Sunday, December 4, 2011

Is "smart" always a compliment?

       Autistic people vary greatly in capabilities and "functioning levels". They can range from profound M/R to genius. Many end up with Doctoral Degrees. A lot of the time this is not a linear spectrum and people with ASD are unevenly skilled. Either way people are saying more and more that "Autistic people are so smart!". I'm not going to say it's a bad thing, there are far worse things we can be called than "smart". It's usually a compliment, but here's a caveat:
       If a kid knows the Preamble to the Constitution at age 7 that is certainly a sign of intelligence. If they understand the significance to it at age 9 it is also a promising sign. What about a 30 year old man who knows how to change a flat tire? Sometimes people can be patronizing without even realizing it and "nice" people can be the biggest culprits. Some of the very same people who rant about how smart ASD people can be are the last ones who would ever come to us when they seriously need advice on something important. I have many times noticed someone needing help or advice or talking to others about their problems. If the issue discussed is nothing personal and seems open I may try to help. Sometimes people just sigh and roll their eyes and other times people will look at each other in amazement and say how I'm just a fountain of knowledge and a walking encyclopedia. This is not because I demonstrated extraordinary genius, but because I demonstrated worldly knowledge typical of an adult my age. Maybe they will even be so kind as to come to me next time wants to know the capital of Finland or the germination time for tomato seeds, but when it's time to get serious and discuss complex personal problems they feel the need to whisper or talk in code because I'm perceived as too "naive" to take part in such a conversation. People may be polite, tolerant, and "fair" or even warm on the surface, but being viewed as an equal and treated the same as others is out of the question. One strange phenomena I observe is that people tend to be far more egalitarian and less pedantic over the phone or in one on one social interaction and in groups. In this case they don't have an audience to perform for. Also such labels are self fulfilling prophesies since people tend to become annoyed when someone shows proficiency in a normal topic that another is perceived as being naive to. Sometimes it leads to a moment of silence as if they were dealing with "toxic" attention-seeking behavior. Back seat driving is another example, if we put it in our head that someone cannot drive, no matter how long or clean a driving record they have, everything observed will then support the hypothesis. And one may even find themselves startling and distracting the driver as if they were unconsciously sabotaging their performance.
       Another thing I have experienced and I have read other Autistic people notice the same thing. Sometimes we get accused of being judgmental when we may be anything but. Sometimes the unawareness of one's tone of voice can make a neutral, benign observation appear as an opinion.
       Also as Autistic people can come off as pedantic in their tone and not even realize it- esp when we are simply trying to show how "normal" we can be, many times others can come off as pedantic to us. I have noticed many attempts to join in to an open conversation leads to people offering "helpful" advice akin to that of a Camp Counselor, After School Special, "Leave it to Beaver", a coaches "pep talk", or Dr. Phil. Yet having a two way conversation seems out-of-bounds.
       Unfortunately, even some mental health professionals can be just as guilty of this. Being able to to say you work with Autism is quite trendy for now and even Hollywood has caught on. Interacting with such people as equals in not quite as glamorous. Concepts like this can be best described in the cynical, satirical, and irreverent shows like "South Park". Even "Beavis and Butthead" which is not quite as profound as "South Park" IMO had this hippy/guru like character- VanDriessen who was a little like what I was trying to describe above. From what I remember he was an overall likable and good-hearted character but had some of that holier-than-thouness in his tone. I can remember taking a course in STD awareness years back and remembering the discussions about how to reach out to "high risk minority groups". That sounds wonderful, but sometimes that "special outreach"- many times orchestrated by white "intelligentsia" involves talking to people like they are all in 4th grade. You wouldn't dare criticize it as that would be irreverent and racist and if your not careful you could just continue the vicious cycle of moral one-upsmanship, but really if I was one these "high risk" people I'd be a little insulted.
       I'm sure we all have been in situations where we were on the outside looking in. This article is an example of why I'm not very drawn to cliques or group dynamics. This article is written in the context of Scandinavian culture, which I have no experience with, but reading it I can see universal parallels. It sounds obvious at first but don't take too literally at first. It does describe situations where people may be polite but there is an unwritten rule where one has to remember that they are not equal to the larger group. As long as this rule is followed that will "tolerate" the "outsider" with all their hearts:

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