Editorial: We Need Social Justice Resources for People On-Spectrum

I am a person who wants to be involved in the, for lack of a better term, Social Justice Space. I’m also a person on the Autism Spectrum, and I’ve run a support group for people on the Autism Spectrum in my metroplex. I should parse that better – I’ve run, in my metroplex, a support group for people on the Autism Spectrum, and I’ve had friends who were also on the spectrum when I went through High School. Also, as part of my major in Information Technology (Health Informatics), took a bunch of classes in Technical Writing. So, when it comes to social justice issues, I think a lot about how to communicate to people – and particular when it comes to communicating with people on the Autism Spectrum. I’ve come to the conclusion that what needs to happen is that there needs to be a resource for people on the Autism Spectrum, to learn about the nuance of social justice issues, in order to engage with social justice issues in a better manner.

As a disclaimer, upfront, I’m a cis-het white male who was raised Catholic. This means that there are a whole bunch of life experiences that people who don’t fall into those boxes have had that I have not had. I also have, as mentioned in the first paragraph, Autism. I am able to pass for “normal” in most social contexts, but with a considerable degree of psychological effort, so if you ran into me in the street, you wouldn’t be able to tell that I have Autism, because I normally only let my guard down when I’m by myself.

Social Justice causes are things with a lot of discretion and nuance involved. Consequently, a lot of derailing on these topics (aside from Sea-Lioning trolls attempting to use wear down the emotional and psychological bandwidth of people trying to advocate on these issues) is related to nuance, or people approaching these issues with a lack of understanding of this nuance. I bring this up because, well, as a person on spectrum, I spent most of my adolescence to young adulthood – even into my college years, grappling with nuance as a whole.

Even now, I still have problems, particularly when it comes to the idea that it’s okay to like problematic things. My mind’s logical flow goes something like this: If a thing is problematic that means it’s a problem – it’s making people’s lives harder or harming them, which is even more of an issue when it comes to people who are in disadvantaged social groups such as women and minorities. Problems are inherently bad and need to be fixed or eliminated. Thus it is not good to like problematic things, because you are perpetuating that problem, and I am a bad person for liking that problematic thing.

Now, I know that this is not a healthy mindset to have, and I recognize it is okay to like something that is problematic so long as you recognize what is problematic about it and why that is problematic – and if you keep that in mind it does not make you a bad person.

This doubly became an issue when it comes to dealing with social issues, and knowing what was and was not inappropriate to say. I remember spending much of my childhood confused and upset because people were mad at me for reasons that I did not understand and which were not explained, due to something I did or did not do that I wasn’t or was supposed to do.

What this lead to was me having the default response to apologize to everyone for everything. I didn’t say “Hello” when someone said my name, I apologized. It was a reflex action – somehow, I figured I had screwed up in some manner and no matter what it was my fault. Even now, after I’ve learned, the hard way, to pick up a whole bunch of social cues related to negative frames of mind, I still end up reflexively apologizing when my psychological “battery” is at a low ebb.

As an aside, I still am not very good at telling from non-verbal cues if a person likes me, and I don’t entirely trust verbal cues due to people abusing my inability to read social cues to get into my confidence and then use that to bully me in school, but that’s a topic for another time.

Anyway, addition to making me horrifically unqualified to run a business, this mindset did, in a way, put me in the right frame of mind when it came to engaging in social justice issues. I was already predisposed to think of myself as a horrific screwup who had made the lives of people more difficult through actions that I performed unknowingly and without understanding the implications of those actions – which in turn left me willing to listen to people explain why those actions were wrong. Consequently, when people brought up unexamined privilege and subconscious prejudice, I was in a state of mind where I was willing to accept what happened, instead of pushing back.

That said, I could have gone the other way. As an adolescent, I could have gone on the defensive – that the world was against me for no reason, and become angry, and upset, and been a huge wound up rubber band waiting to snap. Part of the reason why I didn’t go that way, is that my parents, when people got upset and annoyed with me over things I didn’t understand, would help me to understand why, either if it was something that they saw that I did, or they talked me through what happened, and what I observed, and if I missed something they would be willing in some cases to go talk to the person and find out.

There’s also how my mother’s background fits into this. While she is white – she spent much of her childhood in Hawaii, with friends of a variety of racial backgrounds, and then her parents moved to Denver during the civil rights movement. Consequently, my mother continued to make friends with people of color, which ostracized her from other white families, on top of having a Jewish-sounding last name, and being Catholic in a predominantly Protestant community at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was still enough of an issue that it was used against JFK during his presidential run. Consequently, while she did not experience the same level of prejudice that her African-American friends face, she still faced open prejudice and hate – so when she told me stories about this when I was a kid, they also laid the groundwork for me to accept what other people had to say about the prejudice they have faced.

The reason why I bring all this up because – ultimately, those factors which are distinct to my childhood are responsible for my approaching social justice in a particular way, while other people on the Autism spectrum may not be so inclined. They may be more inclined to go on the defensive, than to take the points being brought up at face value. Additionally, nuance is something you learn to understand, and they may have not had an opportunity to learn that, due to how their school system was set up (or how they were home schooled).

Which means in turn, that there is a percentage of the population, when it comes to social justice issues, that you’ll need to engage with differently. According to the Autism Society, at least 3.5 million people in the US have Autism, and that’s just people who have been diagnosed, that is not including people who have the disability but who have not been diagnosed for a variety of factors, from a lack of people with the knowledge to recognize the disability in the person’s school, to a lack of access to people who can actually perform the diagnosis, to an unwillingness by parents or schools to pursue the diagnosis due to stigmatization or lack of funds. Even in the case of those people who have received that diagnosis, not all of them, well, been trained in how to recognize nuance (which again, is something you learn, though not all of us are aware that we’re learning it).

Consequently, a lot of language related to social justice discussions on the internet can read as being an attack if you approach that terminology from a position where you have not learned nuance – even though those words are not intended as an attack, they are viewed as such anyway. And some of the language that isn’t read as attacks can become very confusing – “privilege” can be hard to wrap your head around if you’re from a poor family, or you spent your formative years socially ostracized due to your disability – or both, same with some of the other terms used in academic discussions of race, gender, or sexual orientation which have moved out of academia and into popular discussion in Social Justice circles.

So, when a person who doesn’t understand nuance, or the terminology being used, and who has spent the majority of their life getting whaled on for things everyone but them understands and no one will take the time to explain gets clobbered when they do try to engage, that doesn’t go over well. The same when they’re confronted with a whole bunch of conflicting views from people who are theoretically on the same side of the same issue and working toward ostensibly the same goals, but where they haven’t been taught to recognize nuance, they end up getting clobbered when they sort out what they try to do.

On top of that, because people opposing social change, and who treat social justice as a slur use the same methods that people who are on-spectrum might try to use to learn about the issue as a method to derail conversations and to exhaust advocates, the response that people who are on-spectrum can face is exasperation at best, and outright condemnation and rejection at worst.

This is not to say for every sealion there is a legitimate seeker of knowledge. However, as I’ve stressed, nuance is something people need to be taught, and in turn, as much work as it takes to teach people to recognize their own privilege, people with autism may need more work to learn how to parse their own privilege. Hell, I still have to stop myself from thinking of it as a rigid hierarchy or a set modifier, with my being a cis het white male privilege outweighing any penalties that I would have as being on-spectrum, and leading into a net positive, when privilege isn’t modifiers in a RPG, nor is it a poker hand – it’s far more complicated than that.

This leads to what I think needs to happen. There needs to be a resource, written for people who are on the Autism Spectrum, who need to be taught some of the nuance, on how social justice issues – related to gender, race, sexual orientation – work, to explain the unspoken privileges that people on spectrum have, but to explain these points in a way so people who are on spectrum will understand why things need to change – not just in terms of society, but also in terms of their own behavior.

This is, frankly, not something I am qualified to write. I find the actions of other straight white cis het men to be tremendously arbitrary, so I hardly feel qualified to write about the issues faced by other minority populations. Having a unified resource, written by people with a background in gender and racial studies, would be invaluable for helping people who are on the Autism Spectrum better engage with social justice issue, and ultimately, hopefully, become good allies.

In order to be a good ally, you have to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. I know, with my background, that I can talk the talk okay, though I mangle some of the words, and I stumble when I try to walk the walk, but I can pick myself back up again. Having a recourse like this would me do both better, and would hopefully teach others to walk the walk and talk the talk as well.

Finally, if this turns out to be straight-het-cis-male-splaining, I apologize. That was not my goal.  My hope was to start the ball rolling on getting a resource for people help people who are on-spectrum better engage with social justice issues.




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