First off, I’m going to use identity-first language here and not person-first because being autistic isn’t about having a condition; it’s a kind of brain wiring that creates a culture. This is why, for example, we don’t say “person with Deafness” when we mean “Deaf person.” Because being Deaf and being in a Deaf community is not the same as being in the broader world with a condition.
If you are not personally autistic and you want to argue with me about this, please instead look up “identity first language” and deal with your feelings about that yourself.
A lot of people don’t really understand autistic culture, or why people who thrive in autistic culture would find broader allistic norms so profoundly traumatizing. Personally I think that autistic culture has fixed a lot of the problems in allistic culture that harm everyone (allistics included). But I suppose I would, because I’m autistic, and I see a lot of what allistic people train and traumatize each other into as being totally unnecessary.
Here’s what’s possible instead, if you do things the way autistic people learn to do them amongst ourselves. Here’s some of what you need to do to interact smoothly with us, and to benefit from the norms we are building for our own survival.
- encourage interest and expertise
- be honest about your needs
- be receptive to honesty about our needs
- assume we are asking questions because we want the real answer
- ask questions because you want the answer
- choose your words with conscious intention, and assume we are doing this for you
- trust what we tell you more than what our body language may seem to be saying, or what the implicit meaning would be if an allistic person said it. We aren’t saying something carefully calibrated to take a certain form on the other side of your mental filters, so that you end up transforming what we said into what we want you to understand. We will say the thing we want you to understand. Any transformations you apply to it are transformations you applied to it. We say what we say.
The long version:
Much of what we do that makes allistic people uncomfortable falls into the broad category of making oneself vulnerable in ways allistics have been punished for being. We have been too, but hiding our loves or needs or questions costs us a lot more. We can be your opportunity to take a break from this costly pretense. You might like it! Being emotionally vulnerable can be good for you!
Vulnerability can also be dangerous. Having our loves and fears be obvious makes us low-hanging fruit for manipulative behavior. Abusers can learn our levers and switches especially efficiently. This is how ABA works, incidentally, by weaponizing our joy and fear to train more compliant and convenient property for whomever is perceived to own us. A lot of autists probably have trauma around being “allowed” to love or fear things openly, so we try not to reproduce it in our spaces.
Importantly: Some things are legitimately harder for us to learn. That’s just a thing. A lot of them are mostly harder to teach to us if you aren’t prepared to answer questions about your starting assumptions or values.
It’s been my experience that we have difficulty learning subjects in disconnected pieces. To understand a tree, we need the concept of its forest. This may be why we seem to learn in sudden giant leaps. We were learning the whole time, but it’s only when we can place our knowledge into patterns that we feel like we know any of the constituent pieces. We just need enough data points to solve for the pattern, and that’s why we ask so many questions. If we care about what you have to teach, we will look for the gaps in our idea of it, hunting for the vague or seemingly contradictory places on our map.
A good thing to remember is that if we aren’t asking you questions, we probably don’t respect you as a source of answers. I know that in allistic society, questions are seen and used as attacks. From us they are trust. We are trusting you with our map of the universe. Be as trustworthy as you can.