When I was a child and I answered the phone I didn’t say “hello”, I said “What?”. My mother was constantly horrified at my supposed rudeness and would try and make sure that someone, anyone got to the phone before me.
The thing is though, that I wasn’t being rude or at least I didn’t think so. I was just responding to people on the phone the same way I would to someone who called to me from somewhere else in the house.
When my mother wanted me for something, she would yell my name from the foot of the stairs and I would respond with “WHAT?” I was never penalized for this and I just assumed that if someone was calling you then asking them what they wanted was kind of useful information to gather. I wasn’t trying to be rude. I was just transferring how I communicated in person to how I communicated on the phone.
If someone called to me in person, I responded with “what?” or “yeah?”. No one bothered to explain to me the difference of in person communication and communicating on the phone. So I kept getting in trouble for how I answered the phone and I never understood why.
I was always being told I was being rude when I couldn’t figure out why. It was only years later that I realized that because of the ways neurotypicals have coded language, they always interpreted the words I said as meaning something else.
This is most clearly noticeable in how I used the phrases “I like that”, “I want that” and “Can I have that?”. To me, those things express three different things but apparently to everyone else they only mean two.
Every time I said “I want that” people acted like I was asking for whatever I was referring to. I wasn’t. There was no request in the statement. I hadn’t asked for it. I was conveying the level of how much I liked it. It was an expression of envy, not demand.
While it’s true that I probably wouldn’t have complained if I was handed the object of desire, I understood that asking for things was rude. I was also aware that if I simply said that I liked something, that people would not know to what extent that I liked it. Was it something that just gave me fleeting pleasure or was it something that I would think about and remember and miss.
After, what was probably well over the hundredth time that I had been lectured about not constantly asking for things when I had simply expressed that “I wanted something”. I explained the difference in how I used language. I explained that I wasn’t asking for whatever trinket had fascinated me but differentiating between the things that I simply liked and the things I actively wanted to own. I understood that I wasn’t going to be given the thing.
This, however, didn’t build a bridge of better communication. It created a flustered lecturer who couldn’t figure out how I had come to think that words could be used so literally. I just had to be forced into more standard patterns of communication.
These distinctions may seem obvious or less rude now in a world where it is not uncommon for people to publicly declare a desire for things that they probably won’t ever own. A single all caps “WANT” in a tweet quoting another tweet featuring a luxury item is pretty common on Twitter. Or that same “WANT” posted as a comment on Facebook or Instagram is also a not infrequent occurrence.
At least I was using full sentences and expressing my desire with significantly calmer.
Nondisabled people far too often defend poorly conceived acts of “solidarity” that miss the mark by drawing attention to their intentions. They want to avoid consequences for the impact of their actions because they “didn’t mean it”.
Autistic people do not get the privilege of cloaking themselves in the armour of intentions even if their faux pas is just a failure of empathy and accommodation on the part of the person castigating them.
Autistic people have long been characterized as unempathetic little shits who lack theory of mind (the ability to place themselves in the shoes of others). Much new research rejects this and theorizes a different issue.
The Double Empathy Problem which posits that misunderstandings in communication are a two-way street, as much hampered by nonautistic people’s inability to empathize with autistic people.
Even though I could explain what I meant, I was miscommunicating and was rude. There was only ever need for me to change. Not the person who consistently and often willfully misunderstood me. They knew what I meant. I’d explained it clearly but I had to shift into an imprecise way of speech that was completely unnatural to me. It’s not something that I mastered until after I was diagnosed and could understand why I behaved differently than society expected me too.
The fact that I had a biologically ingrained reason for being the way I was, rather than a society which just uncritically follows and enforces cultural mores was irrelevant. The onus has always been on me to change to suit the comforts of neurotypicals. They never have to hold space for discomfort. They never have to hold awareness of me and my fellow autistics. They get to categorically define our behaviour as rude and wrong so that they do not need to empathize with us. We however, must constantly hold all that space and all that knowledge of their confusing expectations. They demand empathy without reciprocation. It is a wholely unequal power dynamic.
It is a battle we will inevitably lose because we are fighting against our very natures, simply to be allowed to exist in common space with neurotypical people and it’s a losing battle to fight your biology. We will always fall short of expectations and our “rudeness” is used to justify our exclusion.
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