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.

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.