Are Autistics More Honest? If So, What Then?

The placement of Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Word of Honor immediately prior to this entry is intentional, as it makes for an opportunity to bring up some related observations about autism and honesty.  Here in America, “word as bond” is a value that’s been associated with the American West of old, and with small-town America of not so long ago, or in other words with places and times where we’ve been, but generally not ones where we are. One group that does seem to harbor an evergreen disdain for the superficial social lies told by adults might be teenagers, who’ve yet to be socialized to the norms of insincerity that spawn such cocktail party gems as, “Oh, you two are so witty and fun, you ought to come up and join us at the cottage one of these weekends!”

Or, as it’s come to grate on Rachel’s ears, “We should hang out together sometime.”  After noting this, she goes on to compare the way honesty about one’s stated intentions (following through on a commitment, in a second example, to attend a child’s birthday party) is variously regarded as an option or an obligation by a nearby family, by Rachel and by her daughter, and by a Portuguese immigrant who grew up with very different experiences of personal commitments and honor.  It’s a small data set, but sometimes all that’s needed to shake up an assumption is one solid counterexample.

That comes in the person of Rachel’s Portuguese counselor, who when apprised of the birthday party incident responds in part, as relayed by Rachel, that “in the culture she came from, your word was your bond, and people had a sense of honor.  If you said you were going to do something, you did it.  Your reputation, your honor, and your sense of ethics all demanded it.”  The upshot, as Rachel puts it with the kind of vim and vinegar that makes me want to stand up and cheer, is:

So there.  I have it straight from the mouth of a neurotypical woman that this whole thing is a question of social and ethical norms (or the lack thereof), not a question of neurology, literal thinking, failure to read nonverbals, or any other goddamned thing that other people want to lay on us to excuse their own behavior.

I brought up the Old West and small-town America because they seem to be repositories for our supposed national virtue, places where we “keep” or project our honesty since we are, the argument goes, painfully conscious of not using it so much as we used to.  I wonder then to what extent autistics, with our vaunted forthrightness, lack of guile, and difficulty with lying are also simply receivers for the projected virtues of those who’d just as soon not deal with their own consciences—and who’d just as soon not send their child to a birthday party at the same house to which they may have banished a conscience they view as nothing but an impairment.

To the extent these qualities are genuinely ours, aren’t they still to some extent unchosen, inborn, neurological nonetheless?  And if so, are they really virtues, since we needn’t work as hard or exert so much willpower to maintain them?  I would argue that they are virtues if only because their real-world effects are just as real in any case.  I don’t however know that the rest of the population, filled as they are with Christianist imperatives about the effort involved in avoiding temptation and achieving moral behavior, would necessarily see it that way.  Small-minded as it is to discount autism as offering “half-price virtue,” chances are that’s a calculus people are making unconsciously.

I brought up teenagers because I’ve long been struck by the parallel between the adolescent impatience with the social “fakeness” to which young people are so sensitive and so reactive at a certain age, and the autistic norms which have so little truck with that same fakeness.  For all that I’m one who sees autism everywhere, I wouldn’t claim there’s an equivalence there, but it does seem to me there’s a common cause, and likely some missed opportunities.

Michael Ventura has written compellingly about the way modern societies fail to meet the needs of the initiatory moment in adolescents, and the consequences thereof.  Snaking back into our evolutionary history, there is a developmental moment especially in boys that involves a hunger for extreme experience, for exposure to Mystery, unmediated by social niceties—or inversely, if not a hunger then a sense of being consumed alive by that primordial beast we have so inadequately named “puberty,” and a desperate need for the wherewithal to come to terms with it.  Up until a couple thousand years ago, a blink of an eye in evolutionary time, elders seized that moment and focused that hunger, that openness to raw experience, to effect an initiation into adulthood.

Given that there’s something about autism which faces away from social nicety and toward mystery, along with the possibility that as a species it is out of autism we have come, I suspect “autism,” so-called, has more to do with meeting the initiatory moment than we imagine.  Teenagers who are circling that moment are craving the intensity of experience and unvarnished truth they typically see their elders avoiding at all costs; they know when they’re being spoken down to, and they crave being recognized and spoken to as potential adults, capable of coming to terms with realities beyond the comfort zone of mere social experience. Autistics, especially when we are able to speak from a position of legitimacy, do that as no other humans do.

These are some of the things I think about anyway (though both men offer a decidedly different take than the one I’m presenting), when I consider William Stillman’s essay republished early on at Shift, The World Needs Autism, or Andrew Lehman’s Time Machine:  Cause of Autism #2, which ends,

Enter the autistic. Misinterpreted as a disorder, autism is a reservoir of human features reappearing at just the right time to be integrated into a culture deeply in need of strength and balance. Consider which features of the autistic we need most desperately today.

One last loose end I have here on the theme of honesty and autism is just to note the coincidence over the past decade in the United States between the rise of perhaps the most profoundly, consequentially dishonest series of governments in living memory, the emergence of the neurodiversity movement, and the unified backlash against it that is Autism Speaks.  The Politics category at Shift Journal is one that hasn’t gotten much use, but it’s there for a reason, and in the long term is one to keep an eye on.

For now I’ll just suggest that while that first event may be larger than the other two by orders of magnitude, these three things begun this past decade can be viewed as taking place in the same archetypal arena.  They may be connected in ways we haven’t even begun to suspect.  For further elaboration right now, see the Stillman and Lehman essays above.

on 10/15/10 in featured, Politics | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. It’s interesting that you mention teenagers as being of similar mind regarding social hypocrisy. One of the unexpected gifts of having a teenager has been seeing how much her friends respect me and feel comfortable with me. I’ve long felt that they see me as being an ally precisely because I don’t stand on ceremony or engage in all kinds of social indirectness. I just tell it like it is, and that engenders trust in a teenager like nothing else.

    After my daughter’s last soccer game, in which her team had played better than I’d ever seen them play before, I went over to my daughter and her best friend. The first words out of my mouth were “Day-um! You guys were on FIRE!” Her friend looked at my daughter and said “I LOVE your mom!!” I guess most parents don’t open up a conversation that way. :-)

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Yep. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Thanks, Rachel.

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