The Identity Theory of Autism: Values are not opinions to Autistics. We are our values.

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.

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.

-Herman Melville
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.

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42 Responses

  1. Autistic culture is dynamic. Trusted relationships between autistic people develop out of shared values and shared or complementary passions. In our relationships we strive to minimise cognitive dissonance, we extend trust, and we go to great lengths to avoid inadvertently creating social power differentials – because that compromises the free flow of knowledge and experience, and we do so by being entirely open about our values and our vulnerabilities. The autistic concept of self is well described in the wordless words of the Aut Sutra

    In W.E.I.R.D. cultures neuronormative people construct abstract social identities and navigate social power hierarchies in the way you eloquently describe in your article. Non-autistic people have a vastly greater capacity for cognitive dissonance between their proclaimed values and their social identities. What is hard for non-autistic people to grasp (double empathy problem) is the fact that autistic people are much less capable of enduring cognitive dissonance in relation to their core values for any substantial period of time. Autistic attempts to act in ways that are in-congruent with our values results in substantial harm, i.e. acute and chronic physical and mental health problems. A neuronormative person once explained to me that their behaviour in the context of social identities and power gradients is “pliable”. In W.E.I.R.D. cultures value based autistic authenticity is seen as threatening and is pathologised by the medical establishment. Here is a quote from a brand new book (2021) by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist:

    “Tony Attwood, an acknowledged expert on the autistic spectrum, writes that there is a ‘quasi-philosophical quality’ to the autobiographies of adults with Asperger’s analysis’. What he is referring to is generally accepted to be an over-rationalistic, hyper-reflexive self-awareness, and a disengagement from emotion and embodied existence, which is very much in accord with my experience of looking after subjects on the autistic spectrum. Moreover, there is an abstract, quasi-philosophical mode of talking that is common in some kinds of schizophrenia, at first impressive, but ultimately recalcitrant to understanding; it is sometimes actually referred to as ‘pseudo-philosophical thought disorder’. Both autistic and schizophrenic individuals have an antipathy to what is embodied, uncertain and unknown (or unknowable), preferring what is abstract, certain and known, all of which is characteristic of the left hemisphere.”

    This is an example of the double empathy problem in action. The unfamiliar autistic mind is judged from the outside, neuronormative insistence on conformance is not viewed as rigid, but autistic approaches to deal with/avoid sensory overload are interpreted as “an antipathy to what is embodied, uncertain and unknown”, and similarly, questioning established neuronormative cultural abstractions is viewed as “recalcitrant to understanding”. The “subjects on the autistic spectrum” don’t get a voice, and are replaced by “my [neuronormative] experience” from the outside. I would suggest the author is projecting his W.E.I.R.D. neuronormative psychiatric “pseudo-philosophical thought disorder” onto neurodivergent people. The neurodiversity paradigm is not mentioned once in 3,000 pages, nor the existence of autistic culture. Neurodivergent people are presented as aberrations from a “normality” that reflects the cultural bias of the author. This needs to change. This is why I have written a book about the essential role of neurodivergent people in human cultural evolution over the last 300,000 years, and about the future of autistic and neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration.

  2. hi terra vance, i am just over three years diagnosed, now nearly 71. i have known most of my life that i am driven by my values. and i have spent most of ly like seeking similar others. i just didnt knpw until post diagnosis that i had t look in the autistic community. so affirming to read your insightful words. they bring comfort and peace. Morgan

    1. Hi, Morgan! I’m also late to discover I’m autistic, and doesn’t it feel wonderful to finally be able to read descriptions of experiences that more closely match our own?

      1. Hello fellow simmer I have read your simlit in the past. Its cool to see you here as well. Hope this is okay I just recognize your username, and picture. I have loved simlit since the sims 3, and Livejournal. At the time I found writing, and navigating picture hosting websites overwhelming. I think the sims became one of my special interests. One of my cousins gave me his old base game copy of the sims 2 when I was visiting my grandpa as a pre teen. Just want to say I admire your simlit blog. There is alot of work related to writing a story where pictures from a game are attached.

        1. Hi, Alex! Yay Sims! A lot of my Simming friends are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent. I think it’s a great game for us, and definitely a special interest of mine! Thanks for your kind words about my blog, and thanks for saying hi here! Great to see you!

  3. Hi Terra,

    Please make the following change in your language – ‘SOME autistic people’

    When you speak the way you do ‘autistic people do X’ then the problem is that many people will be Othered by your commentary.

    Autism isn’t a ‘thing’. It’s not a singular condition but a horrifically broad neurotypically-coined term slapped together by psychologists.

    It covers an incredibly wide range of individuals which is why the saying ‘If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’ exist.

    Your language – ‘autistic people do X’ is problematic, as it’s almost certain that whatever you’re talking about, not every autistic person will do it.

    And those who do not are then put in a position of question the validity of their lived experience – and doubt regarding the ‘authenticity’ of one’s autism is a HUGE mental health problem in our community.

    Please make a small change in order to make a big difference.

  4. “Because of that, non-autistic people often feel extremely seen and understood by an autistic partner. 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.”

    This looks a lot like triangulation. As far as I know, it’s a form of manipulation and a terrible foundation for a relationship. It’s manipulative because it creates conflicts. And it’s a terrible foundation for a relationship because once the “bad” person/group/identity is gone, the relationship no longer has a foundation. The non-autistic person may also feel the need to maintain the conflict with the “bad” person/group/identity in order to maintain the relationship, yet they also need the relationship in order to deal with the conflict. Except that if they feel that the conflict has to be maintained, then the conflict will be handled poorly on purpose so that it lasts forever, thus ensuring that the relationship lasts forever.

    This is so dysfunctional on so many levels, it’s crazy.

  5. From the intro-paragraph alone I knew this would be a good ride, and I was not disappointed. Had to take some breaks for thinking on my legs, and in the end, I am not sure if I really can believe that so many things normal to me should be not normal to so many people. Poor buggers, if that’s true.

    1. I think it goes somewhat deeper than that. I think it’s that neurotypicals frequently have a hard time conceptualizing and realizing what their true self even is. Actually part of the reason I think that’s the real issue more than it is the idea of their identity being entirely dependent on social connection – is that they say so themselves. In the (admittedly poorly written) Eragon series, Christopher Paolini straight-up admitted it – coding the elves in that series as folks who “instinctively know their true name” while “no one else has that gift”, with “no one else” being his default assumption of that everyone else being neurotypical like him (and not conceiving of how autistic identities are different due to lack of life experience).

      Except, autistic people do have that gift to a not-insignificant extent, a strong sense of self, which is sort of the IRL version of “knowing your true name”. To the point that it takes an extreme amount of trauma to destroy our ability to form a clear sense of self (and sadly, that trauma happens often, leading to many broken and even shattered or nearly obliterated senses of self, because the status quo benefits from us not having a sense of self, or else being shut out). And because we have a strong ability to form an identity (with that “we” including many of the autistic people whose behavior appears naturally similar to neurotypical behavior), we don’t need to lean on other people to help us conceptualize our selves (we may need people or other companions for other things, but not that – unless you count untangling the damage we might have taken and even that isn’t enough to make the person part of the identity). But neurotypicals don’t start out with as strong a sense of self, and so they need to lean on others to form and strengthen it. And this leads in many cases to them forming the identity around the person – because when you lean on anything to help form your identity, you can’t help but tie your identity to that thing.

  6. Ahhh—another wonderful blast of fresh air from the land of Unabashed Autism! I mean, most of the hierarchical social dynamics and the squashing of values that you describe are horrible to contemplate; but you stand and speak so strongly in your autistic identity that I find myself being strengthened as a result, not worn down by the horribleness of it all. Thank you for this series of posts, Terra. I know the site is called Neuroclastic, but this is like neurodontia for me—braces for straightening out my brains that have been warped by a warped society.

    One reflection I had is that, to an extent, my identity is related to social relationships, but in an inverse way. My identity has a lot to do with being aware that I don’t feel constrained by a social identity in the way most neurotypicals are—and that this gives me a wonderful kind of freedom most NTs don’t seem to know anything about. People with strong social identities cannot think or do anything that strays too far from whatever is deemed “normal” because the moment they even begin doing that, the other members of their social circles pull them back in—and they are very susceptible to that kind of social pressure, control, and the fear of being different, being shamed or ostracized, etc.

    This freedom goes hand in hand with the honesty and authenticity you ended your post with—because I can’t be honest or authentic if I don’t have the freedom to go wherever life takes me.

    1. Dear Ari,

      I am not sure if I can help you out, because there is a lot to cover, but I will try.

      To me, the baseline seems to be that the large majority of people (the neuro-“typicals”) rely on coincidence when it comes to their sense of self, to how they define themself, or to their concept of their self: They are of a certain race or ethnicity, a certain nationality, a certain gender, have a certain sexual orientation or identity, they uphold a certain political view either in accordance with their family’s tradition — or in rebellion against it, depending on what served them best when they grew up. They chose a certain profession (or could not, and fell through the cracks) when they were at the relevant age, their familly may be rich, wealthy, middle-class, or poor. Those things are what usually comes up when we talk about “identity politics” and priviledge based on social identity.
      The point (to me) is, that you don’t have a whole lot of choice in all these things. No agency.

      In contrast, the article says, there is a minority (namely: Autistics; but other neurodivergents seem implied) whose sense of self relies on what is important to them, personally. On their values, where I read that as both moral values (what must be done and what principles guide action and interaction) and personal values (what is nice, beautifull, interesting; what ignites a passion).
      Because acting on values requires a judgement of value, this is where agency shines: You have to make a conscious effort to figure out what is truely important to you.

      Hope, this was somewhat helpfull. And if not, I hope someone else might do a better job of it.

      With the best of wishes

      1. That made a lot more sense to me than the article did, there had been just so much to take in that I had gotten confused. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply!

  7. It’s really lonely to be like this. I had a painful experience at a Bible study I went to with my brother and his wife several years ago at their church. This was before I discovered I was autistic, but of course I realized I was different. I brought up an observation of an inherent classism and racism in the interpretations others were sharing of the passage we were studying, which I felt missed the mark of a deeper, more liberating, and more inclusive meaning. Before speaking, I considered staying silent, but my values insisted that church should be a safe space to share brave truths. While I was speaking, the listeners, who all loved and respected my brother, fell into shocked silence. I managed to complete my statement (because… values), but it was obvious that everyone was deeply uncomfortable and my sister-in-law was highly embarrassed. I was doing what I felt was right, and it turned out so wrong. This is sort of the pattern for my interactions in-person with neurotypical groups.

    1. At least you stayed true to yourself and spoke up. Without knowing the details, even if everyone else in the room sincerely disagreed with what you said, I’m sure you didn’t deserve “shocked silence.” That kind of response is just terrible—a terrible and totally unnecessary form of social ranking. You deserved far better. (And I’ll also guess that whatever you said had some real truth in it, too.)

      From the post: “The social intersection of religion is often at odds with the values of a religion.”

      Painfully true. I’ve almost completely divorced myself from the social world of American Christianity over the past couple years. Can’t take the at-oddsness of it. Very sad for me and yes, very lonely as you say; but I’ll always prefer loneliness to staying in that kind of a social space. Yuck!

      1. Thanks, Greg. It did feel terrible, and what felt worse was that I’d embarrassed my sister-in-law and felt like I’d disgraced my brother. He’s a big deal in the church hierarchy, so this entire event really illustrates to me what’s described in this post, with our deep integration with our values being at odds with the others’ overriding investment in social standing and belonging. By the way, the few times I’ve shared that experience with others, they all felt I was wrong and should have masked.

        1. It’s depressing that, just to protect their social identities (which are often kind of artificial anyways—like being a “big deal in the church hierarchy”), so many people think that masking is a good and necessary thing. I guess they really don’t realize how much this is like people agreeing that we need to permanently ban yellow, orange, and red and then thinking this is a good solution rather than a huge loss for everyone. But it’s good to know that, with the kinds of insights into autism being discussed at this and other sites, this could eventually change.

  8. I absolutely love and recognise the way you describe values as so intrinsic to autistic identity! That rings a big bell for me.

    I do think the article is a bit binary though. I don’t think identity is either/or, or has to be, for all autistic people, especially those in minority groups. So, values are very much at the core of my being, BUT being minority ethnic, queer and a parent also are. Values are not instead but as well.

  9. I was 55 when I was first diagnosed. I am now 61.

    My identity appears to be wrapped up with my occupation. I am the chef instructor of a high school Culinary Arts program. To some extent I feel like the Emperor from the Aesop’s fables – the one where a conniving tailor sold him the most wonderous clothing which anyone with taste could surely see. In reality the Emperor was completely naked but since no one wanted to admit that they lacked taste, everyone oohed and ahhed over the “quality” of the Emperor’s garments. This lasted until a little kid shrieked, “THE EMPEROR ISN’T WEARING ANY CLOTHES!”

    It doesn’t matter that I’m certified and that I have years of industry experience as well as over three decades of teaching experience. It doesn’t matter that I have a Master’s degree. I go to work each day thinking that someone will call me out and suggest that I’m not a real chef and/or that I don’t know what I’m doing in the kitchen.

    To reinforce the idea that I am actually a trained chef, I am always dressed as a chef at work. Most of the kids and faculty also refer to me as “chef.”

    In my capacity as a chef, I have previously supervised my students in the catering production of meals. At school we have served breakfast for 1,000 people. We have served prime rib with twice baked potatoes and steamed vegetables to 500 administrators. When I worked in the food service industry, the casual dining restaurant I worked at generated $2.5 million in annual sales through high volume traffic.

    I know how to run a kitchen. I also know how to manage a casual dining restaurant.

    Knowing that I know these things doesn’t do anything to relieve the stress I feel each day when I wonder if today will be the day when everything crumbles.

    The funny thing about my mindset is that when I am chef me, I have no problem with being in a crowded dining room, a bustling kitchen, or working despite lots of noise. Real me doesn’t like ANY of those things. Chef me is focused on food safety and sanitation, production, quality control, plating, and service. I mask at work and my chef mask is tied to my identity as a chef instructor.

    I have never paid much attention to social identities largely because I really don’t socialize outside of work.

  10. As an autistic person who is NOT left-wing and does not like all this woke activist silliness I strongly DISLIKE this article.

    I don’t want to spend the time writing a just as long essay on what I disagree with, but I will make a couple of observations.
    There are some interesting points in the article, but it’s written with a strong bias to make autistic people look good and non-autistic people look bad, especially when they started giving examples around racism and child abuse.
    It portrays autistic people as these kinds of noble crusaders for righteous causes, when in real life, autistic people are just as misguided as non-autistic people, perhaps even more.
    In my experience having lived in multiple countries, this kind of behavior (tolerance of conflicting values in others) is much more rooted in cultural differences than autism vs. non-autism.
    Also somehow it tries to equate autism with activism and left-wing political values? Somehow simultaneously making the claim that autistic people do not conform to harmful social conventions and are strongly individualistic, when in fact left-wing politics is all about erasing the individual in favor of the group.

    This article is written with a lot of hubris, when it fact it should acknowledge that autistic people, for all their qualities, also have massive blind spots when it comes to understanding social dynamics.

    Overall: meh.

    1. It’s interesting that you chose a nom de plume of one of our most prolific politically leftist novelists to opine about leftist politics.

      No one said autistic people are bastions of sage wisdom always on the moral high road. It’s mentioned in the article that values can be misguided or toxic, and that does not make them morally superior.

      But yes, “noble crusaders” isn’t entirely off the mark. I do think autistic people are more driven by values than social conventions, which can be tragic if their values are harmful.

      1. Thanks for your reply. As for the nom-de-plume observation, I realize the potential irony, but you see, unlike what you might think, ‘not-left wing’ people are not devoid of humanitarian values, and can appreciate such works 🙂

        1. I really think you might be pre-judging me based on experiences with other people. You didn’t ask me what I thought. I do have Leftist values, so that’s fair. I use examples that are true to me, but the theory that autistic people are more defined by values than by social identities can be true for people with any value sets— even anarchocapitalists, fascists, libertarians, people who think beating kids is imperative for building character, people who do mass shootings, etc. having a value-driven identity can be totally misguided depending on values. It doesn’t mean morally superior, just that we might be more driven by values (even misguided ones) than a desire to belong (conform/rank up) to social identities

    2. Totally agree!

      And its also been fully accepted, even by the manufacturers themselves that covid vaccines don’t stop the spread of covid at all.

      If you’re values are harmful or based on faulty information then this “noble autistic” quickly becomes “savage oppressor.”

  11. I’ve just read both of your pieces on Identity Theory of Autism and found them so enlightening and they provide significant explanation for some of the biggest challenges in my life. Intuitively they feel right to me. A LOT of strife has been caused in my life due to this conflict between social identity and values. I have upset people in just about every social group I’ve ever belonged to as a result of speaking out on things that go against my values (and what I have, maybe naively, perceived as against the group’s identity). It will usually lead to me leaving the group because of a sense of shame for having spoken against it. Bearing in mind it’s only in the last month have I come to realise that I am probably autistic. I’ve never had a way of understanding this before, so I have blamed it on myself for being “dysfunctional” or for being too outspoken. It has led to me sometimes being characterised as being a difficult person. What I don’t think non-autistic people understand is what it means to feel so deeply about something that your values matter more than the survival of the social identity. For me, it means I lose my sense of connection to the group, and causes me to become upset, angry, cynical or lonely. Thankfully I’ve always been able to come back from that place. But because this is a recurring pattern in recent years I’ve wondered if I’m maybe the problem? And that’s not to say I always did it in the right way, or that I’m always blameless or any such idea. I’m deeply self-reflective. But I really can’t stand hypocrisy and adherence to social norms and hierarchies for the sake of protecting the group. I’m often ok with observing them if I think they’re serving a progressive end. It’s meant I can feel deeply alienated, however, and that’s not good for my mental health or self-esteem or sense of self.

    This theory provides a potential explainer for me. And actually justifies most of my actions that I’ve taken in this regard. Also explains why no-one has ever understood it. Except for a small handful, who I presume to be neurodivergent and thus more able to empathise with my position. I feel injustice to a level that I don’t think most do. I’ve often thought that but was/am worried it sounds grandiose. People praise my honesty and commitment but turn on me when I stay true to that in a way that they feel threatened by. Even though my desire is not to turn on the people in the group but to highlight problematic occurence/dynamics etc. My wife and I have both suffered quite a significant challenge with a group of friends in recent times when finding out that we don’t actually have commonality of shared values. That our values, in a few significant ways are divergent from the groups. The pressure for us to ignore, to conform, to fall in line has felt to great and thus we have alienated ourselves but once again the cycle of shame kicks in for us.

    Another example is that my wife and I are farmers. In our country, farmers feel persecuted and under pressure right now. I understand why. But I think there are many legitimate critiques being levelled at farmers. We don’t take the critiques personally, we actually tend to agree with many of the critiques. But apparently most farmers feel existentially threatened. And the response conforms almost exactly according to your thought experiment re EMTs. Because some of our farming practices, by their very action, tend to threaten the way local farmers do things, we’re not accepted by local farmers. Even though we don’t have personal criticisms of these people. I understand why things are like they are. But we think change is needed. We’re committed to our values not our social identity. As such being a Farmer is not an identity we tend to embrace. Farming for us is just a way of being able to act on our values.

    A question!: You call it The Identity Theory of Autism. You wouldn’t prefer to call it the Values Identity Theory of Autism (or the Values Theory of Autistic Identity?)? To me that makes more sense – I think – but then I haven’t been thinking about this for long so I’d be interested to hear your reasoning on the terminology. Second question: How broadly do you think this applies to neurodivergent people as opposed to solely Autistic people? I can see friends who are maybe not Autistic (but maybe they are!) who this applies to. But one of the people in mind does have a diagnosis of ADHD.

    Thanks so much for this work!

    1. Re: the name of the theory— i was going for short and simple because everything has character limits lol. It was just pragmatic 😂

      I would love to know what your thoughts are about the article “Very Grand Emotions.” I think it might be the rest of the explanation for much of your experiences. ❤️🙏

      This has been a VERY difficult week for reasons mentioned in this article, and your comment has been very helpful to pull me out of that doldrum.

      1. haha fair enough re. name! I have just read VGE now and it def makes a lot of sense to me, thank you. For me personally it seems pretty true. I have pretty much always had this burning passion, since I was a child, to fight against injustice (which others have ridiculed/shamed). And find many other concerns far less important. “self-care” to me – that’s working on something important. I’ve recently found a comrade who’s ND and we seem to have this understanding that it’s about the work and the mission and the aims. That’s what I do for fun. When I was labouring under the pretence of being NT and was concerned with how I was perceived by other NTs, the imposter syndrome was stronger. As was the need to impress. I’m still sensitive to rejection, but something has shifted since realising I’m ND and then probably autistic. Like I don’t need to hold myself to NT ideals any more. There’s nothing “wrong” with me for being dissatisfied and for critiquing orgs/groups that fail to meet their tates values etc. This is all a bit fuzzy in my head still, not clear yet.

        I would say that I’m a bit nervous of capital T Truth. I’m studying history, and the framing we apply to our historical research will expose a different “truth”. So I wondered what you have in mind when you say “Truth”?

        1. Been reflecting on this and actually on re-reading this piece, I think I can understand more of where you’re coming from on “Truth” with this:

          “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.”

          1. Still thinking almost daily about this piece and the previous quote above is ringing very true for me right now. The way that NT condition what we can and can’t speak about, totally implicitly, is draining and stressful. I experience this as a form of passive aggression. It’s making me question whether I can really ever be close friends with anyone NT. Is that why I make friendships well but then struggle to maintain over the long term. Because eventually that sense of being suffocated, of not being able to say what I want, leads to me feeling like they don’t know me. But of course they’re so often ignorant of this process of alienation. It’s tied up though in their desire to not know the truth. It seems NTs actively like to ignore the truth if it conflicts with their enjoyment (and status within the group/hierarchy). They’re able to separate enjoyment from truth, yet for me enjoyment is inextricably intertwined with pursuit of truth and being honest. I’d always psychologised that about myself because of stuff from my childhood but this piece has got me thinking it’s not because of my childhood. Actually it explains why my childhood was p[articularly traumatic for me, in a way that others don’t entirely grasp.

          2. Temple Grandin has written about the way that people think One of her groupings involve top-down vs. bottom-up thinking. Neurotypicals tend to be top-down thinkers. They think first of the big picture and then organize their mindsets and world view to accommodate and support this perception. Racism and bigotry are examples of why this doesn’t work. In contrast, autistic people tend to be bottom-up. We gather data, study the facts, and then make a decision. We are like Joe Friday in the old TV series, Dragnet. One of the catch phrases associated with this program was Joe Friday’s, “Just the facts ma’am.”

  12. You mean to say that neuro-typical people believe they actually ARE their social relationship/statuses??? Mind-blowing. Those things that are so un-interesting to me, the things I ignore and see straight through/past – these are what make up other peoples core sense of being??? I mean I knew neuro-typicals were invested in their status markers, but I hadn’t realised the extent of it. No wonder neuro-typical people often seem so ’empty’ to me, like hollow shells. I thought it was just because I was incapable of finding the ways to really get to know people inside (which might also be true).

    This explains so much! I can hardly imagine what it is like to NOT have your sense of identity based on personal values and passions.

    1. “neuro-typical people believe they actually ARE their social relationship/statuses”

      Personally, I think that is taking it a little too far. I think they can be heavily invested in social interactions and think that such interactions are important to their identity (e.g., “sister of X”) without thinking that they “are” the sum of those. I certainly know many NTs who seem to view values and passions as an important part of their identity, too, so I think it might be a little simplistic to suggest that they are not relevant to their identity.

      Of course, this is based on my own interactions and interpretations. Influencing this is also the fact that I often tend to be very uncomfortable with generalizations because I can usually think of exceptions, and tend to look for those when someone appears to generalize. I realize this annoys many people, but unless someone specifically states that they are making a broad generalization, I tend to feel that it is dishonest to not point out exceptions.

  13. I think this helps explain why I was so upset when an autistic friend’s values shifted from sharing some values with me such as pacifism to believing that pacifism is not just weak but harmful. Although I understand there were reasons behind this, the labeling as negative of our previous shared value felt like a direct attack on me. On the other hand, I know I cannot expect everyone to share the same values, but it made it very difficult for me to maintain the friendship. Even though we shared several other values, his beliefs on proper means to reach certain goals also changed.

    In both cases, his shift changed his attitude towards core goals of mine. The ones we still shared were not as core to me and so I did not feel I could maintain the friendship. I think what made it worse was that he tried to get me to shift my values too, and I cannot begin to explain how much that hurt and disturbed me.

    In any case, thank you for spending the time to write such an thoughtful and useful article.

  14. Thank you for this, it all makes sense and fits. Each day I find out more and more about myself and this really hits home.

  15. “To them, being a Leftist means that their values, not their political party, matters more”
    This is BS. I am a conservative and autistic. Does that mean I don’t have values?
    The overall theory of the article is pretty accurate, but the author needs to lose the political theme and make an attempt at being balanced.
    Why not describe how the high murder rate in the black community is largely due to “fitting in matters more than doing the right thing or having values”

    1. Why are you conservative? That is a sincere question, not an accusation that there is something wrong with it.

  16. MY ENTIRE FRIGGIN LIFE MAKES SENSE TO ME NOW. I have ALWAYS struggled with my identity. Now I know what it was.

  17. All of this is gold. Thank you for offering this framework – and for all the comments expanding on people’s experiences. Such food for thought and exploration!

  18. In my opinion, the autistic mindset is far superior to that of neurotypicals.
    Social identity has only one outcome: it is without fault harmful to others!

    In a sane world, we’d send neurotypicals to ABA therapy to drive out their harmful behavior.

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