December 15, 2014

Self-knowledge and invisible identities

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 5:10 pm by chavisory

This post actually started on Tumblr in a discussion of The Hunger Games and the various interpretations and identities that people project onto Katniss, and carried over into a question of how people of the demisexual/gray-ace spectrum can accurately perceive other people’s levels of sexual attraction and where they as individuals fall on that scale, which I wanted to expand on a little bit.

Obviously, we can’t ever know fully and objectively what is in another person’s head or internal experiences. So how can demi or gray-ace people know that we’re different, and that we aren’t just arbitrarily deciding that we’re different?

Conveniently, there is already a whole body of writing and experience from another population of people who have had the experience of knowing that they were different somehow, in frequently invisible, subjective ways, often in the complete absence of having been explicitly told so or possessing any language to describe how or why—indeed, often even in the face of other people relentlessly insisting on the contrary—and turning out to be right–

Most autistic people who were diagnosed later…say, after age 18…talk about having always or almost always known that they were different, whether or not they could effectively describe how they were different or how they knew.

A while back now on Tumblr, a parent who was considering the best way and time to talk to her kid about his diagnosis, asked the autism tag approximately when people knew somehow that we were different from our peers.  Not necessarily when we knew our diagnosis, but when we felt or knew we were different. Self-reports ranged from ages 3-10.

This is actually one of the earliest realizations about myself in relation to people around me of which I even have explicit memory (I was about 3).

But how can we really know that other people don’t (for the most part) share our sensory reactions, our cognitive differences, our difficulty with speech and language?

Well, we have pattern recognition. Most people don’t walk around acting or speaking as if they share those experiences on a pretty consistent, everyday basis.  Our reactions make sense to our experience of the world. Other people punish and shame and decide horrible and untrue things about us on the basis of those reactions. Disabled and neurodivergent advocates have amassed decades’ worth of writing, media, and activism at this point in an attempt to convince parents and professionals that we aren’t just broken, we’re operating in a hostile environment, and most of them still don’t believe us.

There is a burden of evidence, at some point, that becomes overwhelming, that other people are not experiencing the world like you do. Other people aren’t just hostile to the way we react to the world, they’re often baffled.

Unless I’m supposed to believe that the non-autistic 98% of the population has just happened to build a culture, educational system, and set of social and employment expectations that is just as torturous and awkward for them, but they’re all just pretending that it’s more or less tolerable and manageable?  And they overwhelmingly do this without ever being instructed to?  Or that somewhere between 1-2% of us simply missed out on this instruction?  And that most other people really do have the same level of difficulty and discomfort, but we’re the only ones not pretending otherwise, at devastating cost to ourselves?

(And yes, there are people who do go a very long time pretending that things aren’t that difficult for them.  The stress of which causes midlife burnouts.  If not young adult burnouts.  Which again, we don’t see masses of non-autistic people having.)

Likewise, there is a point at which the overwhelming amount of information available to me about how most people interact and live their lives, does not suggest that demisexual or ace spectrum people aren’t really having experiences fairly different from other people’s.

The alternative explanation I’m left with is that both autistic people, and demisexual/gray-ace people, are just the only ones being honest about our experiences, and everyone else is lying all the time, in such a way as to make the world really painful and difficult for themselves, and everyone knows that that’s true except us.

Which still would not explain the downright confusion and bafflement that I’ve gotten, not just in relationships but in health and sex-ed classes, from teachers, when the whole set of expectations from other people regarding sexual relationships does not match up to mine, in a “looking in a mirror and seeing nothing” kind of way.  I could imagine an entire set of societal and relationship expectations being built on a lie, and authority figures or romantic partners expressing displeasure when I defy expectations to uphold the lie, but not just confusion.

Are the vast majority of people just pretending to be deeply confused about how the interplay of emotion, physical comfort, and sexual attraction works for them?

Or when people go “Ha ha, you’re not different, you’re just like everyone else.  Everyone feels like [total distortion of what I even just described].”

You know how obnoxious it is when non-autistic parents go “We’re all a little autistic!  Everyone is on the spectrum!” Because no, they’re not.  I did not grow up feeling inhuman because 98% of the population is really just like me.

Likewise, I have a hard time buying that 98% or more of the human population is really just like me with regards to comfort and emotional needs in relation to sexuality, but are pretending not to be to the extent that I can’t even take part because it just doesn’t even make sense to my most basic physical experience.  And that really I’ve spent this long feeling this incompletely human and left out and lonely because I just didn’t realize that everyone else is lying really, really well about their most basic experiences of physicality and attraction?

You see how that strains credibility?

(I don’t actually think that’s true; I don’t think that badly of either non-autistic or non-demisexual people.)

Would you tell a gay person “No, you’re not really different, that’s really how everyone is.  How do you know that it isn’t?”

Demisexuality is a difference not necessarily in who you’re attracted to along the gender spectrum, but in how attraction works. In some way, shape or form, either a strong emotional bond has to precede sexual attraction, or emotional attraction is prerequisite to sexual attraction.

We walk around every single day of our lives, for decades on end, seeing and hearing messages that attraction works, or at least is supposed to, in a way that it actually doesn’t work for us.  You notice after a while.  You notice that you don’t feel and react in the ways that other people act like you’re supposed to.

Or, if everybody else is really lying in countless, tiny, casual, everyday ways about what attraction is like for them, and not only lying, but living out their lives as if something that isn’t true, is true…to the detriment of their own happiness, comfort, and quality of relationships, and that’s the only reason why people like me think we’re different….maybe they should stop.

Or else stop telling me that I can’t accurate perceive that what I’m experiencing is qualitatively different from what I’m being pretty consistently told that other people do.

Maybe then we’d also have an honest, accurate view of the true scope of human sexual and emotional diversity and no one would have to feel inhuman or alone or wind up thinking that they’re just not capable of having relationships.  But then what do I know?

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3 Comments »

  1. Carolyn Cook said,

    I really love your writing and your thought process. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. bean_shadow said,

    I can’t really remember a time when I knew I was different because to ask me would be to ask how I knew I, as female, knew I was different than a male. I’ve always known. But we never knew it was Asperger’s. We just figured any oddities I displayed were due to the psychological ramifications of growing up in and out of hospitals and having eight major surgeries by the time I was five.

    I was always so wrapped up in my own little world that things never really became extremely difficult for me until I started to get out in the work place (besides 8th grade and high school when I was uprooted from the people I grew up with to a whole new set of people half a country length away). I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for me to keep a job; I was either being laid off or quit too quickly because of the social pressures and conformity. Not that it became any easier when I was diagnosed, about ten years ago or so ago but it did make me feel better in that I knew I was not necessarily a failure. My mom kept telling me to tell my superiors that I had Asperger’s but I never did because I was afraid that that difference would cause them to lay me off. Oh, they would never tell me that’s WHY they did but companies have ways to fire you and create legal reasons for doing so. Like how I’m physically disabled now: people tell me that a company can’t refuse to hire me because my disabilities. No, but they can tell me, “We’ll keep your form on file and get back to you” and then never call me, deciding on that the moment they saw me limp in and hand my form in.

    Hmm…I may flesh this out and post this on Tumblr as well, lol.

  3. Hi, thanks for liking my post on language and thought. I really enjoyed this post and found it supportive of my own experience and questioning about the world. thanks for sharing


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