(and don’t eye roll at me)
The fact that many people would eye roll at this title is because of neurotypical privilege. Just the same as a running friend eye rolls at the term ‘white privilege’ because he has it. We were out running when he stated that he’s going to scream the next time anybody mentions white privilege, because he grew up poor and got stopped by the old bill as much as any black person, on account of his youth, gender and style of dress and speech. But when I pointed out that it would have been worse for a black boy from the same council estate, he refused to acknowledge this.
I know that I have white privilege. I know this because I’ve never worried about people assuming that I don’t speak English, I’ve never been asked where my family oiginate from and I jog around Newark on my own without any worries about racist abuse. The odd bit of sexist abuse, yes, but never based on my skin colour. I educated myself about racism in the UK after BLM, which is sad, because I’d not done so before, but at least I’ve done it now, although there’s always more to do. But recently I have worked with several autistic young people and have come to a realisation that neurotypicality is also a privilege.
Our world revolves around neurotypicals. Our ways of handling conflict, dealing with business, forming relationships, making friends, attending social occasions and sitting exams at school is all based on neurotypicality. Over the past few months I have tutored four young people, all autistic, in their homes, and got to know their families. I have seen how they suffer. Here is the gist of some scenarios that occur in our mainstream schools.
A neurodivergent child feels deeply uncomfortable with eye contact, physical touch and excessive noise. In a loud room with multiple conversations and sounds, the noises blur together into a confusing stream of input. This is common with autistic children, and the teachers have all been informed of this and it is on the child’s EHCP (education, and health care plan). Teachers are paid to read these documents and to adapt teaching strategies for each and every child in the classroom. Of course it’s impossible to deliver 30 different lessons, but neither is that necessary. It’s about delivering the content whilst adapting to individual children and their needs.
‘Look at me!’ demands the teacher. The child looks at the teacher’s right shoulder, which is the closest he can manage without feeling unbearably stressed. ‘You aren’t listening properly!’ says the teacher. ‘Look at me when I’m talking’. The child puts his head on the table, overwhelmed, and is then banished from the classroom.
On another occasion this child is eating his lunchtime meal when another child leans across and spits in it. The child shoves away the food and stops eating. The other child pushes him and shouts, ‘Miss, ***** isn’t eating his lunch’. The child is scolded and reminded to eat up. By this time he can’t even explain that his dinner has spit in it, and he is covering his ears and starting to groan. The child is cajoled further into eating and crawls under the table where he sits, rocking and groaning. Other adults come and drag him from under the table and carry him off to a room to calm down. By this time he is screaming and a video is sent to the child’s mother to show how badly behaved he is.
The child ends up having no school because school is too distressing and the staff state that they can no longer meet his needs. Special school? Possibly – if he can travel fifty miles a day when there is one adult in this family with one car and three other children who go to two different schools. Oh – and he hates travel. The child ends up out of school on a waiting list for home tuition through an agency or the local authority, with no friends, no extra-curricular enrichment, no Duke of Edinburgh, or sport, or music lessons, or cultural capital, nothing but the four walls and a walk outdoors if the parent is not too depressed to face another day of not being able to work, or support the family, or function in a world that seems to hate her and her autistic child.
Special school places are few and far between. Autistic children don’t enjoy sitting in mini buses with loud music and chatter. By the time they get there after a half hour journey, they are already on high alert and triggered. Mainstream schools don’t cater to them very well and label them as naughty, challenging or weird.
Even the so-called ‘high functioning’ children struggle. Many neurodivergent young people simply don’t understand the way that neurotypical people function in the world. If you think about it, we are the odd ones. We skirt around issues, we avoid saying what we mean, we lie all the time, and we make up nonsensical rules about gender, like a false binary, which is frankly weird. Of course I am aware that many neurotypical people reject the gender binary, but it remains that more neurodivergent people experience gender dysphoria.
A neurodivergent young person I recently worked with talked about this openly when I opened the conversation by asking what their pronouns were and was told ‘they and them. I’m non-binary and thanks for asking’. This young person is studying gender and is more confused by the false binary than by the allegedly complex queer theory that, to them, is actually obvious. The queer theory stance is that sex is biological and nothing more. The fact of the matter is that even biological sex is not as simple as binary opposites. There isn’t even a binary opposition in the biology of our bodies! There are six really common biological sexes. XX is female. XY is male. There is also single X, XXY, XYY and XXXY. It’s easy enough to research further, but the point is that nothing is EVER as simple as we neurotypicals like to make it out to be.
As for gender, queer theory posits that it is a performance rather than anything to do with our bodies. Gender is how we live, how we present ourselves and how we feel on the inside. The word ‘gender’ became used instead of ‘sex’ because of the naughtiness of the word ‘sex’, but it originally refers to the idea of ‘type’ or ‘class’ and is much broader semantically than biological makeup. We neurotypicals love to classify things and ‘gender’ offers a classification for people so that we can conveniently box them up, label them and I suppose control our understanding of the world so that it’s neat and tidy.
The problem for neurodivergent people is that many don’t like neat and simple rules that actually don’t make sense. They can see that every person with a female body is a completely unique person with likes, dislikes, sexual preferences, style of dress and personal range of interests. They can see that every person with any body in fact is equally unique. It has been said by the autistic comedian Hannah Gadsby that neurotypicals are motivated by what is important and that includes gender. Autistic people, however, are motivated by what is interesting, and that really does not include gender. But neurotypical folks often get their knickers in a massive twist over the fact that a person with a male body is wearing a dress. HEAVEN FORBID. They then want to know is this a boy or a girl? What the hell is a non binary? What is this nonsense? What is the label? I can’t say ‘they’ and ‘them’; it is not grammatically correct.
Here, I would love to reference the fact that grammar was a concept invented after the linguistically anarchic times of Middle English and Shakespeare by people who wanted to impose order on the world. We call them prescriptivists. They were mostly rich, white, neurotypical men.
OK. So neurotypical privilege means that we understand the world as we see it. We know how to conform to the norms. We are mostly cisgender and do not question the gender that we were assigned at birth. We broadly fit the category that we were assigned and the way that the world has been prescribed for us and we adapt ourselves around the bits that don’t quite fit, because we can.
We also use face work in language, which many neurodivergent people find difficult. Face work refers to the multitude of politeness strategies which we adopt to make each other feel comfortable and to maintain our ‘face’ or our sense of dignity and respect. For example, when somebody says, ‘it’s cold in here’ we will offer to close a window or turn up the heating. We understand that they were not simply informing us of their discomfort. When we are asked, ‘what do you think of this dress?’ instead of replying, ‘it’s hideous’, we say ‘it’s a beautiful colour isn’t it?’ and other indirect avoidances, hedges and skirting of issues. We don’t talk politics, death or religion unless we know each other well because these topics impinge on others’ sense of personal face when there is inevitable disagreement.
The autistic young person I recently spoke with did not understand face work. A friend had been crying and complaining because she had done badly in exams, and they helpfully pointed out that she needed to do more work. Their friend was more distraught by this and accused them of being insensitive. They were totally confused, feeling that their helpful advice had been ignored. The concept of simply listening, offering a cup of tea and making sympathetic noises was insane to them. When I pointed out that the friend probably just wanted them to listen, they put their face in their hands and said, ‘It’s all so exhausting!’
The neurotypical world is exhausting to autistic people. Our language is complicated and nonsensical. I can understand why but I also understand, implicitly, why we use it. We perform a delicate dance every day of mitigating rudeness, avoiding bluntness, making others feel positive, using praise and politeness, and adopting idiomatic small talk mechanisms for the sake of oiling our social trajectory. The neurodivergent person has to learn this, because it is not implicit. At the end of a social gathering where every interaction has to be considered from a point of view that is not their own, they are knackered. Their heads hurt. From us.
I wish that autistic people could have an easier experience of life on this planet and I wish that we could all adapt so that our interactions flow more easily for everybody concerned. I am sorry that I am writing about neurodivergence when I am neurotypical and I have probably got a lot wrong. But I am trying to hammer out what I understand and how unfair it is. Just because we are the majority, we should give space, empathy and respect to everybody. And use the right bloody pronouns!