You're the one with a bad case of ass burgers, not me
July 17, 2015 11:30 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me help neurotypical people to see that Asperger's and autism are more than just "acting like an asshole"?

I have Asperger syndrome and there's a kind of interaction I've had repeatedly that really bothers me. I would like to know how to respond in these situations.

Sometimes friends or coworkers will make casual comments about someone's behavior as being "Aspergerish" or "on the autism spectrum." The people they tend to make these comments are overwhelmingly ones they perceive as being annoying or intractably difficult (problem students or customers, disliked family members or coworkers), and the comments take the form of complaining, not genuine concern about mental health.

The behaviors they draw the autism conclusion from are almost always ones they consider negative, e.g., rude comments, interfering with others' work, lack of consideration for others, disruptive emotional behaviors, etc. I rarely hear these armchair diagnoses about more "neutral" autistic characteristics (not making eye contact, having special interests, being hypersensitive to their environment).

Some of these friends and acquaintances are aware of my diagnosis and when this comes up, they might ask my opinion about the person in question. I usually say that it's a matter for a specialist and that we should be careful about armchair diagnoses, but they'll sometimes continue with, "yeah, but what do you REALLY think?" Or they'll keep harping on how awful the person's behavior is while continuing to connect it with autism. Sometimes they'll assure me that I don't act like this awful person at all.

This bothers me because the stigma of not being neurotypical has affected me throughout my life and I sometimes feel ashamed of my diagnosis and my difficulties. I hate just having these comments pass unchallenged, but I also don't want to cause unnecessary conflict with people whose company I otherwise enjoy. I'd like a script or suggested remarks for these interactions. I would also appreciate any broader suggestions for dealing with this kind of ableism in daily life.
posted by lilpinksockpuppet to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Ask, "Are you on the spectrum, or just lack sensitivity at times?"
posted by Oyéah at 11:36 PM on July 17, 2015 [20 favorites]

Just reply, "Seriously?!" or, "Uh, guys?" and give them a look of astonishment and walk away. Every time.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:49 PM on July 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think it's a matter of the comfort level you have with specific people and groups and what value you attribute both to your relationship with them and to how important it is to feel validated by them -- if you feel invalidated by their comments, which is fair especially if you otherwise respect them but it's easy to feel brought down even if you don't, when you have to be around them regularly. And what's the relevance or value of this other person they're interacting with? Is it a boss, a family member, or just some random interaction they're dragging you into? That plays into it too, because if they're asking you to perform the emotional labor of armchair diagnosing someone and bringing your life experience and challenges to the table, it's pretty dickish to expect all of that after some brief interaction with a random client or tech support person or whatever, but dickish in any case to be treated like The [Good] Poster Child, and the worst offenders could be testing you to see how you react as well.

Is it possible to discern whether a given person who knows you are on the spectrum is deliberately trying to provoke you or simply being clueless? I wouldn't worry about it in general or assume the worst beyond simple cluelessness, but it's worth taking into consideration for the worst offenders.

It's possible that they you as a fine upstanding individual representing the entire spectrum and a shining illustration of how straightforward it is not to be "outwardly" ASD. You are living proof that other people who don't "act out" as much as you are simply not Trying Hard Enough.

To that my response might be "you realize it's a *spectrum* and every interaction is a challenge commensurate to one's degree on the spectrum, right? It's challenging enough for me to cope with it, let alone be your Poster Child for ASD. I am no more equipped to determine this than you are, and if it's important for you to know because you're deciding how to judge them, you should just consider being empathetic and assume they have the best intentions, or call them out for being an asshole if they're being an asshole. Everybody needs to be called out sometimes, but it's unfair to drag me into this. I'd rather you assume someone is being an asshole or give them the benefit of the doubt if you want to understand them, than throw the name of my condition around as an epithet."

All of these variables will help determine whether to ignore and it walk away, or say something quick and snippy, which is a spectrum unto itself. Examples in the comments above, and beginning on the lighter side of the spectrum -- "don't ask me" or "no comment, not my problem," "if it's so important to you, ask them" or "what's it to you?"
posted by aydeejones at 12:24 AM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: To friends, Irritably: "just because someone's a dick doesn't mean he's on the spectrum. I'm on thespectrum, I'm not a dick and it makes me feel awful when you connect the two. People keep
doing that to me. Please stop doing that."
To coworkers you probably need to talk differently. They won't really care about your feelings.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:26 AM on July 18, 2015 [16 favorites]

Interesting question. It sounds like these co-workers don't know that you've been diagnosed with Asperger's, correct? Personally, I would just let these comments go, knowing that it has become sort of common for people to use the term "Asperger's" as a euphemism for assholish behavior.
[FWIW, an example of conflating the terms is Jerry Seinfeld who has says he's self-diagnosed himself as being on the Autistic Spectrum based on times he's acted self-involved and callous.]
posted by Jon44 at 4:56 AM on July 18, 2015

Oh, please, you are insulting people with aspergers! Just call the guy an ass!
posted by myselfasme at 5:40 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Nah, he just sounds like an asshole."

Then start talking about something else.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:52 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mod note: One comment deleted. Sorry, Ask Me isn't the place for a general discussion on Asperger's / Autism Spectrum. If you have questions, it would be better to go ahead and make a post asking about that. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:27 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I try not to put too much emotional investment into responding to upsetting things that my coworkers say. With that said, you could start teasingly referring to these individuals as "Doctor [so-and-so]" whenever they try to lay on these types of diagnoses. A day of being sarcastically referred to as "doctor" (and always coupled with a kind smile!) might bring them gently back to reality, but I wouldn't do it if there might be fallout from that. With your actual friends, you can personally gauge what type of response might work best.

(I feel for you on this. I'm not on the spectrum, but among the folks I know who are, the "asshole" stereotype is so off the mark that it's almost stupefying).
posted by blixapuff at 6:30 AM on July 18, 2015

I think in these circumstances being as non committal as possible - "Meh, who knows?!" - move on.
posted by Middlemarch at 6:36 AM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

This isn't a defense of their behavior, but I find in these situations that it helps me personally if I can identify the most charitable possible explanation for what's going on. In this case, I think what might be happening is that your coworkers are trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the person in question -- in other words, instead of saying "That guy's a dick," their thought process is, "That guy is acting in a way that doesn't make sense to me/doesn't conform to my thought patterns. That makes his behavior hard for me to deal with. Maybe it's not because he's a dick but because he isn't neurotypical." I'm not saying that what they are doing is OK, but my well of sympathy and tolerance deepens when I can at least explain behavior that annoys me as coming from a place that isn't so hostile.

The behaviors they draw the autism conclusion from are almost always ones they consider negative, e.g., rude comments, interfering with others' work, lack of consideration for others, disruptive emotional behaviors, etc. I rarely hear these armchair diagnoses about more "neutral" autistic characteristics (not making eye contact, having special interests, being hypersensitive to their environment).

It's not that your colleagues only associate ASD with negative behaviors -- it's that neutral and positive behaviors don't require comment or justification. An analogy: when I was in high school I had a close friend with whom I had a tempestuous relationship, very hot and cold, always either best friends or fighting. My mom, to this day, hates this person, because I only ever talked about him when we were fighting. There was no reason for me to discuss his behavior when our relationship was good, so she only heard the bad parts. "Neutral" behaviors don't incite commentary. They're neutral.
posted by telegraph at 7:16 AM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'd happily join in the conversation and armchair analyze the person they are criticizing: "Nah, that sounds like an Anxiety Disorder to me. Maybe a touch of Obsessive Compulsive. They've got the eye contact and all that emoting - couldn't be Aspergers."

"Heck no. That's typical English self-effacement. They are just so shy they they missed the course change deadline."

"Mmm..... could be Borderline. Could be Oppositional Defiant Disorder. They certainly seem to think the world revolves around them getting what they want."

"Yeah, could be Aspergers. I got the impression that the noise in the office had them really rattled. Maybe they couldn't process anything you said because of all the students in the hall talking. You could try writing it down for them."

One of the things about prejudice is that there is often no understanding of the spectrum within a group of people you think of as the Other. Everybody with Borderline Personality is written off. The only good Indian is a dead Indian. If one Muslim commits an act of terrorism we forget that a billion or so Muslims have not committed acts of terrorism. You are basically talking to people who are ignorant about Aspergers and who are coming to you because they think you are an expert; compared to them you are an expert.

So if you are not too insulted or threatened by their inquiries you can honestly give them the information so that they see the difference between asshole and Aspergers. It may be that they are not honestly looking for input, but in fact attacking you by turning their annoyance at the other people into trying to insult you. In that case you are best off not engaging and just smiling faintly to acknowledge that you know they attacked you but that your equilibrium is not over set.

It's not an insult to be called Aspie, or Borderline, or shy, or black, or blonde, or Muslim. It's just describing you as having enough of a certain set of traits that you can be identified by them. Going into leveller mode and trying to analyze the problem. "Actually I think there was nothing wrong with the client. You were just in a bad mood because your vacation day got cancelled, and you kind of set them off by snapping at them," is the kind of useful situational analysis we all need to develop. In the long run it is very helpful to have a repertoire of social analysis models so that we can get better at our social interactions.

You may feel quite uncomfortable analyzing people like this, especially if it is apparent that you co-workers are just looking for validation to write other people off. It can feel like you are being insulting if you use labels to describe someone or if you say they are being anxious, or greedy or combative. But giving someone a label is not the jumping off point for writing them off, it's the jumping off point for understanding them. Knowing someone has Aspergers gives you a new set of strategies for dealing with them. The same strategies turn out to be useful when applied to neurotypical, because they are based on doing anything except being annoyed when the someone else doesn't do exactly what you want with no effort from you.

Let's say the co-worker is complaining that their sister-in-law has to have Aspergers because she keeps interrupting them. Maybe she has Aspergers, maybe not. But when someone interrupts the way to handle it is to give very clear cues when you are finished speaking and when they can start. You handle a peer or subordinate who keeps interrupting you by raising your hand and saying firmly "Not finished, " whenever they try to talk over you. And then supply other verbal cues "Your turn." "Can I ask a question?" You can offer your co-worker strategies like that and then ask how it turned out later.

I expect that you don't want to education your co-workers in social skills. You certainly don't have to. Especially as sometimes they probably just want to vent. But I would still urge you to do some of that armchair analysis, just in order to make it plain that you do not accept their equating asshole with Aspergers. It doesn't have to be mental health diagnosis. You can simply refute their analysis with "Nah, he was just in a rush." or "Not Aspie, badly brought up." "Nope, he's got a sense of entitlement that's all" or "Just a pompous twit." or "Complete neuro-typical. Want's everybody to act the way HE thinks is normal."
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

My personal favorite is "you're not qualified to make offensive diagnoses like that." It makes people sputter.
posted by Hermione Granger at 9:15 AM on July 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

I rather like your title: You're the one with a bad case of ass burgers, not me

It doesn't work to be quite that blunt, but it might work to more delicately say something like "So anyone being an insensitive ass must have asperger's? Such as people badmouthing others in a biased way to a person actually diagnosed with asperger's?" And do the Spock raised eyebrow thing or a similar pointed expression.

That might work with friends. With coworkers, it will generally work better to tell them this is not nice behavior and you do not appreciate being treated so insensitively. Would it be okay with them to badmouth blacks/asians/some other group to a member of that group? No? Then stop doing it to me. Thanks.

For a more general suggestion, I think it would help you to make an effort to find positives about the traits that you feel shame over. I have always told my sons that individual traits always have an upside. One example I give them: Surgeons tend to be somewhat callous. I could never be a surgeon. I am too empathetic and cutting people open is just not something I could do and feel okay about it. I am glad there are people different from me who can do this work.

It might help to read biographies with an eye towards understanding both the good points and bad points of various traits. It also might help to read articles on research into how the brain works and/or join online discussions about such topics.

My sons are not neurotypical. I did not raise them to feel ashamed of that fact. Looking for what was good about their traits -- especially some of their harder to take traits -- was an important part of making sure they were comfortable with who they were.

If you need a suggestion for a biography to start, I will suggest you read up on Ulysses S. Grant. I have commented on that here.
posted by Michele in California at 9:53 AM on July 18, 2015

"And some people are just asssholes." Leaving it open to interpretation, if you are meaning the person who made the comment or or the subject of the comments.
posted by wwax at 10:25 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would not turn around a diagnosis on them. You'd be doing the exact same thing they are, maybe worse since it's specifically intended as an insult.

A lot of people seem to think it makes them sound smarter when they go tossing around technical terms for things; so when someone is persistent about doing that, and when I have the social capital to get away with it, I'll just point out that they actually sound stupid. Hostile armchair diagnoses like that are a particular peeve of mine, and I've known a couple of serial offenders, so I'm pretty harsh and pretty direct about it.

"Wow. You have no idea what you're talking about at all."
"Where are you getting your information? An infographic?"
"That is the stupidest thing I've heard in a while."
posted by ernielundquist at 11:34 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

My personal favorite is "you're not qualified to make offensive diagnoses like that." It makes people sputter.

Yea, this. Or a snarky form there along the lines of "woah man, i didn't know you finished your psych degree, congratulations!"

I definitely file this one under microagressions, and yea, there's a lot of times there really ISN'T room to call them out or snark and you have to just wince internally and move on with your day made slightly shittier.

Figuring out when, especially if friends are around who would be on your side, you can say something kinda snarky like that(or what ernielundquist suggested) and the peanut gallery will back you up goes a long way though.

Every time i've gone "hey man that's kind of fucked up, aspergers doesn't make you inherently an asshole" and someone else has gone "yea, jeeze" or something it's worth 100 of the stupid comments i can't say anything to or can't really effectively call out.

And when you hear it, wince, and someone else says it it's worth even more tolerating-shitty-comments credit in your ugh account.

"yeah, but what do you REALLY think?"

YMMV, and it may not be applicable or possible, but i tolerate this so little at this point that i've pretty much removed these puppies that repeatedly pee on the rug from my life. You can say something like "well i'm not really qualified to answer that anyways"(which yea, leads down the "but-but you're in $GROUP they're identical to you, you know these things!" sort of real-life-shitposting path sometimes). But if they're really regularly doing this just... stop... hanging out with them?

My life is a bajillion times better since i quit hanging out with shitty people who say things like this. I realize they might be coworkers, or otherwise great people... But seriously, so much better. Less stressful. Less tiresome.
posted by emptythought at 1:22 PM on July 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: emptythought, thank you for the link about microaggressions. That sums up the frustration I am feeling nicely. I end up dwelling on these comments a lot because they seem based in stereotypes that are inaccurate and hurtful. I especially appreciate the suggestions that gently correct the friend's assumptions or that give me ways to cope with this internally.
posted by lilpinksockpuppet at 2:54 AM on July 19, 2015

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