Autism Accwaretance and TERFery

[Trigger warnings: Ableism, anti-autistic bigotry, transphobia, suicide mention]

So today, again, is autism acceptance/awareness (accwaretance) day, the day when tons of “allies” and “autism families” talk over autistic people to “raise awareness”, while autistic people instead call for people to accept us for who we are. It’s also part of autism accwaretance week and month, when neurotypicals “light it up blue” to signify their support for genocide, while autistic people like myself show our tolerance for the poor benighted neurotypical majority by supporting the “Tone it down Taupe” campaign.

This year, however, I want to talk about one of the biggest things I have learned from being autistic, something that a lot of people apparently need to know. It’s something that sounds simple, but really isn’t, even though it can be encapsulated in a few words:

Other people are not you, and have different experiences.

Autistic people (for the most part) learn this from a very early age, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that most neurotypicals (and people socialised as neurotypical, which is a thing I will have to discuss in future, because I’ve had some interesting realisations about that…) don’t really understand it at all.

And the reason this is important right now is that trans day of visibility came in the middle of autism accwaretance week, as it does most years, and this year that day came after several months of relentless, bigoted, attacks on trans people’s very existence.

Now, I am a cis man, and I’m going to stay in my lane and not speak for trans people here, but one thing I have noticed is that, with very few exceptions, the transphobic bigots are also anti-autistic bigots and vice versa, and I think some of this comes from those people lacking that very basic understanding.

To explain with an analogy about something a little less emotionally intense… I once had an Internet argument with someone about whether I can hear music in my head. I am capable of hearing, in my head, entire records I’ve listened to enough, including all the details of production and arrangement. I also pretty much always have a background soundtrack playing in my head — sometimes music I’ve heard before, and sometimes music I’m creating myself in real time. Whenever I’ve written songs and produced tracks before, it’s just been a matter of catching that soundtrack and trying to replicate what I’m hearing. I might be walking down the street and hear, in my head, a record by, say, Jerry Lee Lewis, even though Lewis never made that record.

This is just a fact about how my brain works. It appears to run in my family, whether through genetics or socialisation — my mum has said to me before that on long car journeys she can play the whole of We’re Only In It For The Money by the Mothers of Invention in her head — and it’s a fact that seems to be true of other people too. Yet the commenter in question was absolutely convinced that I was lying about my own subjective experiences, because he (and, it would appear, most other people) doesn’t have that.

Meanwhile, it was established in the late nineteenth century that people have wildly different experiences when it comes to visualisation, with some people being able to picture things in their minds and others completely unable to form an image in their head at all — and most people just assuming that everyone else’s brain works like theirs.

And this is something that trips autistic people up all the time. As children, and for some of us even as adults, we make the same assumptions that the way we experience reality is the same way everyone else does — I was quite shocked when I finally realised in my twenties that not everyone is constantly aware, at all times, of the pressure of their toenails on their toes, for example — but we are also usually constantly reminded that this is not the case. The idea that other people have very different experiences is one that comes naturally to most of us.

But most neurotypicals don’t have that constant barrage of reminders that other people’s brains differ from their own, and so in my experience they’re likely to assume that anyone claiming to think or feel differently from them is lying and probably malicious.

At one end, this can be as simple and relatively harmless as the person I remember saying on a message board once “you can pretend all you like that you don’t like Bon Jovi, but if you say you’ve never got drunk and sung along to [insert Bon Jovi song whose name I can’t remember] you’re a liar” (I have never got drunk *or* sung a Bon Jovi song, let alone both at once). But when that neurotypicality comes into conflict with experiences that matter, it can be deadly.

And here’s where we get to gender, and where I worry that I’m straying out of my lane. But this is the best understanding of TERFery I’ve been able to form…
I have no sense of gender. I don’t even understand what it would be to have a sense of gender. This may be because I’m a cis straight man, and while I don’t perform masculinity in the Top Gear-watching, beer-drinking, football-supporting sense, my interests and the way I relate to them are ones that most people can understand as masculine ones (for example I do fandom mostly in the collecting-all-the-facts way other men do rather than the creative subversion way many women do, even though I think the latter is objectively better). So I may not have a sense of gender in the same way that fish have no sense of water — I’m the default, and that’s the end of the matter.

Or it may be that there’s some macro-scale component of my brain that is actually different from other people’s, and I’m actually not physically capable of feeling gendered — that were I to wake up tomorrow in a body with a different set of sexual characteristics, I’d just think “oh, that’s interesting” and carry on as normal.

Either is, from my internal point of view, entirely plausible — but either way, I do not know what it means to “feel male” or “feel female” or “feel nonbinary” or anything else.

Yet, because I know (unless literally everyone in the world is lying, consistently, for no reason other than to fuck with my head, which seems unlikely) that other people often have brains that work in very different ways than mine, when someone says “my own experience of gender doesn’t match the one I’ve had assigned by other people, and while I may look like gender X I’m really gender Y”, my response is to say “oh, OK, that’s one of those different things isn’t it?” and just get on with my life.

(NB that description is not meant to say that people’s descriptions of being trans and/or nonbinary which don’t match that description are invalid. It’s one that I have heard some trans people use, but I know it doesn’t fit all of them. The wider point here is that whatever the reasons trans people have for being trans, they’re not ones I can understand but they’re ones that clearly matter to them).

On the other hand, having spent much time recently dealing with the foetid swamp that is TERFery thanks to a concerted campaign of TERF harassment against some of my trans friends (and also against some of my cis friends who the TERFs incorrectly think are trans while also incorrectly thinking they have infallible transdar that can detect trans people from a thousand miles away), I think they’re almost all suffering from neurotypicality and assuming their own sense of gender is the same as everyone else’s.

Some seem to be people like myself, who have no strong sense of gender at all and thus assume that everyone who claims one is a liar and must be doing it for some nefarious reason. Others seem to be people who are very strongly gendered and assume that that strong sense of gender is one that comes from having the particular genital configuration they’re born with. And saddest of all, some seem to be closeted trans people who assume that literally everyone feels the same way they do, and that most people just put up with it and if they have to suffer, so should everyone else. (I say saddest, but I still have no sympathy for them given the immense damage they do).

And all of them are proceeding from the assumption that everyone else is like them, and that anyone who claims differently is a liar — and doing so so thoroughly that they are unable to see that their own allies are saying something radically different.

And they believe this so strongly that they are happy to join in massive hate mobs and harass people, sometimes to the point of suicide, rather than just accept that their experiences aren’t universal.

So this autism accwaretance month, if you can learn one thing, learn to *believe people when they tell you what they’re thinking*. You’re not normal, and neither is anyone else. Once you understand that, you can start to have actual empathy, like autistic people do.

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13 Responses to Autism Accwaretance and TERFery

  1. Shawn says:

    Thank you for writing this!

  2. That is really well and clearly put, thank you.

  3. gavinburrows says:

    As a youth, it always seemed to me that society was conformist and intolerant of difference. Yet as the years have passed a bizarre twist occurred – society has become more individualist, and yet at the same time more intolerant of difference. It went from “if you are not normal (ie part of the majority) you are in the wrong” to “if you are not like me, you are in the wrong.”

    I do believe I’ve seen society become infantalised. The inability to get that other people are not like you, that they can have different stuff in their heads, that seems like something you should think at a young age and grow out of.

    And transphobia seems quite a good example there, as it’s not just claiming trans people are somehow bad but insistent they can’t even exist. (It will insistently deny the existence of trans women, and will implicitly deny the existence of trans men by not talking about them at all.)

    Brief summary of argument – Trump is the President for our times. I think I might need a lie down…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Couldn’t agree more, though I think it’s more “if you are not like me, then you are not normal, therefore you are in the wrong”. Like it’s still the *presumption* of majoritarianism, just without checking what the majority actually thinks.
      (Hence also the Quitlings being all “will of the people!” about a vote in which a minority of the population sided with them, while the hashtag-fbpe remainers are all “we need a second referendum, because clearly people didn’t actually mean that because everyone’s really a centrist like me”).

      • gavinburrows says:

        Yeah, I thought of the Referendum too. Each side being able to see it in the other, just not in themselves.

        My personal theory is that it’s connected to the rise of consumerism. People have internalised the “customer is King’ maxim, where the world (including it’s other inhabitants) is seen as a collection of goods designed not just to appeal to us, but to be an expression of each person’s own self.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          That makes a lot of sense. One of the reasons why I hate the term “consumer” being applied to things that were previously called “audiences” or “people”…

        • plok says:

          I see this in friends being seduced by the Rationalosphere, sliding from Stephen Pinker to Sam Harris to (I hope not, but maybe soon) Jordan Peterson, on the “smart person” version of Fox News…so, wondering about the value of my university education, well anyone might read my reading lists but the real lesson I got about that is that you don’t just get to stop when you find something you LIKE. Apologies if I am somehow repeating myself here, but…

          If reading lists were just shopping carts, Soc 100 would teach three days of functionalism and just give everyone an A, Phil 100 would ask for a show of hands of “who thinks utilitarianism sounds pretty reasonable?” and then direct the class to summer holidays in the middle of September. That, I think, is what many of my (very smart!) autodidactical friends are doing: coming across something they like and then just saying “great, I’ll get a bookshelf of this please!” And, sometimes (it seems), a small altar.

          And I fear I may come to the conclusion that I might not be able to pick it all apart for them: they never encounter anything that isn’t in agreement with that stuff anymore, so why should they listen to weird oddballs who DON’T think there’s a neurobiological cause of religion or that Galileo proved the Earth wasn’t flat or whatever.

          Just one man’s depressing two cents…

          • plok says:

            Though I think just there I took it a little too far off-topic, apologies.

            Interesting post!

          • gavinburrows says:

            I’m normally critical of the notion that anything new can blithely be described as down to the internet. But with this I think that interweb business may be a factor. Permit a middle-aged saddo another wander down memory lane… In my youth, I couldn’t help but be aware that the things which interested me were minority affairs. Whereas with the net, you can take even a very niche interest and spend all day wallowing among other aficionados. (Which is of course why I’m reading Andrew’s blog in the first place.)

            And then, when you’re not on home turf, when you are in no man’s land, the tendency is to not argue your case but to refer back to that home turf. Quotes get lobbed from it like buns in a bunfight, with the presumption the person with the biggest base camp and hence the most ammo to hurl must be the winner. Formal equivalence becomes interchangeable with equivalence of content. “Shut up snowflake” becomes a fitting response to a detailed, closely argued takedown. I think when people do that, they’re not just chancing it but honestly can’t see what they’re doing. Which is worse, of course.

  4. I have thoughts. But I shall limit them for the moment to “Thank you very much. That clarified several things in my head.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’ll be very interested in your thoughts if you choose to write them elsewhere, whether or not I agree with them.

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