgraduate in 2019.

For all my previous life stage transitions, I’ve had a clear idea of where I wanted to go next. Things have never gone according to plan, but at least I had a plan back then. This time, there’s nothing known in the future. I have no idea where I’m going, and I have even less idea of where I want to go.

For a while I considered taking a gap year and traveling, then I realised that I would probably struggle to cope with that, given the uncertainties involved, and the fact that most affordable accommodation is also really noisy. Gap years are not the most autistic-friendly activity.

I might still give it a try, but that’s pretty much where I’m at right now. Confused, uncertain, and with no idea of where I’m going from here.

It’s still better than the way I felt at university.

What Being Autistic Means For Me

This week is World Autism Awareness Week, and though I’ve been exceptionally busy organising demonstrations in support of Clara Ponsatí, working on my dissertation and just generally doing more than I can cope with, I’ve decided to write about what I want people to be aware of about my autism.

I will begin with repeating what autistic people keep saying every year – awareness is not enough to make autistic people’s lives better. We need acceptance. Acceptance of who we are, of how we are different, and of our natural behaviour. We need a shift of priorities away from trying to change our behaviour to finding ways to change society so that we are accepted. It should not be our job to act unnaturally to fit into a neurotypical world.

For me, social interaction in the way deemed appropriate by society is unnatural and difficult, but I can do it. Partly because it’s easier for me to fit in with the norms than to constantly challenge them, partly because I’ve only begun to accept myself recently, and it’s hard to break the habit. And while I can appear perfectly comfortable in many situations, this is often an act.

I am heavily involved in political activism. In the past seven days alone, I have attended the SNP National Council, where I gave a speech on supporting the UCU strikes; organised a demonstration in support of Professor Clara Ponsatí, who is facing extradition to Spain on politically motivated charges; and spoken to a number of journalists about Prof Ponsatí’s situation.

Not only that, but this was my first speech at a party council or conference and my first time taking part in actually organising a demonstration. At the start of the week, I had very bad telephone anxiety. In this week alone, I’ve been on so many calls, from journalists and for job interviews that my fear of phone calls has almost completely gone. This is a very unexpected success but imagine how terrified I was before I made the calls!

While I probably appeared perfectly comfortable in all these situations, I am now completely burnt out and exhausted. There’s still more to do; next week is expected to be just as busy, if not busier. I will probably get through it all; but the minute I get time to rest I’ll probably sleep for over 12 hours trying to get over all this stress.

The part of being autistic I still don’t like at all is the sensory processing disorder. Bright lights can be physically painful, smells like cigarette smoke feel like they are burning my lungs, and I hear all the sounds. I mean all the sounds. I can’t sleep when in a room with anyone else because their breathing is too loud. Thankfully, I have little interest in relationships.

In terms of light, I don’t particularly like sunny days. I am a fan of light cloud cover. The sun can be so incredibly bright, and with all the cars and metal objects in our world, the sunlight is reflected from every which way. In an ideal world, I would wear sunglasses all the time – but I do not have enough self-confidence to do so. Fluorescent lights are also absolutely awful. I wish they would be banned. They give me migraines where my vision goes blurry, which in turn causes a panic attack to go with the meltdown caused by the sensory overload – a double whammy which I cannot control at all. I’ve ended up screaming in public as an adult over this.

Smells can be bad too, particularly cigarette smoke. I hold my breath when passing smokers on the street, and I refuse to host guests at my house that smoke as I can still smell it on them. I was in Dundee a few weeks ago for an event, and when walking to a pub after, one of the people I was with started smoking and I almost ran away. Please, please don’t smoke around me, especially without warning!

The worst sense for me is hearing. I can hear everything. I am wearing noise cancelling headphones as I write. I am in the university library, and I can still hear every time someone takes a sip of water, drops a book they were trying to get from the top shelf, or types frantically on their keyboard. Construction work is the worst for me, the mere sound of a hammer can send me into a bad rage.

This is my father’s fault. He had an extension built over the summer between my first and second years of university and I still half hate him for doing it while I was home. At the moment, both my neighbours and my parents’ neighbours are building extensions and frankly I want to flee the country. I want to live somewhere with no immediate neighbours in the future to minimise the risk of this noise.

In terms of taste and touch, my taste is as sensitive as my hearing, but it is easier to avoid bad tastes than it is bad sounds. For example, I cannot eat spicy food. At all. It makes me scream and drink about four pints of milk straight from the bottle(s) to calm down my taste buds. Do not tell me to just try it. Just don’t. Ever. Touch is actually not that bad for me, although it may play into my desire to never have sex.

Since I’ve had depression, my executive function has been particularly bad. I can counter this somewhat by writing daily schedules. What I need to do changes too often to set up a repeating schedule, so I need to write the next day’s out before bed. I used to be averse to change as well, but like with the phone calls this week, overexposure has helped somewhat. I would not recommend this though, I wouldn’t have done it on purpose. It was very painful at first.

I don’t want people to read this, and be aware of how autism affects me, just to turn around and suggest techniques to ‘fix’ this. The sensory stuff cannot be fixed at my end. Avoiding triggers is the only solution that will work. This would be so much easier if people were willing to make accommodations to lessen the impact. Accept how I am and accommodate it. You cannot cure it.

In terms of social interaction, I would like to see a societal shift away from eye contact and small talk. At the moment, continuing to mask uses up less energy than constantly educating people. Once university, and all the associated stresses, is over I hope to be able to educate more and mask less as it is a better long-term solution. At the moment, that is not possible for me.

So, this is me, an autistic university student with depression, who masks because it’s less stressful than having people stare at me when I act autistic. Who hears all the little sounds people make and often wants to run away and find some silence. Who can’t eat spicy food or sit in a room with fluorescent lights for longer than fifteen minutes or walk past a smoker without wanting to vomit.

Be aware of who I am but acknowledge that is not enough. Accept me, accept other autistic people, accept all neurodivergent people. Know that being autistic will mean different things for every autistic person. Know that we will all present differently, from each other and from other points in our own lives. Don’t just campaign for autism awareness; campaign for autism acceptance too.

Political Campaigning While Autistic

I developed a reputation in 2014 for being a dedicated and hard working political campaigner. On four separate occasions I heard people tell someone else that I was good at it and ‘enjoyed’ it. I have no idea where they got their information, but the notion of my enjoyment is fundamentally false. As people who have read any of my autism stuff will know, I frequently put on a mask and try to pass as neurotypical. It’s a false personality, created not of lies but merely omissions of fact, a neglect for the truth of who I am.

The mask I wore to canvass completely covered my truth. I was not me on those days, I was a good little activist, campaigning for Yes and later the SNP, saying exactly what I was meant to say. The politics of it was the only truth, after all if I didn’t believe it why would I campaign? But how I said it and when I chose to speak was an act designed to stop people from being put off by my true autistic self.

The first time I went canvassing was in March 2014 in the long run up to the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum. I was in my last few months of secondary school, at a time when I had few friends and an almost nonexistent social life. I would see people posting pictures on Facebook of all the things they’d done at the weekend while I sat alone reading. I had made my decision on how to vote in the referendum back in 2013, and I had become somewhat obsessed with reading about the referendum.

It was doing this that I found out about the Generation Yes campaign launch in Glasgow, seeing it as an opportunity to get involved with the campaign for independence, actually do something with my weekend, and possibly make some friends. And so I attended. Thus began my involvement in the independence campaign.

Over the course of the following few months I would campaign on a Tuesday night in East Kilbride, a town near where I lived, so as to avoid the houses of my school bullies in my own area. Once exams were over and I’d left school, the frequency increased massively. That summer I did two things with my life – volunteered at the Glasgow 2014 commonwealth games and campaigned for independence. Given the short length of the commonwealth games, you can conclude how much time I spent campaigning.

Given my lack of friendship and struggles with finding autism-friendly employment, in my desperation for something worthwhile to do and a way to pass the time I pushed myself to my limits with the campaigning. In such a polarising high-profile campaign, there were naturally a considerable number of people on both sides who felt incredibly strongly about it. Some of these people were prone to harassing campaigners from the other side on the street. I still had issues with confrontation stemming from my childhood experiences, and as such this was incredibly damaging and hurtful to me.

On days when such a confrontation had occurred, be it on the street or on the doorstep, I had to take the following two days to calm down, often shaking and crying and doubting myself and everything I believed in for several hours after I returned home. I entered a rapid cycle of campaigning until burnout then repeat. It was unhealthy, but I didn’t tell anyone because at the time I kept my autism a closely guarded secret.

After the referendum, I joined the SNP and became involved with SNP Students, joining their National Executive Committee in my second year of university. As part of SNP Students I again attended campaign days where we would canvass in the run up to the myriad of elections there has been since then. It was expected of me, and I didn’t want to let down all those who by that point believed I was an avid campaigner.

As the months passed, I gained new friends from university, who were not involved in political campaigning, and many of whom disagreed with my politics. Campaigning was no longer the only social life I had. And with this new comparison of activities, I discovered that I did not enjoy campaigning nearly half as much as I thought I had. The stress of having to make eye contact and small talk with a hundred people in a few hours may have seemed enjoyable compared to the loneliness of the nothing I’d had before, but now it seemed only to be stress.

This revelation showed me that canvassing is something that is inherently harmful to my mental health, increasing stress and anxiety and making burnout worse and more frequent. I began canvassing to distract myself from the emptiness I’d felt in my life for all my secondary school years, but at that point I’d have taken almost anything over being alone. Though physically capable of canvassing, it was harming me mentally.

Since those days, I’ve discovered the autistic community on twitter (I briefly joined some FB groups but there was so much confrontation and discord in them that it made the twitter arguments look like friendly banter) and begun to accept myself for who I am. I have made friends, lost a few, and made more. I actually have a social life that doesn’t involve campaigning or any kind of organised activity. And I know the truth of why I went canvassing – to fill a void.

There is a stigma around refraining from an activity for mental health reasons. Many people seem to believe that if you can do something physically then any mental reasons are excuses for laziness. This is something I’ve seen in political circles. Since I’ve done it before, I must therefore be able to do it now. This is based on the false premise that nothing has changed.

I am exhausted. All that life I said I have now is draining me. Academic struggles, the pressures of socialisation, and all that has happened since 2014 has exhausted me. In school I found academic work easily, and I had nothing else happening. That’s a lot more time for recharging. These days, during term time, I’m busy nearly every minute of every day and there is no time for a break. As such, my ability to cope with stressful situations is lessened.

Canvassing is the most stressful campaigning activity to me because it involves going to people’s doors and disrupting them in their houses. While I, a politics geek, get excited if a political canvasser arrives, others react in the way I do when it is someone selling something – irritation and resentment for the presence of a disturbance. Partly due to my experiences in school, I can’t stand it when people are irritated with me or resentful of my presence. On a street stall, people approach me, which makes it easier as they want to talk (and if they start yelling there will be someone else to argue with them).

To go canvassing now would be dangerous to me – if I was yelled at or personally insulted I doubt I could wait until I got home to burst into tears, and frankly that is not behaviour you want from one of your party campaigners. In my attempts to help, it’s likely that I would end up doing more harm than good if I try and canvass in the state I’m in these days. I can still post leaflets through doors or stand at a street stall, but I don’t want to canvass any more.

The line between ‘can’t’ and ‘don’t want to’ in this is blurred, to me it is both at the same time, but to some others they deny my inability and insist it is solely lack of desire. Right now I would like to make one thing clear: it is perfectly possible that I could go canvassing tomorrow and not burst into tears while I’m out. But if I did so, I would go home that night exhausted, climb into bed and sleep for about 14 hours while shaking in fear and stress. That would not be me being able to do it – that would be me hurting myself.

I need to make one thing abundantly clear – ability changes. What an individual can do today, they may not be able to do tomorrow. What I could do three years ago, I cannot do in 2017. Life interferes and changes things. It can hurt or it can help, but it never allows anything to stay the same.

Things may change again, and in the future I might find myself doing what I did in 2014, to the detriment of my own health for a cause I believe in. But don’t hold out any hope. I am not in control of the factors which affect my disability. As for right now, I’m not going canvassing and if anyone gets annoyed at me, I’ll just send them the link to this.

Eternal Mistrust and Worry

Throughout my high school years, I tried so many ‘plans’ to make friends, that I ran out of letters in the alphabet to name them with thrice over. I failed time and time again, but the disappointment never stopped being as bitter as it had the first time. In Scotland we spend 6 years in high school (you can leave after 4 but I stayed until the end), and over the first five of those I experienced so much disappointment in my social life.

It seemed that every group of friends I ever made eventually became annoyed and angry at me, for having what they termed ‘temper tantrums’ but were actually meltdowns; for not conforming to social expectations; for just being ‘weird’. I went from group to group like a stray cat visiting houses for food only to be turned away again and again. Everyone else seemed to me to ‘belong’ somewhere – so why could I never find a group willing to accept me?

Some of the friendships did work – for a while. I called it the Eight Month Mark, if I recall correctly – after eight months of making friends with someone, that person would dislike me and never wish to speak to me again. Perhaps by the end, and I’m really not impartial enough to judge the accuracy of this, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the time approached eight months, perhaps my anticipation of the end caused me to self-sabotage. I really wouldn’t know.

In my sixth and final year of high school, I finally found a friend who lasted past eight months. She and I are still friends even though we now live greater than 80 miles apart as she stayed at home and I left for university. It’s coming up on four years from when we first made friends, and that in itself is a miracle. I finally found someone who accepted me for who I am, but it was a long time coming.

Eight months into that friendship I did grow somewhat paranoid, but somehow it didn’t chase her away. But even so, up until very, very recently I always thought that something would happen to tear our friendship apart. I was so worried, because in the back of my mind lay the thought ‘you’ve always failed before, you’re destined to fail again. Nothing ever changes, you’ll always be alone’. And it was wrong (for once).

Since beginning university, I’ve made more close friends who actually accept me for who I am. I spend (probably too much) time with them every week, and I don’t even have to fully mask around them cause the real me doesn’t seem to scare them like it scared so many in school. I’m close with them to the point where I’ve trusted them with secrets I don’t usually tell anyone. I even live with a couple of them, instead of living in student halls, which is something I never thought would happen.

But even given the time when the thoughts in the back of my mind were proved wrong, still I cannot let go of this fear that something will happen to destroy it all. I keep imagining that some of them are angry with me, or conspiring to leave me out cause I wasn’t invited to something – even when the event in question happened at 3am while I was asleep. I can’t get rid of these intrusive thoughts, even when I’m begging myself to stop and just believe that miracles can happen.

Because this is a miracle. A fairly large group I feel comfortable with, that I don’t have to mask around, who actually like me? The stuff of fairytales, my younger self would believe. It’s beautiful and magical and so utterly improbable that even thinking about it can give me a profound sense of joy. I cherish this friendship so much, and it is more than I could ever have hoped for.

But it seems I’m still not able to believe in miracles. I still think everything is going to fall apart and I can’t stop these thoughts recurring over and over. It’s long since past eight months, but still I cannot stop with this fear. Still I cannot stop but think it’s too good to be true. And I am terrified I will self-sabotage again.

The legacy of my time in high school is my eternal mistrust of everything good that ever happens to me. My past is so littered with disappointment that I am incapable of believing I will not be disappointed again. Some people miss school; for me it has permanently damaged me, made relationships with others so much harder than even it was for my autistic self to begin with. I don’t think I’ll ever stop worrying, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to fully trust.