Fine, We’ll Talk About Autism and Misogyny

[TW: Misogyny, abuse, way more swearing than usual.  I don’t recommend letting the kids read this one unless you’re confident they can handle the topic.]

I’ve been avoiding discussion of the UCSB killings ever since I checked my Feedly last weekend and discovered that ASAN had issued a statement refuting media claims linking autism and violence even before I understood why that statement had become necessary again.  Other blogs in my feed explained that six people’s lives had been claimed (seven, if you count his own) by a young man who had left a manifesto that reads like the worst kind of MRA parody (transcript at link; TW).  My understanding is that he wasn’t actually autistic at all, but media insinuation is an insidious thing.

I haven’t known what to say.  I have zero interest in insisting that I’m not a mass-murdering time bomb, because it feels futile: the more I protest, the more I reinforce the meme and imply that some autistic people, “other” autistic people, are mass-murdering time bombs.  In an uncharacteristic move, I’ve also avoided #YesAllWomen and #AutismIsNotaCrime, because right now I just don’t have the wherewithal.

I still don’t want to talk about the USCB murders.  But yes, let’s talk about autism and misogyny.  Specifically, let’s talk about how autism is not a pass for misogynist or hurtful behavior – and how using it in this way is, more often than not, sexist in itself.

When I left The Ex about four years ago, it was because he’d hit critical mass in his downward spiral into misogynistic hate.  (The link is to a recent Tumblr post by Mel Baggs discussing how hate is identified by what it does, not how it feels, which is exactly what I mean when I use the word here.)  When I began dating The Ex, he had a hefty dose of unexamined privilege but nothing I thought couldn’t be redeemed – particularly as he was, at the time, willing to learn and improve.

But not by the end.  By the end, he was an outright abuser, driven by woman-hating (in the above sense) rhetoric spewed on the MRA forums he’d started to frequent.  (To spare the Internet traffic, I won’t link to samples of said rhetoric directly, but Dave Futrelle offers this primer at We Hunted the Mammoth.)

The Ex was also autistic.  As I was reminded every single time I tried to explain why I left him.

Unlike the recent killings, however, in my situation autism was never invoked to separate the neurotypical majority from an individual’s bad behavior.  I never once heard “Well of course he hurt you, those freaky autistic loners can’t be trusted.  A normal person would never treat his girlfriend like that.”  Nobody ever tried to defend themselves from him.

On the contrary.  They tried to defend him from me.

“But he’s autistic!”  I heard every single time I tried to explain why I had issued a unilateral no-contact order after a years-long relationship.  “He doesn’t understand when he’s hurting you!  You need to explain it to him!”

Oh, he understood.  Know how I know?  Because I had explained in the past that his hurtful misogyny was hurtful and misogynistic.  Because, in the past, I had said “hey, [thing you’re doing] hurts my feelings, please stop.”  And in the past, he had said, “oh, I didn’t know,” and stopped.

What changed wasn’t that he “forgot,” or that he never understood.  I wish it were.  What changed is that, when I called him on the same behaviors at the end of our relationship, he chose not to knock it off.

Know how I know that (since I’m sure at least one well-meaning person will drop by the comments to say “well, you’re autistic so you didn’t understand that he didn’t understand”)?  Our final argument included him saying the following things (TW):

  • “Oh, I understand why you’re pissed, I just don’t give a fuck.”
  • “If you think I’m going to [change my behavior] just because you’re a whiny cunt, you’re high.”
  • “I’m not going to apologize for that.”

He said each of these about a hurtful thing he had understood and stopped doing in the past.  That was a little bit of a clue.

But here’s the thing.  It’s not that misogyny – not his misogyny, the misogyny that ended our relationship, that really bothers me here.  What bothers me the most is the misogyny inherent in the idea that an autistic man can be “too autistic” to account for his own behavior, but that an autistic woman can’t possibly be autistic enough not to know how to spare someone else’s feelings.

Abusers who are also autistic exist; I dated one.  And I maintain that the problem was never his autism.  The problem was his abuse.

But deliberate abuse isn’t the only problem.  A few months ago, I had an edifying Tumblr conversation about the “socially awkward” vs. “predator” problem – the idea that it is the duty of women who are approached creepily by dudes in public spaces to humor said dudes, because “they might be autistic!”

The idea that the woman might also be autistic (and that she has the right to tell people to buzz out of her personal space no matter what her neurotype) is, of course, never discussed.  The fact that an autistic woman might be just as awkward about telling dudes to buzz off as an autistic man is about approaching women never comes up either.  The onus is on the woman to handle the socially-awkward man’s approach gracefully (i.e., without bruising the man’s feelings in the slightest), never on the man to learn how to approach with less social awkwardness.

This – this idea that a man can be too autistic to account for his own behavior but that a woman can never be autistic enough to fail to account for both her behavior and the feelings of others – is sexist nonsense.  Logically, if he is “too autistic” to understand that inappropriate behavior is inappropriate, then so am I.  If he is “too autistic” to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable or hurt when he interacts with them, so am I.  If he is “too autistic” to start a conversation or maintain a relationship without constant concessions to his behavior and feelings, so am I.  If he is “too autistic” to cope with being rejected emotionally, then so am I.

But during my breakup, and in conversations about Creeping in Public Places, I hear it over and over again: “He’s autistic!” is a pass for his behavior, but it is never a pass for mine.  Because being autistic is too much for him to juggle, but it is not enough to permit me to drop the burden of emotional relationship maintenance.

Let’s be clear.  I don’t believe anyone, in any relationship, should get a pass for deliberately hurtful behavior, regardless of their gender or neurotype.  And I believe that after issuance and acknowledgement of a direct “hey, knock it off,” persisting in the behavior is deliberately hurtful.

But I also believe that anyone capable of initiating or participating in a relationship is capable of learning how not to hurt other people, regardless of their gender or neurotype.  I believe that autism may be a reason for gauche social behavior but that it is not an excuse.

Every time we hand out one of these passes to an autistic man because autism, but not to an autistic woman despite autism, we perpetuate not only the ableist notion that autistic people can’t care about others but also the sexist and misogynistic notion that women are responsible for emotional babysitting in a relationship – and that men need to be emotionally babysat.  It’s a lie.  Stop it.

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23 thoughts on “Fine, We’ll Talk About Autism and Misogyny

  1. As the neurotypical mom of an autistic boy, I agree. I’m pretty sure that 25% of my extended family is on the spectrum in some way. I’m a geek, mild mannered, awkward (much less now than when I was younger). My son is very smart, but socially awkward. It’s MY JOB to teach him what is appropriate and to not use, “well, it’s ok, he’s autistic” as an excuse. It’s a reason for getting it wrong, but it’s not an excuse for continuing the behavior with no regard for others.

    Autistic empathy processing may be different, but it’s there. Assuming that the empathy doesn’t exist gives people a pass re. taking the responsibility to teach what’s appropriate, etc. It’s lazy parenting (which is everywhere, sadly). I don’t know what my son doesn’t know (all that unspoken rules, etc.), but when I find out, I teach him the “rules”.

    It’s hard to call people out for being jerks, especially when you’re mild-mannered, etc., but we can do it respectfully and assume the best when we do. We can’t be responsible for other people’s feelings when THEY are doing something wrong and they’re called on it respectfully.

    EVERYONE can be nice, and everyone can be a jerk. Neurological differences aside, people act like people and wiring isn’t an excuse for being a jerk.

    Kudos to you, and I’m sorry people are so dense.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you!

      There are things about my sociableness (and, probably, about your son’s as well) that will always be awkward. I still can’t listen, talk, or think while maintaining eye contact, and there are perpetually weird pauses in my casual conversations while my brain goes “wait wait I’m supposed to say a pleasantry here uh-oh which one is it….”

      But the gulf between those and being a jerk is profound. And even if someone did feel hurt by my staring into a corner or by my extra-long pauses, and they told me, I’d apologize and explain – because I don’t want to be a jerk, either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Everything about this is completely on point–it makes me get more impatient with myself for not already writing the like, twenty posts about autism and gender things that I have swimming around in my head. The consent and bodily autonomy issues that I know I and other autistic women/girls run into is enough to keep me talking for days on end.

    I can definitely say from personal experience that whenever I describe myself as “autistic” to someone for the first time, they’re often surprised and kind of like, give me that quizzical “…elaborate, please?” look. But whenever I’ve described myself as an “Aspie” or has having “Aspergers” to someone, 99% of the time that person’s first response is to say “Really? But you’re so nice!” Because every Asperger’s stereotype/exemplar they know of is a really cold, dickish white guy. I feel like the myth that says “being autistic means lacking empathy” and the “Big Bang Theory” male stereotype of a supposedly high-functioning autistic person make up one giant rhetorical loop, each half reinforcing the other over and over.

    I’ll always remember; the first time someone ever called me a “bitch” and meant it, I was thirteen, and I was playing truth or dare with a bunch of other 8th graders on a trip. It was my turn, and a bunch of the more popular guys (who I liked, and who I got along with well) dared me to kiss this one really unpopular guy who had had a huge crush on me all year, and would give me Valentine’s Day presents, even though I had made clear that I wanted him to stop. I quickly refused, and it was clear that the whole point of the dare had been to humiliate this kid (who had social issues, anger-management issues, likely “Aspie” boy) by having me publicly reject him. The other boys wheedled at me for a while, laughing, and I kept refusing. Finally, they were like “Whatever, moving on…” and this unpopular guy just looked straight at me (from not that far away) and said “Bitch.” in this extremely angry and threatening voice. And later that day he was fuming and pacing because he was so pissed, and just like every other time this stuff had happened, all the adults and most of the other students were like “Why aren’t you nicer to him? He’s really sad and lonely, and it’s cute that he has a crush on you. If you weren’t so mean to him, he would easier to be around.” And I remember thinking “I’m not nice to him because he’s a complete jerk! He says gross, racist things all the time. He often gets violent when he’s angry. Besides giving me creepy presents I never asked for or wanted, he’s never done anything nice or positive for me in my life. So no.” Nobody seemed to get that I was terrified of him, and had no idea how I was supposed to keep myself safe and comfortable without seeming mean.

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    1. I feel like the autism and gender thing is a bottomless well. There’s so much there, and so much of it is only starting to get talked about at all.

      I keep trying to get there. That’s kind of where I’m trying to push my research (some kind of feminist disability studies…thing). Because it’s unexplored territory that desperately needs exploring.

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      1. I’ve ended up, at the moment, hanging out in this kinda post-colonial theory, indigenous studies, queer studies, black feminism, and history of science magical combo platter. ‘Cause I have this deep and undying hatred for “developmental narratives.” Like, evolution as progress, colonialism as progress, the human “development” as progress, etc. And then this deep, undying hatred for scientific positivism and humanism. (Yes, I’m a giant flaming deconstructionist Derrida fangirl).

        And then, at the end of the day, I just end up having all these intennnnnnse feelings about discussions of autism and language/literature that try to pull that “instead of pathologizing it, we’re going to idealize it” thing, where suddenly autistic people’s language (or esp. the language/thoughts of non-verbal autistic people) are discussed as if they’re like, pristine, perfectly intuitive examples of how language *really* works when you strip away all that artificial *socialization* and *abstraction*. It’s like, do people not get how fucking insulting that is? My personal fave is the scientist who believes that savant skills are latent in everyone, and just get like “released” in autistic/mentally disabled people because of their broken frontal lobes. He literally does studies where normal people get parts of their brains momentarily zapped, and then they have to like, look at an object/scene and draw it in pencil. To see if they turn into Nadia. Gag me with a spoon.

        Things that I spend my time thinking about:
        1. Can we just admit that the things normal people consider “savant skills” are just those talents that they can’t imagine any normal person ever wanting to develop? Like, autistic people win Nobel Prizes, but apparently a Nobel Prize is a sign of having skills more like a “normal” person, not skills that are specific to that autistic person. There’s a presumption that we “know” how someone can win a Nobel Prize, but that we don’t know how calendar calculation happens. Ha.
        2. Gender-bias, savant skills, and Simon Baron-Cohen’s obsession with Systematizing. OMFG.
        3. Both of the above, and their relation to the supposedly disproportionate number of autistic girls/women with intellectual disabilities?
        4. Intellectual disability as a social category in general; I consider this like, a personal exorcism of sorts. The fear of unintelligibility, of “abject”-ness, of others’ disgust, all center around the “figure,” so to speak, of intellectual disability, for me. Like, I can only feel safe when the non-verbal, messy, incomprehensible version of me is just as valued and protected as the articulate, compulsively organized, intellectual version of me. Language as lots of different kinds of things. Everything as a language (Derrida again, here we go). Not as in “everything is text-code-abstract-constructivism” but more like “There is nothing in ‘abstract’ language that is not also part of what’s outside it.”

        Werd explosion. Part tew. Of gazillions.

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      2. The paper I’m currently revising with dreams of publication is a deconstruction of “speak” as it’s regularly used to shut autistic people up, starting with the point that when Spivak asks “Can the subaltern speak?”, for autistic folks that often means both “do we have a meaningful place at this table?” and “are we recognized as being literally able to speak?”, and those two things are inseparable when we’re talking basic rights. And that, of course, there’s this privileged conception of “speech” as “text-code-abstract-constructivism” (I love the way you put this) made with voices and mouth-movements when really it’s way, way more than that.

        I spend a great deal of time in this paper insisting that it’s not a coincidence that the organization pouring the most time and effort into telling autistic adults to shut up and insisting autistic children have no language (in any sense) calls itself “Autism Speaks.” *primal scream*

        The idea that autistic people are somehow in tune with some more “pristine” or “primordial” language sounds a lot like my own personal exorcism of the moment, which is this New Age-y idea that we’re more “old souls” or “enlightened” (or, ugh, “Indigo Children”) in general. I got a LOT of that crap growing up; it became a great excuse not to actually give me advice on how to navigate basic social situations, because if I was odd in them it was because I had “transcended” them, not because I had no idea what was going on.

        (I am seriously flapping with excitement here, because I spend so much time explaining my research in small words and not nearly enough time talking about it with someone who is thinking along similar lines. I am SO THRILLED.)

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      3. I’ve thought about stuff around some similar lines (unsurprising); what I think is cool about using the Spivak to approach the whole A$ deal is how Spivak specifically points to how the entire method of subjectification itself is so entirely colonial that when we try and form the subaltern woman as a “subject” that “speaks,” we’ve failed before we even start. It reminds me of how–quite openly–there is the assumption that not only can autistic people not speak, but that by speaking, a person shows that they cannot be autistic. In many ways, it’s the deconstruction of the figure of a typical “speaker” that is necessary, rather than simply claiming “Hey, look, it’s autism/autistic people speaking (like we expect).”

        Obviously, the part of me that loves deconstructing the text-code-abstract situation also loves deconstructing the image of the “speaker.” And I think this becomes super relevant with regard to high-profile autistic people, such as Temple Grandin, whose voice is considered “autism speaking” specifically because it manages to fit the typical idea of what “speaking” means, but also fits the typical idea of what a “more normal” autistic person should talk like, and talk about. One of the things that I read a lot about, especially within indigenous studies and postcolonial theory, is rhetorics of authenticity, and how they’re used to police representations of marginalized peoples. And I think that really plays into this dynamic a lot; when Autism Speaks “tells autistic adults to shut up,” what they’re usually actually doing is policing autistic adults’ “autisticness.” It’s very complicated–like the ideas of authenticity that surround the subaltern woman, especially those who are part of diasporic communities in Westernized nations–because while, on the one hand, “authenticity” is primarily a tool for silencing marginalized voices, there’s also important criticisms of more privileged “representatives” of a given “group” claiming to “speak” for the group as a whole. Which takes us back to the whole deconstructing-speech-and-speakers-and-tables-and-whatever thing. Whew.

        Everytime someone uses the phrase “Indigo Child” I want to punch everyone in the face. That said, while I definitely didn’t get that kind of reaction as a child, I do know that getting me services/diagnoses was definitely delayed because my parents were like “So what if our kid is weird. Fuck y’all.” I mostly get pissed off at people not paying attention to how normative and condescending it is to basically assume that the only (and best) way for their autistic child to be “different” and “valuable” is for their minds and experiences to be some magical archaeological dig into the neurotypical human psyche. As if autistic people were the neurology’s version of the fucking dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. BLERG.

        Related: I’ve been doing a lot of work in my head trying to see where I stand concerning depictions of autistic communication, or thought, or relations, as somehow less influenced by typical social presumptions. Because I find most of that kind of talk like…situationally understandable, but rhetorically dangerous. For instance, how do we think about the countless autistic young women who go undiagnosed but end up treated for eating disorders (anorexia in particular), when we assume that to be autistic is to be somehow immune to these kinds of social pressures and expectations? And how do we understand the blatant misogyny, racism, homophobia and ableism displayed by a large (large, large) number of white, straight, adult autistic men when we equate their autisticness with a kind of imperviousness to the ills and biases present in their social environment?

        But then, there’s this smaller part of me that always needs to remind myself that critiquing how a members of a marginalized/oppressed group perpetuate the oppression of others does not mean completely closing off the possibility that said group is a source/instance of potentially radical or transformative and positive work, and ideas. One thing that I’m planning on doing more work/thought on is how autistic/neurodiversity advocacy can often erase and ignore other marginalized groups by projecting the “autistic vs. neurotypical” dichotomy onto all societies. Because there’s a huge number of problems with the idea that “autism” is a scientific/biologically discrete entity that provides the sole source of specifically “autistic,” radical ways of thinking and relating. There are a number of groups, and cultures that differ from a Western/US norms in their social, intellectual, and creative lives, and do so in ways that often echo and parallel our understandings of what it “autistic” sociality and creativity are like. This doesn’t mean that being “autistic” is “normal” so much as it means that our ideas of what is and isn’t “normal,” and of the consequences and valence of the “abnormal” are shaped specifically to “other” certain ways of thinking and existing. And those ways of thinking and existing can be found in a variety of places and peoples, for a variety of reasons; most of what they have in common is that, in some way, they disrupt what has become the dominant cultural/societal model.

        I JUST FLAPPED ONTO THE KEYBOARD OF MY LAPTOP AND THAT WAS WHAT HAPPENED. ALSO P.S. THIS CONVERSATION IS BADASS AND I/WE SHOULD TOTALLY JUST MAKE IT INTO BLOG POST/POSTS EVEN THOUGH NOBODY ELSE WILL CARE OR WANT TO LOOK UP ALL THE JARGON. DOESN’T MATTER. STILL COOL.

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  3. I’m not sure if this is problematic, but looking at Paul Elam’s 20/20 interview, I noticed he had serious trouble with eye contact and tended to stammer and generally have the awkward sorts of mannerisms that I have as someone on the Spectrum. I’ve also noticed that Men’s Rights and general reactionary political discussions seem to be quite common on WrongPlanet.
    And I’ve noticed that a significant number of autistic men tend to be conservative, libertarian, or otherwise right-wing.
    I’ve wondered if maybe there’s a possible connection between autism and right-wing politics, since one of the symptoms of autism is difficulty with changes in routines, and of course conservatism is based on trying to maintain the status quo.
    I know that as a man on the Spectrum, despite identifying as a feminist, all of these changes that have happened in 2014 did worry me a bit. Like I still can’t imagine the idea of Bill Cosby being a sadistic rapist or anything other than the clean-cut goofy father figure he played on TV.
    What are your thoughts?
    And is it different for women on the Spectrum?

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  4. As an Autistic man, can I just state that I agree with what you’ve written in this post? You’re right that no one should get to use their neurology as an excuse for bad behaviour, no matter what their gender. That’s why, if it’s clear that I’ve hurt or offended someone, I ask them to explain what I did so I can avoid doing it in the future; I’ve never repeated a mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Many moons ago I read a blog post about how Autism is not an excuse to be an asshole, which I loved. I agree wholeheartedly with it and with you! Once someone is told directly that something is hurtful, continuing the same behaviour is a choice to continue hurting someone.

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  6. I’m not sure if I commented on this before, but I don’t understand why this commentary, and many others like it, think “this person is either disabled/different or a jerk”. Isn’t it worth acknowledging that people’s experiences, choices, ideologies and opinions play a massive part in how things pan out?

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    1. Reread for comprehension, please.

      (1) I’m assuming one can be both disabled AND a jerk.
      (2) Not respecting a clear “no” is a jerk thing to do, full stop.
      (3) If you are unable to respect a clear “no” for any reason (disability, experiences, choices, ideologies, opinions, fortune cookie said so, ANY reason), you should not be out in public without a behavioral aide to help you control yourself.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m struggling to see how your comment even relates to the OP. Do you think Dani is arguing that her ex wasn’t autistic b/c he was a jerk? Because she pretty clearly said the opposite of that. Also, a person’s experiences and ideologies play zero role in understanding consent and “stop doing that, it’s hurting me”.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Alex- you know has won the ignominious honor of being the first person banned from this blog. Their final comment started with “you should” (do a thing I had already stated I would not do), then followed with a text screed that broke every one of the four Why You Got Deleteds in the comments policy.

    Three things we can all learn from this historic event:

    1. No, I “should” not do shit. It’s my blog.

    2. No one owes you a platform. If you want a platform, get your own blog.

    3. Ignoring a clear “no” on a post about why ignoring a clear “no” makes you a jerk is a fractally jerk thing to do. It is jerky at all possible levels of magnification. Do not do it.

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