When to conform and when to be yourself

Last night, I was at the monthly support group meeting for people with Asperger’s that I attend, both as a fellow Aspie who needs support and as the adult group’s leader. It was the most emotionally tiring meeting I’ve attended in a while. Without going too much into specifics, the topic of conformity came up. It would make a great topic for a meeting, but we were just catching up at that particular one. Maybe next month.

At the meetings, we go around to each person and have them weigh in on whatever the topic is. At this past meeting, I hadn’t really prepared anything, so we talked about whatever was new in our lives since the previous month. I find it’s a good go-to topic, and it allows people to brag about anything cool that they’re doing. (I often have something, not to brag or anything.) This format allows everyone who has something to contribute to have their time to be listened to as long as they’re not interrupted. And that’s where we often run into problems.

As aspies, we often find ourselves bursting to say whatever pops into our heads. This can be a problem in social situations, because often what pops into our heads is only loosely related to the topic at hand. Sometimes it’s even wildly inappropriate and/or rude. I struggled with this for a long time until I developed a mental filter that lets only “approved” messages through to the speech part of my brain, but some people think it shouldn’t be necessary to conform in this way. They just want to be who they are and do what they want.

Of course you should be who you are, but that doesn’t mean that you should be able to disregard the rights and feelings of others. What if they wanted to do the same thing to you? If a group of people is talking about something, comments should pertain to the topic. If you don’t find the topic interesting, that doesn’t mean you can interrupt with irrelevant comments in order to steer the conversation toward your areas of interest. Conversation topics have a natural lifespan, and if you wait it out, new topics will come about in time. If you can’t wait, then go find other people to talk to.

There is a time and a place to joke around and be hilarious. When someone is telling the group about a recent traumatic experience, it is both inappropriate and rude to make light of it by telling a joke.

There is a difference between interrupting and active listening. You can show someone that you are listening to them and you understand what they’re saying by cutting in with things like “that must have been difficult” or “you’re handling it very well” or a simple “yeah.” Active listening generally doesn’t disrupt the flow of the speaker’s story, and it shows that you care about what he or she has to say. Interrupting says that you care more about what you have to say than what the other person does. If you don’t understand what’s being said, ask for clarification. Don’t ask where he got his shirt or why she has three arms.

The time to conform is when you are in the company of other people. The degree of conformity depends on the size of the group, how well you know them, how well they know you, and the occasion. Support group meetings are for showing and receiving support, so unfortunately, the degree to which you should conform to standards of etiquette is pretty high, but it’s a very valuable skill. You will get a chance to share your thoughts, but give that same courtesy to everyone else as well, and you’ll find it easy to get along with other people before too long.

Reflections on racism & privilege as a cis het white male Aspie

In the most recent decades of my life, I’ve had two Hispanic girlfriends (one Mexican-American and slightly older than me, the other Ecuadoran-American and younger) and two white girlfriends, one older one younger, the younger of whom I got and stayed married to for a full calendar year.  When I compare the experiences of the relationships, one thing does stand out for me, and that is being somewhat annoyed by the latent, casual racism of my white girlfriends and the complete absence of such attitudes from either Hispanic girlfriend.  One of my Hispanic girlfriends was actually dating an African man at the time we began flirting.  I tried to break things off, but as love triangles go, it is usually the case that a dissatisfied woman is at the apex of such structures. She didn’t want to break up with her boyfriend but in many respects she found him shallow and boring, while I was intelligent and interesting.  He gratified her physical needs, while I stimulated her intellect.  I couldn’t handle this and after many failed attempts (she would entice me just enough on a physical level to reel me back in, but not enough to feel like she was “actually” cheating on her boyfriend, i.e. kiss & make out but no sex, in her mind), I did manage to break things off for good; She got careless, he knocked her up and left her, and after much soul-searching and crying and deliberation, she terminated her pregnancy, and I was there to hold her afterwards, as she felt like her life was falling to pieces.  But the whole experience left her bitter, and our rebound relationship didn’t last…though when I was preparing to leave Houston for North Texas to pursue my Master of Library Science, she did, out of the blue, invite me to her apartment, took the lead and literally led me by the hand into her bedroom and belatedly consumated our long dormant relationship.  We both knew this was a one-shot, and neither of us really cared, we just wanted it to happen at long last, and I will treasure that one night with her forever.

With the Mexican-American girlfriend, she was 29 going on 30, still living at home with her mom, as many traditional Mexican and Mexican-American women do.  This relationship came well before the other one and I was much more timid and less experience.  I had found the courage to kiss her, but lacked the resolve to push things to more intense levels, and lacked the imagination of how to work around the she-lives-at-home-with-her-mom problem.  Something that with age and guile I realize is not insurmountable, but just something I couldn’t fathom in my mid 20s.  Long story short, I for her was a fun, summertime love that wasn’t intended to last longer than that.  I was hurt and bitter when it ended, but I do understand why she broke things off.  Plus, especially when she turned 30, she recognized my emotional immaturity.  I spoke of my ambitions to maybe someday get a PhD (the idea of getting an Master of Library Science was something I hadn’t yet entertained in my head yet), which she pooh-poohed firmly.  She was definitely looking for a stable husband and I was not measuring up.  I do remember some insights about race I garnered from this relationship.  I remember when she met my parents, she went out of her way to dress extremely well, wearing a really nice dress that was almost formal.  She only felt able to dress more casually around me, or around other Mexicans.  She also politely declined my suggestion to watch 4th of July Fireworks; Yes, she was an American citizen but the holiday held no interest for her.  I guess it surprised me, though when I think about it, the only other Mexican-Americans I really knew in High School were all in the NJROTC program in High School and so naturally they were very patriotic, but that these students were not typical of the average Mexican-American person.  I feel foolish in hindsight for even suggesting it to her, but I guess I was just naively trying to think of something fun we could do together.  I did go out to a few dances with my Mexican girlfriend where I was like the only white person there, or maybe there were like 2 or 3 other white people in a space full of Hispanic people of color.  It felt–different, exotic even, but I didn’t feel scared or intimidated.

More recently, I’ve had to confront some of the lingering racism of my ostensibly moderately liberal parents.  My mom in particular has basically said that she’d be okay with my dating Hispanic or Asian girls, but has more or less begged me never to date a black girl.  It hasn’t ever really come up as an opportunity in the first place, though it did come up once in my insurance job where one young black woman professional close to my age was always very nice and even downright flirty with me my first few years with the company.  I was always polite back, but pretended to be completely clueless about her flirtations.  I sometimes kick myself today because in truth, I actually did find her rather attractive myself.  I regret passing up on that relationship opportunity very much.  Maybe it would’ve failed to last very long, but the experience alone would’ve been such an education for me, but I lacked the courage to defy my (yeah, kinda racist) mother’s wishes.  In the years following, I have on occasion seen black women I found extremely attractive, but none that have shown a reciprocal interest in me the way this young professional black businesswoman did back in the day.

I’ve also sometimes, among older white male Aspies, who fall into the Aspie trap of being self-focused and assuming most Aspies are like themselves, seen a curious and unsettling blending of white supremacist views blended with a kind of knee-jerk NT-bashing Aspie Superiority Complex.  These are usually men with a technology and computing and math background, highly competent engineers and the like.  They tend to assume (wrongly) that most Aspies are like themselves (white male geeks) and sometimes embarrassingly rail against, say, affirmative action in I.T. fields, because they’re “obviously” more qualified than any neurotypical minority candidate would be, blah blah blah.

This is embarrassing to listen to because it’s so completely wrongheaded.  Of course Autism Spectrum Disorders affect ALL human beings, not just white people.  It’s more readily diagnosed in white men because of socio-economic factors more than anything else.  I’ve definitely met and interacted with black Aspies of both majority genders, and Hispanic Aspies as well, and we’ve had Asian Aspies sit in on our group meetings before, too.

As Aspies, generally speaking, have a strong inner sense of justice, I can also report that I’ve just never “gotten” racism or racist attitudes.  I’ve never understood people’s sometimes immediate and irrational fear or revulsion of other people of other racial backgrounds.  I never encountered genuine anti-Semitism until college, and when I did I was dumbfounded, thinking to myself “wait, that’s really a thing!?  I mean, how can there be seriously antisemitic people after 1945, after the Nuremberg Trials?”; and of course I took a stand against the expression of it where encountered it and denounced it.  All of which is not to say I’ve been immune from unconscious racial biases…these inform the social world I inhabit whether I realize it or not.  I’ve had to more than once check myself and realize that I was holding on to unspoken racist assumptions that I needed to let go of, etc.  It’s an ongoing process I must continue to work at and avoid complacency in.

I did once live in a less than completely safe neighborhood in a section of Houston known as Sharpstown.  I lived in an apartment complex selected because it was within feasible walking distance of the office park where I worked, and it granted quick and easy access to Inside Loop locations after a short drive on Hwy 59.  I was definitely one of the few white people living in my complex, which was mid-range for the area.  In one of the shadier complexes the next block or so down, an HPD officer got shot.  I lived alone and owned no guns.  Probably not the smartest thing, but I was naive and young back then.  I took reasonable precautions, didn’t go out on foot after dark, etc.  I also worked the night shift quite a lot, which had risks but also had benefits.  I remember an encounter with an black man outside Taco Cabana once…he started talking to me and maybe was asking me to spot him a few dollars or whatever but I pointedly ignored him and made my way to my car and got inside and locked the door.  I remember the pained expression on the man’s face and his holding his arms extended in a perplexed expression as if to say “Man, what the f*ck?”  Surely not my finest hour.

During those years in Houston I was studying intensive Spanish in adult education classes (and oh god did I have the hots for my cougar of a Peruvian professor earning her PhD from UH at the time, me-ow!)…I think because I’m Aspie and kind of innocent and childlike at times, I’d walk right into spaces that most middle class white folks would be terrified to enter, like hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants in and around Houston, where you can find some of the tastiest, genuinely Mexican dishes as opposed to more commercial Tex-Mex fare.  I can remember Mexican waitresses approaching me reluctantly with a look of fear and trepidation on their faces, and starting to use their best (if sometimes broken) English.  I would respond in my (adequate) Spanish and this look of relief would wash over their faces and they’d switch over to using Spanish.  I can remember other white people telling me it was crazy for me to do this, didn’t I worry I’d get stabbed or something?  No, I didn’t because I was just stopping by for breakfast, not hanging out in some seedy Cantina drunk off too many Cervezas and chasing some Hispanic beauty and drawing the ire of a jealous hombre full of machismo.

I took a 2 week trip to Antigua, Guatemala where I took intensive Spanish courses during the day and hung out with fellow (foreign) students at night.  I enjoyed my conversations with my instructor, a Guatemalan woman in her 30s.  My Spanish has subsequently grown a little rusty from lack of use, but I do sometimes like to turn on Spanish language television and radio in Houston and give a listen, to try and refresh my memory a little.

My main reservations about dating Hispanic women going forward is that many unfortunately tend to be rather religious and superstitious.  One of my white girlfriends post-divorce was raised Catholic but mostly agnostic or at most vaguely spiritual, disliking organized religion as much as me.  She was a fellow liberal Democrat politically.  She was damn near perfect for me as a companion and sexual partner, but she did hold to some lingering, latent racist views that I found irksome.  I never called her out on them, but eventually probably would’ve had to had the relationship lasted.  The main reason I walked away from that relationship was to advance my Library career and take a job in Denton that seemed very promising at the time.  Part of me wonders if we would’ve eventually gotten married had I shifted gears and stayed with AIG, Inc. and stayed with her indefinitely.  It’s distinctly possible.  My ex-wife, by comparison, not only held to some latent racist views (though not as bad as her nearly-a-Klansman father) but also held to some homophobia as well stemming from her religious indoctrination.  Both these character flaws grated on me constantly as an irritant I increasingly grew tired of.

Fast forward to present day, I am horrified by the Eric Garner no-bill from that Staten Island Grand Jury.  Ditto the Grand Jury in the Mike Brown/Darren Wilson case in Ferguson, Missouri.  I remain disturbed by the Zimmerman acquittal in the killing of Travyon Martin.  Over the Thanksgiving holiday I had to sit and passively listen to my extended family spout their casually racist views about the whole Ferguson situation, including, most dishearteningly, my own parents.  I was literally the only one in disagreement with their consensus view(s) and for the sake of a peaceful holiday I shamefully kept silent but boiling with inner anger and disgust on the inside.

I still remember the distress I felt over the acquittals of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King viciously, and the ensuing LA Riots.  And as awful as all of that was, from the perspective of 2014, one can say at least Mr. King crawled away still alive, unlike Eric Garner.  And that depresses the ever living f*ck out of me to contemplate.  I remember the racial divisions the country felt in the wake of the OJ Simpson verdict; I was disappointed by the verdict, but listening to Christopher Darden’s summation, it was clear the state’s case was just too weak to pass muster with the jury.  Moreover, the limited reading and research I’ve done since those years, it seems pretty clear LAPD engaged in evidence tampering, which they positively did NOT need to win that case; it was stupid, gratuitous and wrong.  They got exposed doing so by the OJ Defense team and the LA County prosecutor’s office deserved thus to lose the case because of this police misconduct and did.

I remember how helpless and clueless George H.W. Bush seemed in responding to the 1991 LA Riots.  He seemed genuinely out of his depth in trying to relate to the pain & anguish felt by the Black community.  I remember at the time, even before I switched party affiliation formally, that we as a county needed to put the Democrats back in charge because they would be more able to heal this nation’s racial divide than the GOP could.  I realize how naive that sounds now in the Obama Era, but I was sincere and gladly voted straight Democrat in 1992, picking up my absentee ballot from the unfriendly, gruff U.S. Consulate staff in Stuttgart, Germany.

I’ve studied the Civil Rights movement, especially the 1950s-1970s, and yes, we as a nation definitely made strides forward, things did get measurably better.  But it’s daunting to realize just how much further we have to go, how much latent racism still lingers and festers in the land, how pervasive the institutional racism is, etc.  I do what I can to try and be a good white ally and be willing always to listen and learn.  The Obama presidency has perversely given many overt racists cover to emerge out into the open, veiling their racism as mere political opposition to Democratic policies.  It fools virtually no one, but is no less horrifying to see on display in the present and recent past.  The Party of Lincoln has fully transformed into the Party of Jefferson Davis, and we are reaping the bitter strange fruit of this transformation.

Please forgive the largely self-focused and seemingly self-indulgent nature of this blog post.  I felt an itch to write something–anything–about the current struggles against racism now facing the Black community in particular and the country as a (fractured) whole.  I chose to lead in with my personal experiences surrounding race as a cis het white male Aspie in ways that I hope at least were modestly informative and interesting.  I continue to listen to Black independent media such as This Week in Blackness to stay abreast of developments and to consciously check my own white male privilege on a recurring basis.  Just as we Aspies are a neurological minority struggling against an at times adversarial NT majority, we need to be cognizant of our intersection with other areas of social struggle and side with other oppressed minorities in solidarity wherever possible.

I think anti-racism comes fairly naturally to us, and we need to find the courage to push back against racist views & attitudes from (unfortunately) other Aspies and from NTs as well.  The most I managed during my family visit was to push back against some of the anti-Obama rhetoric ever so gently.

The one bright point of the recent family gathering was the revelation that my cousin’s daughter is almost certainly an Aspie herself.  That made it almost worth sitting through their spewing constant nonsense about #Ferguson.  Right now only my work friends are remotely sympathetic to my “liberal” views on these matters.  I’m reluctant to post much on Facebook right now because my recent postings are being actively paid attention to by these same problematic family members.  But I did at least respond to the Eric Garner case and post a Langston Hughes poem this morning.  The one bit of defiance I could muster.

My cousin is an Aspie and I couldn’t be happier

I knew in my gut M. was an Aspie the very first time we met. She’s my first cousin’s daughter, successful result of IVF treatment albeit born premature with some nerve damage. She has impaired use of one arm (she can use it, but it’s so hard for her she tries to avoid it), and walks with a slight limp. But she’s a very bright girl who reads above her grade level and has above average intelligence. She loves playing word-games and solving jigsaw puzzles and is skilled at both.

When we first met, she literally ignored all the other adults in the room and strode up to me and embraced me apropos of nothing. I felt a spark of recognition in her eyes, that somehow this adult (me) was not like the others. This one–I imagined her preverbal self-talk–this one is like me somehow.

It caught me off guard but I accepted her embrace warmly, and everyone else praised her for being sweet.

The next year she was talking and busy exploring with a new baby sister (who is definitely NT) in tow and no time for me. I became less certain of her ASD status.

But this year, she’s even more verbal, with an emerging definite personality, and all the anecdotes fit a very familiar Aspergian pattern. There are very telltale signs and mannerisms that to me fairly well scream “Aspie!” to me.
I didn’t tell M.’s parents but rather her grandmother, who is also my youngest Aunt. My Aunt confided she had also suspected that M. might be “mildly Autistic”, and I said as an Aspie (someone mildly autistic), I definitely got that vibe from M. and hoped that some Educational specialist from her home school district would pick up on it and insist (gently) that M. be tested for it in the next few years.

I look forward to watching my cousin grow up Aspie female and I hope she will see me as a resource and an autistic ally in the years ahead. I hope she grows up in a world of greater autistic acceptance and one where neurodiversity is celebrated, not feared. I got the impression from my Aunt that M.’s parents may be a bit in denial about M.’s likely ASD neurology. I get the impression my Aunt already shared her impression but that they rejected it, being more focused on her physical disability and discounting or failing to appreciate her emerging ASD personality.

I have hope they’ll come around as the evidence mounts and can’t be ignored or written off any longer. On the other hand, I feel bad that she will have to struggle so much harder to win and keep friends, etc. I hope she becomes a mathematical savant genius and is respected for her keen intellect and excused her inevitable eccentricities.

I am happy for my cousin and happy to no longer be alone as the sole autistic person in this somewhat large extended family.