Autistic people like to be right.
We have a saying in my house, “technically correct is the best kind of correct.” It’s what my husband and I say to each other about ourselves or about our son when we realize we’re arguing in circles and all of us are convinced we’re right. Because I was more able to see the point of view of other people than my husband was, inevitably I’d say something that was right in terms of, if you looked at lived experiences, and my husband would say something that he’d internalized as a rule. Once upon a time, I’d said, “Well, you’re technically correct…” at which point he replied, “Well, that’s the best kind of correct.” Ever since we make that the family joke.
And it really does give you a handle on why we Autistics can be difficult to change.
One of the things I learned from going to public schools myself, is that embarrassment is the worst thing in the world. See, if you do something embarrassing two things happen 1) people can randomly bring it up in the future and use it to color their future opinions of you and 2) your mind has this irritating habit of doing this thing where, if you’re sitting there, enjoying the day, it will decide to bring you down a peg or two and replay an incident that was horrifyingly embarrassing. Objectively, I know now that brains playing bad memories over again is a typical thing. In fact, I seem to remember learning it in high school when I read a Dave Barry column and he mentioned his brain doing that as if it’s what brains do all the time (thanks, Dave! You really helped me out with that!), but at the same time, I still think I react more strongly to that embarrassment than the typical neurotypical.
Female Autistics in particular have a hard time being recognized because we tend to do this thing where we’re aware of how we’re perceived and can even (often) sense other people’s emotions and what they are thinking. We’ve learned this from years of playing detective and trying to fit in, which we might have managed in elementary years, but when things start getting too intense around middle school, we often can’t make it anymore and just get lost at the “fitting in” game. But some of us can still sense what other people are thinking and feeling, but we can’t do anything about it so we’re ostracized for being different.
That’s not, clearly, ideal.
So many of us construct an identity and, quite frankly, for a fair number of us, that identity is that we’re the smart ones. We know many facts, or we get a lot of A papers, or both. Kids will make fun of that kid, but over time they do develop a healthy respect, particularly if you don’t harass them at all. So, we become little professors. The boys, I think, sometimes do it because they cannot help it, but girls like me will do it because we know we can’t fit in, so we just double down on that which makes us different. After all, our teachers respect intelligence so if we can’t fit in with our peers, we must think, the teacher is the way to go.
This is all a roundabout way of explaining why I have trouble with the concept of pronouns that I was talking about yesterday, and in wake of Sirigate, I’m trying to reflect on why I’m having this difficulty.
Let me take a step back with another example before I go forward, explaining myself.
We have this guy on Autistic Twitter that many of us have blocked. He’s Autistic, white and male and the least intersectional guy ever. He’s the king of “you do you” and “why don’t we get along?” In Sirigate, he kept trying to speak about all Autistics by saying we do this thing where we divide the community, but we’re not per-se divided. There’s this guy. And there’s the rest of us. This happens every few weeks. This is why we all give up and block the guy.
See, the problem with this guy, which was also my husband’s problem, and, I’ve observed, not uncommon with white, male Autistics, is that they don’t really understand the privileges they’ve had by being white and male, so when they’re told they are Autistic, they feel like they’re the most put-upon species ever developed. They can’t see that People of Color have struggled, that women have struggled, etc. There is only themselves and their struggle.
I have a theory that they have internalized all the rules about society, including the null rules, the ones we don’t talk about, but seem to exist anyway. A lot of the null rules are ones that have to do with some races being inferior to others. And since schools historically have been very bad about talking about race, class, gender (etc.) there’s no way for an Autistic person to unlearn the null rules unless he or she does the work alone. Female Autistics often will talk to people who are different than they are, and start to learn the other perspectives. We might be faster to pick up alternative reading materials to help us begin the work of undoing the damage of these unstated rules of society. I don’t know…these are theories.
But in Autistic Twitter, this is a common thing; it’s not just this one guy. My husband was like this, too, until he finally listened to some podcast or something with Angela Jackson, I think it was, and he started to really listen to other experiences. Whammo, down went the whole: I am Disabled, so I have no privilege thing, and he started working toward intersectionality.
I’m thinking this is common for many Autistics, not just white, males.
So, yes, back to pronouns.
Here’s my story about that.
I had this fanatical English teacher in high school who was described as a grammar nazi. I loved her, dearly, like a second mom. While I resisted a lot of the journalistic style sheet rules and failed (like everyone else) each style quiz she gave me for about two years, by the third year she had brute forced AP style into my head so I was acing them. In addition to the AP style, there were the traditional rules from Warriner’s Grammar.
I like John Warriner’s Grammar book. It’s this little blue volume (okay, it’s thick, but it’s not large) and it goes over, in detail, all of the things with grammar. It’s the best to tutor out of because if you’re having trouble with grammar, John Warriner will just tell you the rule, show you examples, and you will actually figure out how to fix your problem!
Except for one thing.
John Warriner is a product of his society, right?
Thus, my pronoun problem.
I have very, very clearly internalized the following rule: he, she, or it walks, but they walk. Everybody is singular, team is singular (in American English; I know you Brits don’t have this collective noun thing), and so on.
So my first issue is that I have to say “he or she” or pick a word (he or she, usually) if I want to use singular. I have to. John Warriner said.
Otherwise, I can pluralize things and say they.
I have to. John Warriner said.
This is causing me great consternation when I want to respect alternative pronoun choices.
John Warriner said.
See, I am myself totally okay with pronoun differences. Pronouns are social construct, and in English, sure, we’re pretty gendered, but we don’t have to be. This is not a God-given rule.
But, John Warriner told me…
You see my dilemma.
And I know John Warriner may or may not give a damn (it’s not like I socialize with the guy and have to “face him” if I do some “wrong” grammar rule according to him), but my teacher said, too.
And I loved her a lot (she died a few years ago).
So when I struggle with pronouns, it isn’t because I don’t respect preferred pronouns. It’s because I DO respect them, but I’m still combatting with myself on the inside about whether I’m going to disappoint two dead people (I assume John Warriner is dead; I’m too lazy to research this) one of whom I love very much.
It’s just grammar.
But it’s a grammar rule I internalized. It is paining me to break it.
And the “prophet” of John Warriner was a person I adored.
But I know that I am 100% in the wrong here. Respecting pronouns is more important than an antiquated grammar rule. Besides, English is fluid.
And yet I’m still struggling.
Rules can be safety nets for us Autistics. If we follow them, we can keep that embarrassment away. I am trying to imprint in my brain a new rule that erases what John Warriner said.
It is hard.
I will get there.
This is why I ask for patience for myself and fellow Autistics. Sometimes the hardest part about being an Autistic is that we’ve internalized the rules of our own oppressors, neurotypicals who make these rules to preserve society as they want it to be, and even when we’re aware this has happened, we don’t always have the strength to throw off those rules and form new ones.
So, thanks to those of you who are patient as we learn new rules.