Behaving the “Right” Way as an Autistic When Everyone Else Doesn’t
Michael McCreary learned he was autistic at age 5. He’s the author of the book “Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic.” In it, he shares that his family taught him the “right” way to behave. They were aware he would likely have social struggles, and so they worked hard to teach him things such as manners, respecting personal space, taking turns when talking, and more.
I can relate. My parents taught me all of the same behaviors. Although they didn’t know I was autistic, they wanted to make sure I was kind to everyone. I think much of it stemmed from their religious beliefs, as well as their own experiences of growing up in families that taught “proper” behavior.
As an adult, my mother reflected on my childhood and told me she had to work the hardest with me. I wish she was still alive so we could have a deeper conversation about that. I wonder what she felt was so different about me than my siblings. However, I do constantly remember being chided, “That’s not nice, Jackie” or being instructed to say less judgmental things about others, improve my posture at the dinner table, or make better eye contact.
I caught on quickly and learned the rules.
Then I learned what McCreary learned: the other kids don’t follow the rules. They were mean. They didn’t respect the teacher. They gossiped about others. They made fun of me and the other kids. They didn’t play fair. They didn’t use proper manners when they ate.
It infuriated me. There I was, working so hard to “behave” and avoid being chastised anytime I didn’t, and so many other people were getting away with it.
I took on the role of educating them. I would inform them of the rules or their inappropriate behavior. I would try to do the “right thing” and say, “I don’t think it’s nice you’re gossiping about Emily.”
Do you know what that got me? Pain. Alienation. And a lot of severed friendships.
I was pretty good at making friends, but I certainly couldn’t keep them. I would inevitably criticize something they did or tell them how to be. Who would want to be around that?
I of course didn’t realize that was happening. I continued to struggle with that through high school and into young adulthood.
In many ways, I still struggle with it. Except now, it’s not guided by an external rule system that was imposed on me. When I went through the process of religious deconstruction, I could see how relentless my belief system was (you can read about that in my essay The Long Bumpy road of Religious Deconstruction).
When I later learned I am autistic, I could more clearly see my judgmental behaviors and begin to dismantle more of my judgmental behaviors (you can read about that in my essay I Used to Be Very Judgmental When I Didn't Know I was Autistic).
I still have my own strong preferences though. Sometimes there are things I don’t want to talk about that make me deeply uncomfortable, like jokes about misogyny, sex, or animal cruelty. I just don’t find them funny. I will tell people that directly now. If they don’t stop, I’ll walk away.
I also have very little tolerance for individuals who are cruel, lack self-awareness, or are exceptionally needy. I simply do not want to be friends with these individuals. I am incredibly discerning with my time and energy. I only have so much in a day, and I want to ensure that it is spent with people whom I enjoy or activities that I care about (such as writing essays like this one).
I can still easily meet people (thanks largely in part to all of those skills my mother taught me), but I don’t turn many into friends. I have a tiny pool of friends.
When I was a child, it bothered me that I didn’t have many friends. The difference between now and then is that it wasn’t a choice. I wasn’t aware of how my behavior impacted others and made friendships difficult.
Now I am aware of my strong preferences and I choose whom I want to spend my time with. I don’t chastise or instruct those I don’t enjoy being around. I’m better at keeping my opinions to myself and putting my energy into what matters.
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