There are not many autistic people who haven’t heard the refrain, “Why are you so focused on the negative?” Or, “You should just focus on what makes you happy.”
And very little is more dismissive to autistic identity construction.
Yes, everyone is free to have opinions.
Yes, everyone is free to have values.
But a person’s values drive their opinions, and if their values are not truly inclusive, their opinions cause harm.
So being around people whose values cause harm is likely causing autistics and other marginalized populations harm.
Autistic Identity is different.
Recently, I published my Identity Theory of Autism, which posits that autistic identity does not fit the definition of identity as it’s traditionally described. For most people, identity is where a person is in relation to their social intersections; however, I counter that autistic people’s identities are contrived by where they are according to the intersections of their values and passions.
This is an untested theory that may not apply to all autistic people. It is up to autistic people to determine if this is relatable to them.
Disclaimer: being defined by social intersections does not mean that a non-autistic person does not have values. All people have values. But not all people are defined (as in what, in their own perception of who they are as a person, makes up a person’s core self) by social intersections.
Also, a person’s socially-defined identity may be in how much a person is different from an identity. A non-autistic person can rebel or be different from their social identities. A person can be in a biker gang and be a Christian pastor at the same time, and those are social identities that are very different from each other, typically. A leather-clad, tattooed pastor with a long beard can still have Christian as an identity even though they diverge from the majority.
In fact, rebelling from a social identity one maintains is still a social act.
Autistic people are their values and passions.
Being defined by values does not mean that an autistic person does not relate to or feel connectedness with others who occupy their same social intersections. All people have social intersections. But not all people are defined (as in what, in their own perception of who they are as a person, makes up a person’s core self) by values.
Autistic people cannot relax around people whose values are inherently harmful to us. In the same way, non-autistic people see us as a threat to their social identities, all of which have their own communal values that maintain their social identity’s health.
When we are around people who are not defined by their values and passions, we have to mask our true selves. We often have to erase and minimize our very identities to occupy our social intersections.
We are on the defense by default around people without shared values. Their conformity to group identities is a threat to our values. Our commitment to our values is threatened by anyone who values the status quo of any social intersection.
Non-autistic people can usually write off “difference of opinion” from people in their social intersections because to them, their identity is defined by that social intersection. In fact, non-autistic people often avoid mentioning topics that might threaten their social identity.
A non-autistic person who belongs to a conservative political party may acknowledge that George Floyd’s murder at the hands of an officer was a gross injustice but refuse to acknowledge or even talk about the systemic racism that contributed to Floyd’s death and other Black people’s deaths at the hands of police.
That non-autistic person may actually have many values that counter the social norms of their political party, yet they rarely mention those values and will avoid looking at, talking about, or exploring how their political party contributes to anything that undermines their personal values.
For example, a non-autistic person can accept their racist relatives who are child abusers because they have shared social intersections. Those often matter more to them in terms of relatedness and connection than their shared values.
I’m aware as I write this that many non-autistic people will find that offensive, but it’s a fact. For this reason, autistic people often find politeness and diplomacy to be extremely harmful.
Autistic identity is not defined as much by our social intersections. It is defined by our values; as a result, we have the most social relatedness to others with shared values.
An autistic person and a non-autistic person may both hate child abuse and racism, but we define our core identity and our connections with others on values.
We do not feel as much automatic relatedness to others because of our religion, race, socioeconomic status, geographic location, parental status, or gender.
We are not defined by those things the way non-autistic people define themselves.
So, for those who want to relate to an autistic person– even an autistic child– they need to allow the autistic person to talk about how values inform opinions. They will have to give up their social safety and commit more to their values.
This doesn’t mean that they can’t still love their 85-year-old racist aunt Dorothy, or they have to go protest and do political demonstrations to relate to an autistic person.
But they do need to talk about those values and explore them, not make excuses or treat the autistic person like they’re too “negative” or too “political.”
Here’s an example conversation, or a social script for neurotypicals.
Autistic person: people who are avoiding the COVID vaccines are contributing to deaths. It’s horrifying.
Non-autistic person: You’re right. I wish more people would get the vaccine.
Autistic person: Uncle Joe is not vaccinated and won’t wear a mask and is hanging out with Grandma Vivian. He could kill her.
Non-autistic person: Yes, you’re right.
That’s all. It is that easy. You don’t have to stop all communications with Joe to acknowledge that his actions cause harm. Just be honest and don’t shut down the communication.
If an autistic person brings you a value, and you shut it down as if it’s being rude or too negative, you’re never going to just “get by” having a relationship with them no matter how many social intersections you share.
You’re asking autistic people to not be themselves or to not have an identity if you apply social pressure to condemn them for living their values.
The social intersection of religion is often at odds with the values of a religion.
When values are tied to religion, this is a major source of disconnect. If you’re non-autistic, your identity—your core self— is partially defined by the social intersection of belonging to that religion, and more specifically to that sect or denomination.
If you’re autistic, your identity is defined by the values of the religion, not the shared social norms.
If values associated with a religious practice or a specific denomination contradict other values related to other social identities, autistic people have to address those differences. This will 100% of the time put autistic religious people at odds with non-autistic people from the same religion.
If autistic people believe that love and acceptance are core values of their religion, but there are contradictions either in the religious text or in specific dogma or norms associated with a religion, then they will not just accept their social intersection or role in that community.
And non-autistic people do accept those norms, often associating righteousness with other social intersections— like political parties, gender, sexual orientation, or race.
To us, that’s living a lie because we are not defined by those social intersections.
Autistic people in political spaces often call out when something is not conducive to their values and can cause harm to individuals who are marginalized.
Autistic people often find themselves at odds with the social intersections of their political orientation.
Multiple surveys have demonstrated that autistic people are often politically Left-leaning. To them, being a Leftist means that their values, not their political party, matters more. They do not feel the “team spirit” of social intersections and will often find themselves being called a traitor and shunned for confronting violations of progressive values.
When autistics confront a violation of values, they expect and anticipate— at least before a lifetime of failed attempts— that others in their shared social intersection will be grateful to them for helping someone to honor their values. Doing that is something an autistic person sees as validating a person’s identity. A non-autistic person is likely to see that confrontation as divisive because their identity is as a team member to the cohesion of a group.
If autistic people talk about police corruption, and the police uphold a non/autistic person’s social identity, the autistic person has made a social violation in the social cohesion. Even if a non-autistic person agrees with our values, they need their social identity to remain safe.
Autistics need their values to remain safe, and our “team” is going to be made up of people who protect values over protecting social identities.
Social identities come with internal hierarchies.
Every social identity has within it implied ranks, or social hierarchies. Respect is often assigned based on ranking within social identities. Because of this, “emotional intelligence” is far better predictor of career success than any other variable.
From a scientific (rather than a popular) standpoint, emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions. It doesn’t necessarily include the qualities (like optimism, initiative, and self-confidence) that some popular definitions ascribe to it.Owens, quoting Mayer in “How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill,” Harvard Business Review, 2015.
TalentSmart conducted research that demonstrated that out of 34 domains of career performance, emotional intelligence accounted for 58% of workplace success. More than intelligence, work ethic, knowledge, values, innovating, skills, experience, education, passion, and willingness combined, “success” is contingent on understanding how to play a social-emotional role.
Like everything in the free world, understanding and responding to other people’s emotions and predicting the path for the best outcome, really means predicting the outcome that best maintains neurotypical emotions and social identities, not autistic or emotions values.
Any walk through a high school cafeteria will demonstrate that adolescents already have created and maintained social identities based on social hierarchies. There’s an implied hierarchy for those identities— cheerleaders, football players, nerds, rebels, goths, preps, theater geeks, etc.– with hierarchies inside each group.
Neurotypical social instincts drive people to not upset the social rankings within their groups, so each social identity develops its own norms and social code. Navigating multiple social identities, especially when one is much higher ranking than another, is called “code switching,” a phenomenon most associated with Black people navigating predominantly white spaces built on white values and social norms that are inherently discriminatory.
[T]here is reason to believe that the racial minorities at the top of the corporate hierarchy will neither racially reform the corporation, nor engage in door-opening activities, for the minorities on the bottom. Indeed, strong incentives exist for minorities to race to the top of the corporation and lift the ladder up behind them when they get there.Gulati, M. & Carbado, D. (2004). Race to the Top of the Corporate Ladder: What Minorities Do When They Get There, Washington & Lee Law Review, 61, 1645-1693.
Social hierarchies exist in all social intersections, and in order to survive when one intersection outranks another in social hierarchies, people have to sacrifice their values to maintain their social status.
And usually, they do, as a mechanism of survival.
But because autistic identity is based on values and not social intersections, autistics do not place the same weight on hierarchies. Many autistic people innately resent all social hierarchies— not to be confused with respect for expertise or a logical chain of command.
Social hierarchies are inherently exclusionary, and autistic people will eventually recognize the patterns of exclusion caused by social popularity and resent it, even if they mask and play the roles out of a need to survive. This is an especially insidious process for people who have to both mask their autistic identity and code-switch to erase their cultural norms.
Relationship strain between autistic people and non-autistic people often boils down to instincts related to social identities versus value-based identities.
Identity differences in social groups and partner relationships
These identity differences cause a lot of conflict in spaces where most people are non-autistic.
To non-autistics, committed relationships become a part of their social identity. “Two become one.” This means there’s a shared and unspoken expectation to use the relationship to maintain, and even “rank up,” in social identities.
Autistic people don’t “become one” with partners, even if they’re extremely close. We do not instinctively see others (no matter the social intersections) as an extension of ourselves because we are not self-defined by our place in a social role— even that of parent or spouse. Therefore, we do not see our role in relationships as part of our core identity.
This doesn’t mean that autistic people aren’t extremely loyal. It doesn’t mean they feel love and connection any differently. They just don’t see their loved ones as an extension of their personal identity.
Autistic people may develop intense interests in their social identities, like being queer or being a parent or being a Native American. These are value-based passions, though, and not borne of one’s “station” in the social construct of an identity.
For example, an autistic mother may be partially defined by being a mother, but not as it relates to social parenting norms or groups. Their passion may be in gentle parenting because their values against coercion and controlling relationships are core to their identity— which is true for many autistic people, whether or not they’re parents. This is a values-based passion in the interest of the Greater Good, though, and not in the interest of occupying a social role.
That same autistic mother who is heavily invested in parenting epistemology is likely to eventually be kicked out of or shunned by gentle parenting groups because they challenge— or fail to comply with— group norms that contradict their values.
Because autistics do not feel their core identity is defined as a parent of children, their lack of compliance with social norms is not a threat to their identity.
In romantic relationships, autistic and non-autistic partners tend to fall into a pattern.
At first, in the discovery stage of a relationship, a non-autistic partner may see their autistic partner in terms of how the relationship defines their social identity.
They might rebel against an identity that they don’t personally relate to, and they may have experienced exclusion and abuse from. A daughter of religious parents may have experienced exclusion from people of that sect or denomination and may feel more “completed” or validated by being with someone who rejects that denomination or sect.
Because of that, non-autistic people often feel extremely seen and understood by an autistic partner in those early stages. They now have a new identity (as being in a committed relationship) with a person who rebels with them against an inherited identity.
That rebellion is still a socially-motivated maneuver for the non-autistic person.
Autistic people are not as embarrassed by or disappointed in our children’s and spouse’s behavior if it violates a social norm because we do not see them as an extension of ourselves.
But non-autistic partners expect autistics to intuit that they are operating as a unit, socially. The instincts based on whether or not a person’s identity is socially-defined or value-defined filters into most decisions— from choice of decor in the house, to where and how someone chooses to practice religion, to what movie to see in the theater, to parenting choices.
Real World Differences
If a teacher complains about a child’s behavior to a non-autistic parent, the parent may feel the child’s behavior is a threat to their social identities. The child has not respected the authority and hierarchies that maintain the safety and power of their social intersections.
The non-autistic parent sees the behavior in terms of how it upholds the status quo of their identity intersection. They assume by default that if a child is disruptive to the peace of the status quo, then the behavior needs correction.
Conversely, a parent may feel that the teacher is of a lower social rank and is undermining their social status by suggesting their child— a social extension of their identity— is doing something wrong.
If a teacher complains to an autistic parent, the autistic parent does not regard that teacher’s authority as meaningful or “right” by default. They are much more likely to try and engage the teacher as an equal, and reference the child as an equal.
The autistic parent sees the behavior in terms of how it upholds the shared values that have. They assume by default the teacher is more concerned with values and may attempt to joint troubleshoot the reasons those behaviors are disruptive, why they happen, and how to remedy them in a way that benefits all parties.
Don’t you love me?! What’s wrong with you?! Did you even think about how your actions would impact me?! Don’t you want to be a team player?!
Autistic people have also heard, many times, from non-autistic people, “Don’t you love me?” Or, “You don’t care about me,” when they’ve committed a social “violation” that is in some way threatening the social status of a non-autistic loved one.
Don’t practice religion the same way? Queer? Opt out of a social engagement? Set a boundary that challenges social norms?
Autistic people are frequently confused when non-autistic people feel personally attacked or harmed by us making decisions about our own lives. Perhaps many of these violations are because to non-autistics, their relationship to us feels like an extension of their social identity.
Since we don’t feel that other people are a part of our core identity, it’s difficult to feel why our decisions, choices, and behaviors related our own lives should matter so much to our loved ones.
To truly know and relate to an autistic person is to understand, validate, and respect an autistic person’s passions and values.
One pain that many autistic people feel is the pain of not being known or seen. When our choices, autonomy, and truth are ignored because they’re different— as if a different experience is a deficiency or not even real— then we spend our lives feeling invisible.
It’s not that we aren’t seen, but that we’re not seen according to how we see ourselves. Who we are is based on our passions and values.
That means that honesty and authenticity is a central, core part of many autistic people’s identities. Living as anything other than our authentic selves is to be without an identity. We can never be known if we forfeit our values to live in harmony with our social intersections.
We don’t need to be normal. We need to be True.
- Difficult Community Dialogues: On ABA, Evolution, Weaver Communication, and Intersectionality - January 18, 2022
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- The Identity Theory of Autism: Values are not opinions to Autistics. We are our values. - December 13, 2021