Is it possible for non-autistics to truly understand what it means to be autistic? Can we really grasp the major effort that it takes to do the things that we take for granted? I think the answer to these questions is an unqualified, “No.”
If you’ve not read On fitting in – a response from ballastexistenz to my recent post On being different – please take a look. The post provides an insight into what it must mean to be autistic that those of us who are not autistic can only pretend we understand. (Another excellent post from her is On (not) being considered a woman.)
Here is what ballastexistenz has to say on how the world treats her:
I could and have for instance just by looking the way I do get sent to the emergency room and given drugs that I have life-threatening allergies to.
The way I look doesn’t just get people looking at me funny, it gets people trying to figure out what group home I got out of and surrounding me and detaining me and doing other unpleasant things to me.
It means that I have to have someone with me who looks “competent” just so that I will be seen as being “supervised” even if I don’t need “supervision”.
It is dangerous for women to walk outside alone in some places (not where I live, but where I used to live) but that is not accepted the way the danger to me is accepted.
Is it possible for non-autistics to truly appreciate what autistics experience as they interact with the world around them? I think the answer here may be, “Yes, kind of.”
Many years ago (too many) in high school I read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, in which he details his experiences as a black man in the Deep South. The catch here, in case you’re not familiar with the book, is that Griffin was a white man who changed his appearance (through hair cuts, medicines, and skin coloring) to become a black man.
More recently, actresses in “fat suits” have done something similar, going out in public and observing how they are treated. I remember an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow when she was filming “Shallow Hal” where she said she was brought to tears by the way she was treated when in costume away from the movie set.
Several actors/actresses have portrayed autistics in a wide range of movies, from Dustin Hoffmann in “Rain Man” to Leonardo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” to, most recently, Sigourney Weaver in “Snow Cake.” But they did not have to experience the negative treatment of society, mainly because too many people know who they are and would know they were just ‘acting.”
What kind of experience, what kind of insight, could a non-autistic person gain by “passing” as autistic? More importantly, what kind of insight could a non-autistic person who did this pass along to the rest of us? And would we listen?
Because communication between the white and black races was particularly strained at the time of the book’s writing, neither race really knew what life was like for the other. Griffin felt that the only way for a white man to know what blacks experienced was to become a black man and then travel through the South.
To understand someone, walk a mile in their shoes….