On autism shame, uniqueness of neurotypicality and geography of Takiwatanga

Well-meaning neurotypical people tell autists surprisingly often, that autism is nothing to be ashamed of.  They look very kind, but I always wonder, who exactly are they talking to? I don’t think it’s autistic people.

I think so, because per definition, autists have challenges in social interaction and in various tasks related to perceiving social world accurately. Among other things, this means, that it is usually very difficult for autistic people to feel the kind of vague, existential yet deep shame that seems to be an important motivation for most neurotypical people. People who constantly worry, what others might be thinking about them, tend to be neurotypical. How could autistic people resemble even vaguely the sort of walking bundles of embarrassment that our reputation paints us to be, if we were capable of such social sensitivity? The notion of shame is very social, after all: it is activated when we try to picture, how others may feel about us. It is powered by fear of things that might cause others to exclude, disapprove or judge us. To me, such thoughts do not come easily- and when I try to think these things, they don’t make very much sense. It is hard for me to understand shame outside situations in which I have done something really wrong even though I could have acted better. What kind of a decent, virtuous person (in other words, the kind of person whose approval and acceptance might interest me) would judge me harshly by something else than by my actions that have realed serious flaws in my character? Does not compute. The idea of feeling vaguely yet deeply inferior simply because I represent a different neurotype than the person I’m talking with sounds about as senseless than feeling such inferiority due to having blonde hair. Slowly, I’ve started to understand, however, that these kinds of thoughts are normal and sensible for neurotypical people and that they may even be important motivations or explain their behavior. But why do they want to project these thoughts into autistic people? The best explanation I’ve come up with so far is, that they have failed to understand something important about autism and that they live so deeply inside social world that they find it difficult to even imagine alternatives for their way of understanding reality.

In reality, autistic motivations are usually internal. Compared to neurotypical motivations they can be extremely clear- so clear that this confuses neurotypicals and causes difficulties in interpreting autistic behavior. Neurotypical people have tendency to see social motives -such as manipulation, will to controll or attention-seeking when they are actually seeing eg. very straightforward attemtps to put some limits to sensory load. So I would like neurotypical people to understand about metaphysical structure of the universe first their own special position in the middle of the social world, secondly the fact that autists exists at border regions of said world -and that we often have our turned towards it while gazing at the vast expanses of universe that live and breathe beyond it. My homeworld, Takiwatanga, begins from borderlands of social world but extends far beyond it in space, time and soulfulness.

So popularity of autism shame as a topic of neurotypical-led autism discussion sounds to me like a way to mask neurotypical prejudice, including prejudices of people identifying themselves as our allies, and highlight limitations of neurotypical perspective. I wish neurotypical people would question their own sense of objectivity and scope of their perceptive capacity more boldly. Autists are not limited by how other people -existing at periphery of our field of vision- perceive our limitations. Such narratives only uphold and renew prejudice and misunderstandings. When misunderstandings become narratives kept alive by neurotypical people for reasons stemming from their own sociodynamics, we are perilously close to whiteknighting, a phenomenon in which ”helpers and saviors” invent problems and then proudly present solutions them, not in order to provide effective help to actual problems faced by minority, but in order to serve their personal, less than glamorous goals.

Do you want to deepen your understanding of autistic way of thinking and perceiving and gain more knowledge about problems autistic people face? Kaiao is happy to help- just drop a message to saara.reiman@kaiao.fi

• Takiwatanga is  Maori word for autism, literally meaning ”in their own time and space”. I use it to describe my world and ways in which my experience of reality appears to differ from neurotypical experience.