Before I start, I should probably apologise for abandoning FeministAspie for several months… again. Sorry about that. I don’t have a particularly good excuse for it, either; just being really busy with uni then worrying so much about neglecting the blog that I was too scared to sort it out, I guess. In an attempt to reduce all this worrying about it and actually maintain a consistent blog again, I’m planning to focus more on actually writing and reading blog posts as opposed to attempting to keep a fast-paced and often-full-of-conflict Twitter feed under control, so I probably won’t be on Twitter that much apart from posting links to blog posts I like, at least at first. Anyway, the following is an attempt to coherently write about something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently.
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I generally tend to be very wary of the rhetoric surrounding teaching autistic people to be “socially appropriate”; often, this is merely code for “preventing harmless stimming because neurotypical people think it’s weird” or “forcing eye contact because that’s what neurotypical people do” or “do everything in your power and more to magically be neurotypical regardless of what actually helps you” or, well, “conditioned compliance”. (For more on that sort of thing, see “Socially Inappropriate” by Musings of an Aspie). As a general rule, if so-called “behaviours” aren’t actually causing any harm to anyone, it’s none of your business. Yet there often seems to be so much more emphasis placed on suppressing harmless autistic body language than there is on encouraging actually important social skills that can and do cause upset for all involved parties if things go wrong. In other words, amongst all the “if you just try harder you’ll become like us and we’ll see you as a full human being” ableist stuff, there are aspects of social appropriateness which are important. Consent and respect for personal boundaries is one of them.
It makes me really uncomfortable when people (especially neurotypical people) try to explain away incidents of harassment, disregarding lack of consent or sometimes even assault with the “autism is to blame” mentality, particularly when the perpetrator’s neurotype is unknown and people are making huge assumptions often based on probably-false stereotypes. (The plan is to keep this gender-neutral for the most part; I do think it’s really important to take patriarchy into account, but I’ll get to that towards the end.) For a start, it’s hugely ableist to assume that autistic people are incapable of understanding boundaries and/or consent issues. By no means am I saying this isn’t an issue at all. In hindsight, my early teenage years and first few crushes were a series of messy, steep learning curves about how to handle those feelings, how personal space worked, and general Not Creeping People Out 101. It wasn’t pretty. But eventually, after a few bad experiences, rounds of “you can’t do that” from other people and later being introduced to consent issues through feminism, I picked that stuff up. I imagine this is much easier for some people than for others, and I’ll get back to the importance of education on consent issues later, but for now, my point is that equating “autism” with “not taking no for an answer” does a lot of harm to autistic people in terms of stereotypes.
It also overlooks that autistic people are often more susceptible to being victims of this sort of thing than our neurotypical peers, for various reasons. Firstly, there’s the whole “not picking up on ‘obvious’ social cues” thing. Secondly, many autistic people, even those who are normally very verbally fluent, begin to lose verbal ability under stress, when overloading or for countless other reasons; in a society where even a clear “no” or “stop” is often discounted and anything short of that is seen as a “yes”, this can be and has been exploited. Thirdly, sadly, conditioned compliance is a thing (TW for description of rape, abuse, compliance training and ableism in the link), making it even harder to “escape” these situations.
In addition, this mindset takes the blame away from a much wider culture which contributes to lack of respect for consent. Not all autistic people show complete disregard for boundaries (although, as with any group of people, of course some do) and likewise, not all people who show complete disregard for boundaries are autistic (although, as with any group of people, of course some are). Further, to assume that problems such as these are caused almost solely by being unable to read social cues is to ignore other factors such as the more general male entitlement phenomenon and, well, a society which tends to not really let people say “no” very much (and not just in sexual/relationship contexts, either). In fact, the “autism is to blame” fallacy is also guilty of favouring the perpetrator; there’s a lot of emphasis on the possibly-autistic perpetrator potentially not picking up cues any less subtle than a clear “no”, but little thought for their possibly-autistic victim who, having gradually learned (or been actively taught) over time that their dissent is just over-reacting and that they should cause as little fuss as possible, unwittingly finds themselves being assumed to want something they don’t and doesn’t have the tools to object. I’ve been there. It’s pretty awful.
As well as, you know, not massively stereotyping autistic people and throwing us under the bus unnecessarily, what we really need is a shift towards consent culture, where clear communication of consent (or lack thereof) is the norm, as opposed to simply assuming consent unless stated otherwise. We need more widespread education on these issues, for people of all genders and neurotypes, and this includes giving people the tools to set boundaries without fear as well as to respect them. We need to get rid of the “boys will be boys” mentality, and I think that in particular ties in really well with the concept of presuming competence in neurodivergent people. Assuming that somebody is incapable of understanding boundaries so not even trying to discuss it only creates a vicious circle. And that contributes to stereotypes which, frankly, we could really do without.