Autism and the essence of bad behavior

Autism does not justify bad behavior” -folk wisdom-

After learning, what makes them special, some people indulge in autism. Now I am allowed to be just as autistic as I am, and others must understand.” (A so-called autism expert in Helsingin Sanomat 3.5.2023, translation mine)

Takes such as these have been flying around lately among dandelion feathers and birch seeds. I think it is time to stop to think for a moment the concept of bad behavior. Hopefully, we all can agree that generally speaking, bad behavior should be avoided (certainly, there exist exceptions to this general rule, but they are few and far between). General ethics applies to all neurotypes. It is wise to be kind and well-meaning, polite and considerate towards other people. That is how we build this world into a little nicer place to live.

There is more to this issue, however.

More and more autists today have read new autism research enough to know, that masking and camouflaging -in other words hiding one’s neurotype out of fear of being targeted by discrimination and even violence- are extremely harmful to autistic people. The very same general ethics that advises us to behave well unless there are excellent reasons to do otherwise, also tells, that it is wise to take care of one’s own needs, for instance by not risking one’s health and increasing suicide risk for for small reasons.

Fairness and goodwill are virtues also to those who promote good manners. Good manners are considered good, because they facilitate social interaction greatly. But, just like it is ableist to say that eyeglasses or women’s flat shoes are not appropriate to wear for formal occassions, it is wrong to consider only neurotypicality-expressing behavior “good” and believe that autists should hide their neurotype completely and be ashamed of it when in public.

I think every adult autist knows from experience, that sometimes the strangest things can be called “bad behavior”. Personally, I have been told that I have behaved badly for example, because

-I have avoided eye contact (because I take care of myself and that is where my personal boundaries happen to go)

-I have accomplished some task “too quickly”, meaning way quicker than allistic people around me (“unnatural behavior” is bad by definition, right?)

-I have had to leave an event or decline an invitation due to overload issues (<=ableism)

In short: it is impossible for an autistic person to behave well by allistic standards all the time. Even memorizing etiquette rules does not remove the fact that people are capable of getting offended by any and every neurominority trait and hide pure ableism (such as stigmatizing sensitivity to stress) into ”just calling out bad behavior”. That is quite problematic, because an autists’ idea about what self-evident facts of life are strange and potentially disturbing to inhabitants of parallel reality is sketchy at best.

One can try to simulate this experience by trying to act even for a few hours *perfectly consistently* as if black color did not exist- and pinching oneself every time they fai, eg. read black text or forget, that also grey color has black in it. That is a pale reflection of the obstacle course an autist, who is expected to factually experience, perceive, understand and react just like neurotypicals, is thrown into. This example hopefully also helps to understand why backing such an impossible demand up with sanctions does not “motivate” an autist but only increases stress, anxiety and suffering.

If and since good manners are good because they make social situations easier for participants, we cannot count as ”good” any manners that factually discriminate against a minority or violate important rights. Prohibiting headscarves can’t be defended by ”good manners” because it would discriminate against several religious minorities. It is also not fair to ask a victim of sexual harrassment to stay silent to avoid dropping mood of a fun party. And it is not fair to force an autist into eye contact or into tolerating painful sensory stimuli on the grounds that neurotypical people do not find such situations difficult at all, and because seeing signs of neurodiversity around them disturbs them.

So yes, autistic people do have a right to be “just as autistic as they are”. A safe environment -another every person’s right- does not translate into a duty to tolerate genuinely bad behavior from autists any more than from anyone else- that ideas starts to look like the strawman it really is, soon. As an autist, I can make my being a civilized, decent and good-mannered person known without self-harm. For example, I can compensate my lack of eye contact with taking a bit of extra care about my verbal expression. If necessary, I can even tell that I avoid eye contact because I am autistic, not because I am a rude person. In fact, once I started doing this, communication situations have become easier than before compared to the time when I was forced to stress, squirm and mask like nobody’s business.

If and since there is nothing wrong or shameful about being autistic, a good way to ease tricky social situations would be telling about one’s autism. There’s just one big problem. It is not safe due to existing discrimination against autistic people. It is unfair to require an autist to hide all their minority traits, and it is also unfair to require people to come out of autism closet while doing so poses a major risk to their employment and social relationships and makes them targets to discrimination and even violence.

The correct solution is to root ableism and nentism from society and educate people about autism until living as an autistic person and telling about one’s autism are safe options. Updating etiquette into a more equal version is part of creating such safety.

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