The angry-old-lady predicament
Updated: Jul 21, 2019
I have a neighbour who lives a couple of houses down the street. You know the type. At a certain, respectable age, short, white hair, always accompanied by her little dog, loves to gossip and when you disrespect her in any way, she will slap you with either her umbrella or her purse, depending on the weather.
Ok, so she won't slap you, but she will talk, talk and talk, behind your back preferably.
I ran in to her the other day. I had gone for a little walk in the woods nearby, and as I was walking down our street towards home, she was standing on her own driveway with her little pupper. The dog is always kind and cheerful, so she always will run towards me to receive an exceptional load of cuddles and kisses. I don't feel the least inclined to greet my neighbour the same way. So, usually, we just exchange formalities.
'Hi, how are you?'
'Fine, and you?'
'Fine too, thank you.'
And that's it. On this particular day though, she proceeded to ask me about my son. He just turned four years old and was diagnosed with autism almost a year ago. He just started at a regular school, so this is an exciting time for everyone as we observe him closely to see he doesn't get overwhelmed.
'He doing well', I answered. 'He seems to be enjoying school. It's just remarkable to me that he is ahead of his peers when it comes to letters and numbers, but his speech is still quite a bit behind.'
What is it with allistic people that they'll just stare the life out of you. It makes me feel like a popcorn kernel in a microwave oven.
She nodded. As she did so, she frowned her forehead, kept the corners of her mouth pulled down and gave me a deathly stare. What is it with allistic people that they'll just stare the life out of you. It makes me feel like a popcorn kernel in a microwave oven. Anymore of her intense laser stare and I'll pop.
'Well', she finally continued, 'people with autism just aren't interested in other people.'
I must have raised my eyebrows in a questioning way, because for some reason, she felt she needed to elaborate on her ableism.
'My friend has a friend', she started as I whispered internally oh lord, here goes. 'And her husband never says anything at dinner. It bothers my friend because he will never join the conversation between herself and her friend!' I immediately felt a wave of sympathy for the husband in this story. Poor fellow, he was probably praying quietly dinner would be over soon. 'I told my friend she shouldn't bother, he's autistic, he's just not interested in people at all.'
And really, who could blame him, I thought to myself. Imagine having dinner with two conniving grannies who also accord with my gossiping neighbour! I just nodded at her, trying to both accommodate to her need for eye contact and to fulfil my own need to avoid her laser-beam-like stare. My neighbour in her turn, focused her attention briefly on her little dog who wandered off towards another house.
'Well', I finally said, 'I don't think that's always the truth. I mean, autistics are not necessarily never interested in other people.' My neighbour scoffed. 'No, I'm telling you, people with autism don't care about those around them. They're caught up in their own little world and take no interest in others. So that's why your son doesn't feel the need to talk. He doesn't care. Autistics don't care.'
This is when shit started feeling uncomfortable for me. The realisation dawned on me that I was no longer in a conversation with a concerned neighbour, someone who had my sons best interested at heart and tried to provide some insight. I was dealing with an ableist, someone who was prejudiced and who seemed to want to demean and generalise an entire group of people.
Well, right here, in the presence of sheer stupidity, my brain started stuttering.
'Well, neighbour, that's not quite true', I responded while leaving her to point her death stare at my forehead as I decide I did not owe her any eye contact. If it makes her uneasy or wanting to demean me too, then so be it. 'I'm autistic too', I finally said, 'and I can assure you that with me, or any other autistics that I know, interested in other people is not the problem.'
Her eyes widened, her eyebrows lifted and she sorta leaned away from me at that point. 'You may call yourself autistic but you don't really have a diagnosis, do you?' She dared ask. 'Actually, I do have a diagnosis.' My neighbour inhaled deeply, as if she was trying to take in all the weird information I was providing her with. 'Well,' she said, 'how long have you had that problem?'
Have you ever had your brain stuttering? Have you ever had thoughts getting stuck in your neuron pathways just like words can get stuck in someones throat. Well, right here, in the presence of sheer stupidity, my brain started stuttering. Did she just ask me whether I have somehow grown my autism? Or was she trying to find out whether autism might be contagious? In any case... weird!
'I think the reason for most autistic people to not join in a conversation, is because language can be very confusion for us, or at least for me', I explained to her.
And isn't that a fact. I recall an argument I had with one of my former bosses. I worked as an intern in his office and we had already had several hiccups in our professional relationship. At one point, he was working on the files of a few of his clients, including one major one. It was my job to bring and store away the files as he requested them. As he went to through the files, we're talking two or three here, he suddenly requested me 'to bring the file of that one client we have just discussed'. Now, I have a great deal of trouble grasping the meaning of a sentence from context. I mean;
- What file exactly?
- Which client exactly?
- And the word 'just' indicates a certain time frame. How long are we talking about exactly?
To him, and maybe to other Neurotypical people in the same situation, his words made as much sense as 1+1=2 (or 11 if you have my brain). But to me, he might have just as well have been speaking in a foreign language. So yeah, communication can be confusing.
My neighbour shrugged her shoulders. 'Well', she said as she looked off the other way, 'I must go and get my dog.' She briefly smiled at me, turned around and walked off.
I stood there, on the street, looking at her as she trotted away from me, wondering where I went wrong. I mean, I just shared some personal information with here, I shared some insight with her about people with autism, and she takes off to go get her dog?! I waited for a little while. After all, she might really just be getting her dog and coming back to continue our conversation like polite people would. But she never returned.
Was she really getting her dog and did she get lost in the bushes?
Did I offend her by disagreeing with her?
Might she have felt ashamed for being so ableist?
Could the confrontation with an autistic person be too much for her to handle?
Whatever the reason, I'm left behind guessing. Maybe, I should dress up like Dustin Hofman from now on, so people can see me coming. Or wear a badge that says 'Tread carefully, autistic script in progress.' Perhaps I could wear a t-shirt that says 'Meltdown... loading at 50%.'
Or maybe some of my ableist co-humans need to get their heads out of their asses and stop assuming they know everything about autism, or at least know enough to degrade us to a mentally handicapped group of people too awkward to live a social life and beyond rescue for sure.
I must say, I have noticed that when children are labeled as autistic, critiques and judgement seem to be a lot less harsh in comparison to the judgement adults with autism receive. We're either not autistic enough to be labeled as such, or labeled as too autistic and proceed to be a person with whom one would rather not socialise.
I ask you, what's so frightening about a label?