“We do not intend to be disrespectful – indeed we may be desperate to avoid displeasing others – but it does not occur to us that we are supposed to treat someone in a different, special way, just because they are a teacher.” Clare Sainsbury, Martian in the Playground: Understanding the Schoolchild with Asperger’s Syndrome
People on the spectrum often struggle with the unwritten rules that regulate social interaction and communication so for the benefit of myself, I will start off this post by stating two of the unwritten rules:
We should treat everyone with equal respect regardless of their social hierarchy.
Individuals higher up the social hierarchy deserve greater respect and special privileges.
What we call weird is just normal to another other than us
To adapt a quote from Henry Thoreau, what we call weird is just normal to another other than us. Personally, I find neurotypicals (NT) the weird bunch, even more so for the NT in some profession, they are full of self-contradictions that they either don’t realise or deny. On the one hand, there are the officials and professionals advocating equality and upholding equal rights regardless of race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation etc. These rules are often stated black and white in equal opportunities statements and policies. On the other hand, what is often not mentioned is that it is not against the principle of equality to accord people of higher social status and ranking with special privileges and higher respect than the ordinary people. In fact, it is socially inappropriate not to. Social hierarchy is an alien concept to me. I respect an individual out of common respect to human beings, not because of his/her social ranking or profession. I can appreciate and accept treating someone differently because of personal or mitigating circumstances but not treating someone differently just because he/she belongs to a particular profession or social status. When we treat someone with higher respect just because that individual is someone high on the social hierarchy, that doesn’t sit well with me at all. I find it abhorrent and deeply offensive. I cannot understand why it is socially appropriate to treat someone with higher respect simply because of his/her social hierarchy. What is the logic behind that? How can someone claim to promote equality yet, at the same time, makes decisions dominated by social hierarchy? I find it weird that people can seemingly live with that paradox. I’m proud to be autistic if that makes me a more logical and rational being. In this respect, I do sympathize with NT who struggles with social hierarchy.
Individuals with special needs
I deal with individuals with special needs at my workplace. By that I don’t mean people with special needs like learning difficulties or disabilities as it is typically understood. I mean individuals who require special assistance or attention due to their social status/ranking/hierarchy. Only none of my colleagues would use the term special needs to describe them, not even the mention of special privileges or preferential treatments. They are just very important persons. For example, I’ve learnt that certain profession such as judges have an elevated status such that during a gift presentation ceremony to invited guests, the gift must first be presented to a judge (and not in accordance to the sequence the guests appeared) and when it comes to making travel arrangements for overseas guests, judges are being offered better terms compared to other profession. I am aware that the legal profession is embedded in tradition and that judges are regarded with high esteem. That said, I cannot convince myself that belonging to a particular profession is a sufficient reason to justify better treatment. I respect them as I would anyone else. If you happen to be a judge or someone of high social standing reading this and feel offended that I’ve just described you as someone with “special needs”, spare some thought for the marginalised population. There is something wrong with a society that readily adapts and accommodates itself to the needs of a person of high social ranking but on the other hand, finds nothing wrong with a system where individuals who require assistance are expected to pro-actively seek help themselves and to justify why their needs should be accommodated. I have no intent to offend any profession but if anyone is offended, I’d rather argue whether we should call someone, a person with disability or a disabled person; or should we call someone, a person with autism or an autistic person, which are more noteworthy by comparison. In any event, why would you take offence to a cowardly insignificant person like myself who is powerless to disobey but can only take comfort in expressing herself behind the veil of the internet? 😉
Autism is a different way of thinking
Do people with autism struggle with social hierarchy? As soon as I pose this question, I know I’ve set myself to getting replies along the line of everyone struggles with social hierarchy, autistic or not. Perhaps I should have asked, do people with autism struggle particularly with social hierarchy or in a more scholarly manner, how does autism affect the way in which an autistic individual perceive social hierarchy?
There may be some kind of self-serving bias involved when answering the question but I do believe people on the spectrum struggle particularly with social hierarchy for different reasons than the NT. First, social interaction is confusing in itself without the complication of social hierarchy. Second, autistic individuals may have a rigid black and white thinking over certain matters such as fairness and social justice and will find it hard to change their way of thinking. Third, autistic individuals tend to value and prioritize logic and may not change unless the reason is logical. Taking the second and third point together, my mum is a Buddhist and she would use to say I should pray and treat the statues of Buddha with respect, to which I replied, I would respect the statues as much as I would a human being (I’m not denying the status of higher being, merely saying I see them as deserving equal respect as human being).
I guess the irony is when you do treat everyone as equal, that becomes disrespectful by societal standards. Here is what Hans Asperger noted of the autistic children he observed,
“Austistic children are egocentric in the extreme. They follow only their own wishes, interests and spontaneous impulses, without considering restrictions or prescriptions imposed from outside. They lack completely any respect for the other person. They treat everyone as an equal as a matter of course and speak with a natural self-confidence. In their disobedience too their lack of respect is apparent.” Uta Frith (ed.) Autism and Asperger syndrome
I think many on the spectrum will disagree with the statement that we lack completely any respect for the other person. The purpose of citing the above is to demonstrate how treating everyone with equal respect (which makes good logic to me) can be interpreted as a complete lack of respect in the extreme. I’m not going to delve further into the rest of Asperger’s observations other than to note that our understanding of autism and Asperger has increased and evolved since Asperger wrote the above in 1944 and one should be careful of extrapolating the above statement to the entire autism spectrum. The editor did explain that autistic individuals may appear to be rude because they are unaware of the social niceties that would allow mutual understanding. Other authors have also noted that people on the spectrum tend to struggle with understanding social hierarchy. As Tony Attwood explains,
“Conflict and confrontation with adults can be made worse by non-compliance, negativism, and a difficulty in perceiving the differences in social status or hierarchy, resulting in a failure to respect authority or maturity.” The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome
Fourthly, autism affects how a person cope with the problem of social hierarchy. While the NT may just shrug off the problem and get over with it, the reaction of autistic individuals may be perceived as out-of-proportion to the issue at hand (including spending more than 10 hours on the internet writing this post). There is also the intense emotions that come with the feeling that an injustice has been perpetuated by giving in to the demands of social hierarchy, feeling despise and frustrated for giving in to an arbitrary practice which I don’t agree and which makes no sense, least to say, I am powerless to disobey. I could imagine how Henry Thoreau must have felt when he went into a sudden outburst and arbitrarily punished a few students after interference by the school committee. At least he had the courage to renounce corporal punishment by resigning from his teaching job the following day.
Those who think I’m rude and disrespectful, I think it is equally rude for anyone to expect me to follow the social norms and to assume that I know what these norms are without having them explained to me in the first place or written down in black and white so for the benefit of everyone else, I thought I should state my rule below: