Both Sides Now

Yahoots. Yesterday was Autism Awareness Day and the one-year anniversary of this blog. The Autism Awareness v. Autism Acceptance battle played out in the minds of neurodiversity activists on Twitter as expected. Hundreds of polarized tweets. It’s not like we could have both, awareness and acceptance of course, that’s a gray area. We’re dealing with autistics here, not some folk singing Judy Collins — but a rigid, black and white mentality. You must accept it.

I find it unbelievable that serious people would demonize the concept of awareness, but here we are. The ND activists put down Autism Awareness as a brand, because it’s associated with a nonprofit they despise. But they’ve given awareness a bad rap in the process, and in the middle of holy week! If I’m pearl clutching, it wouldn’t be the first word stupidly lost to political correctness. You remember niggardly, I presume. Check the spelling, thanks. But there is no mistaking awareness as anything but innocent. It is pure enlightenment. Now the Houston Chronicle is asking if we need to move beyond it. There is no going beyond awareness. You can’t strip this word of its power, no matter how they try to twist it. Awareness is an unconditional value. The less aware a person is, the more wrong they are.

We need far more awareness of ourselves, each other and of the human condition, in all its messy permutations. And practically, to privilege autism acceptance over autism awareness makes it that much easier for under-performing therapists to slide in under the feel-good banner of “neurodiverse-friendly”, something I’ve been seeing more of, for obvious reasons.

I expect better from the therapeutic profession. You’re overplaying your hand, Counselor Friendly, unconditional positive regard is your job. So, if you’re inclusive and accepting of a marginalized cohort, you want a cookie for this?

It’s the awareness we’re all so quick to move past that mushy counselors lack. And I almost suspect they don’t want to know what goes on in these relationships. ASD/NT couples fall into the abyss, too disturbed and dysfunctional to be salvaged. Therefore, we are not studied in academia. This is why we have no ASD/NT Gottman Method, and why the podcasts, Dr. Phils, Oprahs and all bigshot equivalents ignore us. To them, we’re the meth heads the neighborhood tunes out, waiting for the house to blow.

I started this blog a year ago in a fit of temper after one too many encounters with couples counselors who were screamingly unaware of the differences between normal and mixed neurological relationships. These were counselors who ticked the boxes on the Psychology Today website claiming proficiency in a long list of specialties, including “autism” or “asperger’s” yet were unaware that an argument with an autistic partner goes on forever, because he breaks contact before resolution can be reached. Walking off, mindlessly compounding existing resentments is a destructive autistic cliché. They all do it in their raw, egotistic, experience-avoidant shutdowns.

This habit can be overcome by moving from a self-obsessed to relational paradigm. That’s a counselor’s job, not mine. But most don’t realize the thorny work they take on with an autistic-linked couple. Some have even underplayed it — as in scolding me for pushing labels while she pushed Gottman’s attunement on us as a daily practice. Michael can’t attune, lady. He can do many things but does not have the wiring to interpret inchoate feelings and master non-verbal communication through body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. In neurotypicals these wordless messages get through, even when they are imperceptible. Autistics, not so much.

Our counselor didn’t consider the weight of my partner’s disability when teaching us this technique. The next day I practiced like a girl scout. When he didn’t respond to my “bids” or initiate any himself, he looked like a self-centered jerk. I felt played, snookered. When he acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about, I became hysterical and we almost wrecked the car.

He wasn’t acting. He couldn’t explain himself, because he didn’t realize while we were being taught the attunement technique that he wouldn’t retain the instructions and be capable of pulling it off. How could he? All this assessing is the counselor’s job. Meet your client where he is.

And because he did not assimilate the counselor’s directives about deeper attuning, he felt he was playing by the rules limiting his style to superficial pleasantries, the last thing I want from an intimate partner. This is when all language breaks down. He felt defensive and attacked as a person. And because of the empathy deficit — unable to hear my legit point of view.

When we saw the counselor again, we don’t go into bridging neurological differences; we talked about the fight in the car! Her acceptance of autism was up there with the best of them. It’s the awareness I worry about.

General counselors who blithely say they can also work with people on the Spectrum do something of a survey course, 12 hours, followed by a written test. Unaware of what they don’t know, or even what’s going on with their clients, they operate beyond their scope-of-practice at $150 bucks an hour.

Someone has to look after us, but most ASD/NT couples report that standard counseling made things worse. I don’t like going a single day without an outside perspective, but I have a lot on my mind. And you can’t introject, you gotta chew the apple, and spit out the worm. All any of us can do is find someone both partners click with, then try to cultivate them about the ASD side of things.

Which means we are the ones who labor into the dawn over obscure research findings to figure out shit that we have to understand. Like I read somewhere that the autist’s standard method of repair is going to be in performing pragmatic acts, which gave me a lightbulb jolt of comic relief. So that explains why, after a big fight, my garbage disposal gets fixed the next day. Eureka! What else does a literal thinker do to “repair” the relationship? This insight led to a helpful discussion with my man about trying other words for resolving hurt feelings so as not to trigger his external task orientation before the dust has yet to settle.

These are the delightful mysteries ripe for discovery between typical allipsticks and awesome auties. To unravel them means moving from a state of ignorance to awareness:

….specifically, it is the ability to directly know and perceive, to feel, or to be cognizant of events. ….The concept is often synonymous with consciousness and is also understood as being consciousness itself.

Fuck capitalism, reclaim this idea. When marketers decided on awareness as the dominant word to tag their marketing and health campaigns, that was just capitalism being thieving capitalism. Breast cancer, big macs, mental illness, chicken sandwich, situational awareness, and on and on and on. Sure, things have gotten a little out of hand, with the donuts and high-minded National Salt Awareness Week. This is when you could step in and notice, “You keep saying that word. Enough yanking my chain with your bourgeois marketing. I do not think that word means what you think it means.” The problem is not the word. We do not throw away beautiful ideas that have stood the test of time and knuckle under the new regime, like some knee-jerk American consumer, despite our programming to do only that.

It’s a well-meaning campaign, folks. Paint the town blue.

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