Social Justice Jargon

I am amazed at the degree of linguistic inaccessibility in social justice spaces. Someone who isn’t already deeply involved not only in social justice, but the exact sub-culture of a particular blog or forum will have no way to meaningfully understand what is being said in many of these spaces. I guess that’s okay if we just want to talk to each other, but if the ignorant (that is, doesn’t know any better rather than chooses to act in a bad way) person in your life won’t understand your word choice or jargon, your words aren’t doing much outside of the group of people that share your language.

And most people don’t share your language.

Some examples of words or phrases I’m talking about:

  • Because reasons
  • AMAB
  • allistic
  • kyriarchy

Don’t know all of them? “Because reasons” is shorthand for “There are reasons for this, good or bad, but I don’t want to discuss them because whatever they are they aren’t relevant to this topic.”  I think. It seems to be used different ways by different people. A good alternative would be to actually say what you mean, like “I have reasons for this, but I don’t want to get into them here because I don’t believe they are relevant” or “She claims to have reasons, but I don’t know if they are bullshit or not” depending on how you use this.

AMAB? Assigned male at birth. I’m still not sure why this is as used as it is in social justice spaces, and I could write about some problems with it’s common uses – it can be really ugly (and not too far off from Janice Raymond, although I suspect most of the people using this term have never heard of Janice and her idea of privileged transwomen infiltrating and destroying women’s spaces because they grew up as men).

Allistic? This means non-autistic. Everyone understands what non-autistic means. A handful of people on the internet understands what allistic means.

Kyriarchy? This talks about all systems that are dominated/controlled by a group of people and where another group of people has a disadvantage. But few know that.

Of course part of the problem with this is that I probably exposed my misunderstanding of these words – definitions are hard, and understanding is hard. That’s the second problem: besides for these words not being known, they serve as a way of hiding misunderstanding.

I remember the first time that I, an evangelical (albeit non-traditional) Christian, had a discussion with Mormon missionaries. It became very clear quickly that we had many different ideas on some core beliefs regarding things like the trinity, resurrection, redemption, and heaven.Yet, we used the same words, just different definitions. So I could ask, “Do you believe in the trinity?” and the missionary would say, “Yes.” Yet we didn’t believe the same thing when we actually try to define what each of us believes – and the definition is very important to both my faith and the Mormon missionary’s faith. We could spend hours talking to each other, using this jargon, and never realize what we did and didn’t agree about, unless we defined our terms.

It’s kind of like someone saying, “I’m not racist.” Their definition of racist may or may not be as inclusive as someone else’s definition. They may say, “I’m not racist” and then say “But blacks just aren’t as intelligent as whites.” Their definition of racism would differ greatly from mine, which holds that blacks and whites have the same range of intelligence, and that not accepting this is one element of a racist.

But the biggest problem, in my eyes, is that this jargon turns social justice groups/blogs/spaces/forums into places that are hard for decent people to become part of, unless they are already in the group. It’s a form of exclusion and determining who belongs. Back to my evangelical vs. Mormon experiences, there are words and phrases that each group uses that reflect our culture and are not shared. I can spot, in less than 5 minutes, if someone goes to an evangelical church frequently. I’m sure the Mormons can do the same. A lot of how I can tell is based on language usage and how they use precise words that don’t necessarily get perceived the same way outside of the church community.

In fact, this cultural unawareness of Christians is a reason why many criticisms of Christians are ignored by Christians – the people criticizing don’t understand the language and thus assume it means something it doesn’t. A great example is when a Catholic official makes a public statement that says, “We need to welcome all people, including people with same-sex attraction, into our midst.” To a non-Catholic, that might sound like, “OH! Finally, the Catholics are going to let gays in!”  To a Catholic Bishop, it means, “How can we teach them they are wrong unless they come to our church? Of course we want them to come!” (key buzzwords: “welcome” doesn’t necessarily mean “we want these people in all parts of our church”; “same-sex attraction” means “We don’t recognize people are gay or lesbian, they just struggle with attraction to the same sex”)

So, this language can form a wall of separation between “us” and “them”. It’s not intended to do that (usually). But it becomes that.

There is another problem: linguistic accessibility. Yes, that’s an ironic use of jargon. Not everyone can access the right word that means exactly the shade of gray that a given piece of jargon means. Not everyone can remember all the jargon or wrap their heads around all these new terms. It’s nothing to do with intelligence, but rather simply with language ability. Some people are incredibly gifted and can adopt the jargon effortlessly and easily. Others cannot, but still have plenty of good things to contribute to you or learn from you.

So the next time you think you should use all this cool new language you learned, ask yourself, “Who am I talking to?” If you’re talking to other people who know these words and share your definitions, it’s absolutely appropriate. But if you think you might be talking to people who don’t understand your definitions, or if you want to include people that may not have the linguistic skills to decode the jargon (and in this aspect, it is an accessibility concern), think about at least defining your terms, or, better yet, trying to find a short, but obvious way of conveying the concept the jargon represents.

I’m certainly not an expert on how to do this – I too find myself using jargon or otherwise writing inaccessible text. And I’m missing out on valuable discussion because of it. Learning to communicately clearly is a process, and I’ve only started that process.

Why I Didn’t Drop Out of High School

I was watching a news program about an “early warning” system to detect kids who might be in danger of dropping out of high school. What shocked me is that they described much of my school experience – I fit those signs.

For instance, they talked about two key signs being poor academic performance (such as failing a core classes and abysmal GPAs – both of which fit me) and frequent absences (I was gone typically around two months of each school year).  So, on paper, I was in danger of dropping out. In reality, that probably wasn’t going to happen, however. And I think they missed some stuff, that schools can do better.

Conventional wisdom is that for students to do extra-curricular activities, they should have their core education under control. If you’re on your high school football team, you’re expected to get signatures from all your teachers that you have a certain grade average in the class.  Do too poorly in school, and no play for you. You don’t get the reward. This is a horrible practice!

It’s horrible for a few reasons, and thankfully they didn’t think of making someone doing, say, science fair projects (something I did well at and enjoyed) prove that they were passing classes.  My school sucked – I was being asked to exercise executive function I simply don’t have (and not through laziness or not being exposed to study skills instruction or any similar hogwash).  I wasn’t going to pass a non-modified high school curriculum in the 90s (fortunately, they did modify it somewhat for me to let me graduate).  In addition to the tremendous executive skills required (time management, studying, knowing what actually needed to be studied and what didn’t, homework, remembering books and other supplies, and whatever other things were needed), it was also a miserable environment. Who would enjoy a place where they are physically, emotionally, and sexually abused? Who would possibly do good in that environment?

So I had my joy in my extra curricular activities. If the school was more progressive, they would have recognized a college-level research paper probably proves I can write and that doing calculus-based statistics proves I can do math. But they didn’t. So I struggled with my classes. But I still got to do the things I loved about school. I wouldn’t have if they actually applied the standard they applied to the jocks, which concerns me: What if my love was football, not science? Would they have taken the one positive thing about school away from me? Where would I be today?

I’m sure the carrot of “You can do the thing you love if you work hard in your classes” works for some people, and can be powerful motivation. It is in my life. But it’s only powerful motivation when that thing is achievable. I had barriers I couldn’t overcome by willpower. It wasn’t motivation. It was that school environment I had was completely inappropriate to my educational needs. Without fixing that environment, no motivation could solve the problem. I needed to be in a place where I wasn’t abused and the things asked of me were things I could do.

I remember my PE classes in Junior High – one thing we were expected to do, and got a grade based on, was climbing a rope. I can’t climb a rope. I was lifting weights at the time, doing push ups, etc, during my spare time, trying to get strong enough to do something unrelated to school. But despite that, I couldn’t climb a rope. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t do it. It’s not that I didn’t want to do it, or that I didn’t know how to do it, but simply that I can’t do that. Nothing changed that, even things that would normally be suggested (physical training).  I wasn’t overweight, and I was doing strength conditioning. Yet, I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t, “Joel doesn’t want to climb the rope.” It was “Joel can’t climb the rope.”  And you could give me a failing grade on rope climbing, but it wasn’t going to change anything. A lot of my academic classes were similar: I was being asked to do things in a way that I could not do, and then given bad grades for doing badly at those tasks. The ironic thing is that “those tasks” actually had little to do with the actual subject. I was getting bad grades not because I can’t write or do math, but because I couldn’t manage my time, figure out what is important and what isn’t, do my homework, and return the homework, all while being beat on, raped, and humiliated. Go figure.

So, somehow, I slipped through the cracks and got to do the things I loved without being forced to do the impossible. Why would we take away the one thing a kid loves about school (for instance, an extra curricular activity) to motivate the kid to do better in school? That makes no sense. Yet it’s conventional wisdom. To this day, I don’t know if this didn’t happen to me simply because God was looking out for me or because some teacher/administrator saw the problem and helped me, without my knowledge, subvert the oppressive system. Whichever it was, it was a miracle.

Fortunately, people thought I was smart, even though I was failing courses – I was lazy and unmotivated, but smart in their eyes. So I got some slack for being smart. And that helped me get through high school – occasionally some teacher would notice that I was capable of learning. These teachers made a huge difference. The ones I’m thinking of gave of their own time and energy, to give me things I enjoyed about school and to help me avoid the problems I was having. Every one of them broke the rules of the system – and I’m exceedingly thankful that they did. I think back to a computer teacher (I never took any of her classes!) who would write me a pass to get out of class if I needed to get out of class, so I could work on the school’s network – it was the start of what got me into my current field, where I’m part of a team that runs one of the largest networks on the planet. I loved doing that, and having a break from class sometimes let me recharge and focus on other classes in the day. It gave me a break (in addition to being the key to my success in my career). And I needed a break. In fact, the year I had this opportunity, to basically be allowed to skip any class I wanted (my senior year), I had better attendance than any other year, I passed all of my classes, and my GPA for the work I was doing was among the top in the school (my other 3 years of work was so bad that I still graduated in the bottom 25% of my class). It was also the same year that my mom realized what was going on and would write me an excuse to be absent from school if I wanted (she conditioned it on me passing classes). I think I only had my mom write two notes. I didn’t need a lot, and I didn’t want to fail. But I needed some help. Who would have thought letting a kid skip classes would help? That certainly doesn’t fit conventional wisdom. But paradoxically, it actually increased my attendance when I could choose to not attend when I wasn’t up to doing so, rather than having to wait for my body to give up and contract a significant illness.

But what if people didn’t see this? What if I wasn’t seen as lazy and unmotivated, but just “dumb?” What then? I worry about those kids. They need allies too. Or they will drop out. Just like I might have.

That said, my school wasn’t completely clueless. They let students who failed take classes in summer school. So I did, right before my senior year. And – imagine this – the format of summer school was “Go read the book, pass the test.” I could do this. I learned more world history in a week (that’s all it took for me to pass all the tests for World History) than I learned in the year of failing it in my freshman year. It was a learning style that suited me. I wouldn’t say it was easier (I don’t believe it was, despite the school obviously wanting to get people through these classes), but it was better suited for me. An added bonus of summer school? Those kids didn’t abuse me. Don’t ask me why they didn’t, I don’t know. But they didn’t.

Finally, a final piece in the puzzle, was the idea that I wanted to get out of my town. To do that, I was going to need to do college, so I had a reason to leave, and some support to do so. Leaving my home town was the best decision I ever made. It’s why I’m alive today. And that was a powerful motivator: stick through high school. My parents wouldn’t have supported me at all in doing this if I was doing it for a reason other than college. And to do college, I needed to finish high school.

There’s a common theme here: I could succeed when my disability was (unknowingly) accommodated and when I wasn’t being abused. Self-study and having the opportunity to have a break helped tremendously. And then having people that broke the rules helped, whether they did so intentionally or not. I had things to look forward to at school despite this. And that’s a pretty huge motivator when someone who is being abused at school can say there were things he looked forward to doing at school.

I think back to that and think, “Why couldn’t all my classes be self-study, with support when I need it? Why couldn’t I have a down day when I decided I need it? Why couldn’t I have a place where I wasn’t tortured and raped while being expected to learn?” I probably would have been an outstanding high school student if those things were different. That said, I do think I have some right to be proud that I made it. I never saw myself as a potential high school drop out, but even without that risk, I’m proud to have survived school. I know I’m strong and able to succeed. It could have been very different, and without just a few small things, I might not have had enough hope that my strength would have been sufficient – and I recognize that not everyone is as lucky as I was (and, despite being abused and placed in a horrible environment, luck and good fortune were a huge part of why I could survive), nor do I think someone who doesn’t make it is any less smart or motivated or strong. You can’t measure things that way.

But everyone in my situation – anyone who faces abuse, an inappropriate environment, illness, etc, even if there are some good things happening and there is some hope – it is something to be proud of when you accomplish it. And I hope that our education system is getting better, that we are making progress. Let’s not take motivation (such as extra-curricular activities) away from people to “motivate” them. Let’s not force people to learn in one set way, when that way is demonstrably inappropriate. And let’s find ways that we can give a break or hope to someone who needs it.

Stereotypes and Advocacy

I’m sick of many of us in advocacy simply stereotyping people who are not part of our particular movement. Stereotypes and assumptions prevent us from communicating. Too often, rather than listening to what someone who is not one of us says, we simply assume that they believe what other people with a certain trait believe.

Parents, professionals, and therapists deserve to be treated with respect. As all people do.

Sure, a lot of time the people doing horrible things to autistics are parents, professionals, and therapists. So they don’t get a free pass just because they had a kid or have a professional job.  But, at the same time, before we pronounce someone guilty, we probably should make sure they really are guilty – not with accusatory questions, but by sincerely listening.

We don’t want to be tone policed in advocacy circles. If I need to express something happening to my people that is harming them, I shouldn’t be silenced unless I can say things politely. I agree with this.

That said, if I can say them politely, I probably should. I should at least try a decent interaction with people, with an assumption that the person may be a potential ally, not an enemy, who simply doesn’t know any better, who is doing something a certain way for a reason that negates my concern, or simply doesn’t know any better – but agrees that autistic people (or whatever other group) need to be treated decently. If they prove themselves otherwise, fine, be an ass. But let’s wait until they prove it, rather than having us assume it. There may be nuance that I don’t know about unless I ask.

I’ve had this in my own advocacy. Sometimes I see something in the advocacy world that I don’t think is particularly effective advocacy – so I speak up and say so. I try to do so respectfully, sometimes I do, sometimes I fail. Like all of us. But more often then not, the response isn’t to read my words or listen to my thoughts, getting clarifications when something is unclear. No, it’s to read one thing and then dismiss everything I’m about to say, on the basis of what stereotypes about people who say that one thing think.

I’ve seen this in my arguments against the widespread usage of the word “cis-” to refer to people who are not trans (ex: cis-male is a person born with normal male genitals and treated as a boy/man throughout his life, and who identifies with that identity). The initial assumption is that my actions are formed by the same ignorance and arrogance that causes some to fight against the word – but my thoughts are quite a bit more nuanced than that. But it’s hard for me to express them, because the initial assumption is that I’m full of shit and saying this for the same reason they’ve seen others say this (and there is a lot of bullshit on the web about what is wrong with the cis- prefix, bullshit that is horrible and wrong and definitely anti-trans).

Yet, I make an argument like that, and people make assumptions, without really listening to what I want to say. And, often, these people are advocates for some cause. I probably agree with them far more than I disagree, but they immediately put me in the category of “hateful, anti-trans bigot”, assuming that I hold a bunch of other views (on things other than cis- prefixes) that I don’t hold, because I hold a view on the cis- prefix that is contrary to some of the louder advocacy right now (that said, I’m not the only person that holds this view for the reasons I hold it).

I’ve seen it in other areas of advocacy too. People are fine making assumptions about you if you don’t say exactly the right words, exactly the right way. I might say I don’t support food stamps, which is an accurate statement of my beliefs (for people outside the USA, food stamps aren’t stamps anymore, but are assistance given by the government that can only be used to buy food). Immediately, I can sense my readership getting angry, about to tell me a few pieces of their mind. Some people stopped reading and declared me a conservative asshole. Others assume that I must never have been without food, because if I had been, I could never say something like this. A lot of stereotypes.

Of course when I say I don’t support food stamps, I’m talking something else entirely. I agree with economists that food stamps are a wasteful, inefficient redistribution of income that doesn’t help the economy as much as it could, which doesn’t get people out of poverty, and which is inefficient for the person needing assistance. Oh, again, I’m in the conservative asshole category in the eyes of my readers! I also agree with the most progressive anti-poverty activists (who, ironically agree with the economists!) in that cash distribution is a much better way of helping poor people than earmarked funds are. Rather than giving a family $400 of food assistance, $600 of rent assistance, $350 of medical assistance, $200 of transportation assistance, why not give them the cash for these things? Maybe they can economically eat for less than $400 (I couldn’t if I had a family, but some people have resources I don’t have or abilities I lack). But to get that better job, they need $250 in transportation assistance. Why shouldn’t the people most connected with their needs make that decision? (hint on why people disagree with me: “What if they buy $1000 of lottery tickets?” And that’s a legitimate concern – what if someone runs out of money in the beginning of the month? We can’t let their kids starve. And I agree with that – I won’t get into details now, but there are solutions for that too that don’t involve kids starving; but that said, contrary to what most people seem think, most poor people aren’t poor because they are too stupid to spend their money on food and rent, but rather they are poor because they don’t have enough money – and will spend money they have wisely).  So my view isn’t “Cut support” but rather “Put people in charge of determining what they need, rather than us dictating.” This isn’t even a fringe view – most people who study this field (poverty) would agree with me, including people in government. But it is opposed from the right wing (“ABUSE!!! THINK OF THE ABUSE!!!”) and from other advocates who only read “get rid of food stamps” and immediately make some assumptions. So it probably will never happen.

When we listen to a parent speak, we need to be careful to not make any assumptions. Maybe the parent is an awful curebie who wants sympathy at any cost to their child’s privacy, so is fine posting exaggerated stories about shit smearing on their mommy blog. There certainly are plenty of parents in this category. But maybe they are talking about what they are talking about in a respectful, appropriate way that respects the child’s privacy.  Maybe the child is old enough to understand the implications of consent and has given it, but the mother didn’t know that she was going to be stereotyped as a “mother who wants sympathy” and thus needed to make it clear she didn’t fit the stereotype. But we should be listening, and asking non-accusatory questions, giving people not the benefit of the doubt, but simply recognizing “I don’t know here, but it’s important.”

Now, a good ally won’t be bothered by someone confronting them over a stereotype the self-advocate has about the group the ally is part of. Even if it’s done somewhat aggressively and rudely. They’ll recognize that a minority community has to put up with a lot of shit, and sometimes that is expressed in direct, up-front ways. They’ll see where the pain and anger is coming from. Or maybe the ally is wrong, and does need to be corrected, and is willing to be corrected (if they are an ally, they will listen; note that I don’t believe an ally to autistics has to agree with any one autistic on anything, either – and that’s where things get complicated and messy).

But at the same time, I think sometimes we get a bit too aggressive in our advocacy, seeing enemies that aren’t there. Advocacy is very nuanced much of the time, and not about just the big major things. It’s not just about whether JRC is giving electric shocks to their prisoners (they are, and, yes, it’s wrong). It’s about an assumption that “more intensive” treatment is the right answer for “more severe” behavior. And that “more intensive” treatment works better and quicker for all types of behavior than less intensive. It’s the assumption that the more effort put into therapy, the more positive results. It’s the assumption that behavior X and Y are maladjusted and need therapy. Sometimes they do, but sometimes that “behavior” is just odd but okay.

I’ve also seen the reverse – I’ve seen it assumed that an autistic who speaks on advocacy is anti-parent, angry, and even militant. I’ve had all these things used against me, and while I can’t speak for their accuracy in an unbiased way, I work very hard at channeling my anger appropriately and recognizing the importance of good parents. I certainly don’t see “parents” as the enemy, nor am I trying to wage a war. I’m trying to help people understand and trying to make sure my people can fully participate in and enjoy society – nothing more. So this isn’t exactly a one-way set of stereotypes.

So, when you hear something you disagree with today, I’ll give my thought on what your response should be: Consider whether there may be nuances you aren’t aware of. When someone says they want to get rid of food stamps, are they saying, “I want the poor to starve” or are they saying, “I think the poor know where this money should go better than I do?” When a parent says their 18 year old son wears a diaper, is it possible their 18 year old son has agreed to share that for a shared advocacy reason? Let’s not assume that’s not the case. No, I’m not saying to assume it is the case either. But we should listen and ask true questions, not just jump to accusations.

What’s Wrong with Advanced Directives

Do you want to cut health care costs in America?  It’s simple – you could save substantial money by doing one thing. You encourage people to create advance directives for what they would like to happen if they are unable to speak for themselves in the hospital.

For instance, someone might say they don’t want CPR, don’t want a ventilator, don’t want procedures that are painful and only prolong life by months, don’t want procedures that would save their life but leave them disabled.

In fact, they do. They say exactly these things when asked – at least a lot of people do. People want to “die with dignity.”

Here’s where I have the problem: If the decisions are made with informed consent and out of personal desire, I’m generally fine with this. But I don’t think most of these decisions are made with consent.

I was recently listening to a Planet Money podcast on this – listen to the actual story, as this isn’t in the article, if you want to hear what I’m concerned about.  Basically, this town has a remarkably high number of people who have completed advance directives, something I agree most people should do, but do carefully.

The problem comes with two things. First, as the show points out, this saves money, by not keeping people alive with expensive procedures who indicated they don’t want to stay alive in those situations. This can be ethically neutral, unless the person thinks, “I want to leave my life savings to my kids, so I don’t want the hospital using all of my money on me. In other words, I worry about people making a financial decision on whether they should live, and I have a huge objection to someone dying who might want to live on the basis of finances. Directives in favor of discontinuing care are scary when there is finances involved. This certainly could be solved through funding healthcare properly, so that it’s not a concern. In other words my heirs shouldn’t have less money because I told the doctors to do everything they can for me.

The second problem was when one man in the story was asked about situations and his choice – situations like whether he would want to have life saving surgery that would leave him blind or leave him unable to walk. In both cases, the man, likely sincerely, said, “No, I don’t want those surgeries.” Now, this is hypothetical and this probably wasn’t a real possibility for the man, but it is scary. What was he basing this decision on? I don’t know what he does and doesn’t know about disability, but if he’s like most people in the USA, disability is terrifying to him – there is probably few things worse than being “confined to a wheelchair” or being blind. To people with those disabilities, these disabilities need to keep anyone from leading a full and exciting life that they enjoy. But chances are he doesn’t know many people in a wheelchair or blind. Even more concerning was that the question wasn’t, “You’re going to die shortly and be blind if this surgery happens, and probably be in a lot of pain. Do you want to die painlessly in that situation?” That’s probably the question the guy thought he was answering (that said, I could be wrong, and hope I am).  He answered that he didn’t want those surgeries – even if he would live another 60 years without any other problem from the surgery) – because the question just asked if he wanted these types of procedures that could leave him with a disability for the sake of curing illness. In other words, this wasn’t exactly an end of life question, even though he probably thought it was.

And that’s where I have the problem. I don’t like people making decisions about their death on the basis of biases against disability. I hate it for a bunch of reasons. I hate it because I wonder whether or not this man would make this decision if his wife was disabled and he knew better what disability is like. Or if he was presented this information in another way. Equally, I’m scared about how disabled people are viewed by him, and if these prejudices are shared by other people – like people in hospitals. Do they see a disabled person and do a calculation, “This person is suffering more and would probably prefer death?” There’s evidence that this does happen. Routinely.

I do think people should fill out advance directives and let their families know what they want for medical treatment, if they are unable to speak. I believe very fully in this. But only with consent and without the financial motivation to choose death.
I have a good life. So do my blind friends, my wheelchair using friends, and, indeed, “even” my friends with chronic pain. Learn about us before you decide a life like ours isn’t worth living.

Perseverative Attraction

There’s a lot of stereotypes about autistic people, and, indeed, people who are not neurotypical in general. One of those stereotypes is that we are dangerous people that need to be kept away from others, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships. I’ve written about some of this before, such as Temple Grandin’s mother saying we’re more likely to be pedophiles (hint: we’re not). Or that autistic mate-selection should work like many assume neurotypical mate-selection works (through flirting at bars, for instance – which isn’t actually how neurotypical mate-selection works either).

One of the things that concerns me is that as we fight bad information, the tendency is to not want to talk about problems we do have.

Now, I’m not a researcher, and I don’t have any great data. I do have a survey I’ve done, which shows some interesting data. Among the most interesting, it showed (all results rounded to the nearest 5% to not imply precision that doesn’t exist in my survey):

Most people, autistic or not, have been pursued by someone that the person being pursued didn’t want a relationship with:

  • 65% of non-autistic people indicated they had unwanted pursuit (I didn’t break it into men/women due to small sample size)
  • 65% of autistic women indicated they had unwanted pursuit
  • 75% of autistic men indicated they had unwanted pursuit
  • 100% of non-binary autistic people indicated they had unwanted pursuit

When I asked if the pursuit continued without stopping, even after the object of affection indicated they weren’t interested:

  • 65% of non-autistic people said they’ve been pursued by someone that didn’t stop (thus, everyone that had unwanted pursuit also had unwanted pursuit that continued after the pursuer was informed the pursuit wasn’t wanted)
  • 45% of autistic women said they’ve been pursued by someone that didn’t stop
  • 60% of autistic men said they’ve been pursued by someone that didn’t stop
  • 85% of non-binary autistic people said they’ve been pursued by someone who didn’t stop

I found some of this interesting, although I’ll caution that drawing too many conclusions beyond order-of-magnitude-level conclusions – there are a lot of methodological issues and sampling bias in my survey. It’s also important to realize that the first category – someone pursuing you that you aren’t interested in – is not a problem in itself. For instance, if someone saw me, didn’t know I was married and monogamous, and thus indicated they are interested in a romantic relationship, I shouldn’t be angry about this if it’s done in a respectful and appropriate way. I wouldn’t want that relationship, thus it’s unwanted, but it’s not inappropriate pursuit at this point (assuming, again, the pursuit was respectful). Or, if someone is gay and an opposite sex person pursued them, that’s not inappropriate if done respectfully until the person doesn’t stop the pursuit when told it’s unwanted (hopefully most of us are respectful when doing this too). Hopefully one day if a same-sex person pursued a straight person, that too could be seen as acceptable, so long as it was respectful and the person pursuing accepted that not everyone is going to be interested in them. Likewise, you can be pursued by someone in a category you are interested in (such as a straight man being pursued by a woman), but still not be interested in that particular person – I’ve seen some people get this wrong and think, “I’m an attractive man, she is straight and interested in men, she should be interested in me.” But it doesn’t work this way – people can and should be free to choose their romantic partners for whatever reason they want – and that’s not wrong. Likewise, it’s not wrong to pursue up until the point where it becomes either disrespectful or the pursuit signals aren’t returned (it shouldn’t take an explicit “QUIT BUGGING ME! NO!” to get you to stop – simply not having reciprocation should be enough).

The first thing that struck my attention was that non-autistics, autistic men, and autistic women have roughly the same experience with unwanted pursuit. I’m not sure why less autistic women have had people not stop when they’ve asked them to stop, but in general, it looks like autistic experience is remarkably similar to non-autsitic experience. But what did stand out was non-binary people seem to deal with this stuff a lot more than the rest of us. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I do find it potentially interesting.

The other part of this is that it’s interesting is that there is a myth that autistic men are not pursued – clearly they are. Now I recognize that not everyone is, nor is the world fair. So some decent guys don’t have anyone express interest in them romantically. But it’s still not appropriate to respond to that “unfairness” with inappropriate behavior, and certainly not with violence or stalking or disregard for people’s boundaries.

All of this was to get to another point – people who do the pursuing. I asked a question about whether the person doing the survey pursued someone they knew wasn’t interested in them. In other words, did they do this behavior which may be inappropriate and unwanted:

  • 65% of non-autistic people said they pursued someone who they knew didn’t want to be pursued (FWIW, most of the non-autistic respondents were women, so this wasn’t a man-only thing).  100% of the non-autistic people indicated they’ve asked someone for a relationship (65% also indicate they’ve been turned down).
  • 15% of autistic women said they did this, while 55% of autistic women indicate they’ve asked someone for a relationship (75% of this 55% indicate they’ve been turned down) – so about 25% of autistic women who have asked someone out have also pursued someone they knew wasn’t interested.
  • 25% of autistic men said they did this, while 50% of autistic men indicate they’ve asked someone for a relationship (80% of this 50% indicate they’ve been turned down) – so about 50% of autistic men who have asked someone out have also pursued someone they knew wasn’t interested.
  • 0% of non-binary autistic people said they did this, but 85% of non-binary autistic people said they’ve asked someone for a relationship (100% of this 85% have indicated they’ve been turned down at some point)

I found the non-autistic number remarkable, and would love to investigate to see if that’s accurate or not. If it is, it seems that any given non-autistic person is more likely than any given autistic person to pursue someone they know isn’t interested. This may be the most remarkable thing I found in this survey. I have theories about this, but I think it would be premature to explain them.

I also point out that plenty of autistic women have asked someone out and been turned down – the majority of women who have asked at least one person out have been turned down at least once. Less women have faced rejection, but of course it’s likely they’ve asked less people out and thus had less chance of being rejected at least once.

All that is to say, basically, that autistic people aren’t all pursuing people with no respect for the other person’s feelings, at least not to a greater degree than non-autistic people, and I don’t want that point to be lost.

But some are. Just as some non-autistic people are.

And I want to talk about that in very brief terms. There’s different types of stalking and pursuit of uninterested people. None of it is particularly pleasant to the object of desire – if you’re not interested in someone, you’re not interested in them, and you wish you didn’t have to keep telling them no, for all sorts of reasons – you want to be respected, but you also probably don’t like rejecting someone (it’s not a fun thing to do to another person, if you have any empathy at all). There’s all sorts of extremes – and due to the way I asked the questions, the extremes could show up all sorts of ways in my survey. They guy that thinks shooting the president will get the girl (that link goes to a really chilling letter) likely would show up the same as the guy that asks a girl out once, waits 5 years, and then asks her one more time. John Hinkley Jr. was violent and willing to do great evil in his pursuit – I suspect Jodie Foster is glad that he was locked up. The guy who asks twice in 5 years (and doesn’t hang around someone’s dorm evesdroping on conversations or similarly creepy stuff) is something different, albeit still IMHO disrespectful at the least (no person should have to turn you down more than once – if you’ve been turned down, whether explicitly or through lack of reciprocation, you need to end hope for a relationship). Both guys are in the wrong, but there are difference between them.

There’s a form of autistic unwanted attraction that is somewhat unique, I believe. Now, I’m moving past anything I have anything even as decent as the soft data I described above – I’m going to talk about personal experience and some theories I have. So take this with a grain of salt.

Just as an autistic person might perseverate on trains, an autistic person can perseverate on a person. Of course we can’t always control our attractions, and it’s very possible to feel an attraction for someone who doesn’t reciprocate. It’s common enough to have thousands of movies, plays, literature, and other art (often which gives this idea that if a man sticks through it, they’ll eventually win the girl – which is dangerous if you actually believe life works this way). Having an attraction isn’t a problem. Not accepting a “no” (even in the form of non-reciprocation) is a problem. You can desire whoever you want, but you must call of both the pursuit of the relationship and the hope that you’ll have it when you hear “no” (or non-reciprocation). Seriously, I don’t care that your cousin-in-law or someone kept pestering someone until they got married. You need to stop. And if you can’t be around the person without wanting to make the relationship something more than it is (such as friendship), you’re being dishonest. It’s not ethical to do that to someone, and it causes real harm.

Not only does it cause harm (which is the reason you shouldn’t do it), but it also puts you at risk. I know a man, likely autistic, who perseverated on a girl who used him mightily. She did a pretty ugly thing back to him (she also may have been autistic, not that it matters, but I want to show that people of any neurology can take advantage of people of any neurology). The man asked and asked her to have a romantic relationship, and she bluntly, repeatedly, told him no. At the same time, she managed to lead him on just enough to where he thought she was getting interested, so he gave gifts, trips, meals, etc, to this woman over the course of more than a year – at thousands of dollars of expense. From where I could see, both people were violating the others’ boundaries, and both people were trying to manipulate the other (she was succeeding a bit more than him, however). I do not believe that she was innocent, but rather I believe she was intentionally manipulating. I’m not in any way saying this is the normal response of a victim of unwanted pursuit. Any sort of obsessive focus on someone, to the point where you stop respecting their “no” can equally be used against you by a clever manipulator.

But again the main reason to listen to a “no” (or non-reciprocation) isn’t to avoid being a victim – it’s to avoid being an ass, a creep, and a stalker. That should be enough reason.

All this said, I think it is important to recognize that this type of perseveration is something that can be somewhat different than other types of stalking behavior. That’s not a justification or acceptance or excuse for creepy behavior – nor is it a lack of recognition that even the guy that persists in trying to turn friendship into something more isn’t hurting the woman. They are hurting the woman. But the response is different. This is not necessarily a guy which will benefit from jail time (although I’m not saying autistic people can’t commit acts that should put them in jail). It could be a guy that needs a strong role model or mentor to make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that persisting on this path will have severe consequences, and is inappropriate, wrong, and harmful to the victim. People do have to learn to deal with perseveration properly, even when it involves a person.

I’ll also note that I’ve seen and heard about autistic women doing the same thing – this is not just an autistic guy thing, although more guys than women may be doing it.

In some cases a person can change. And when a person can change, they should be expected to do so. We should recognize that this is something that may be a somewhat unique problem in the autistic world. It may be that we’re actually less likely to refuse to call off our pursuit than a non-autistic person is, but we need to recognize some autistic traits can cause us to engage in dangerous, destructive behavior that harms a victim. We need to acknowledge that autistic excessive pursuit may look a bit different than non-autistic excessive pursuit.

And one more thing is certain: People need to learn, both autistic and non-autistic, that “no” and non-reciprocation means to STOP PURSUIT! How can we work in our community – autistic people – to present this message in a way that is best likely to be heard and followed?