A Plea for Tough Love
This is a guest post from writer and neurodiversity champion Claudia Casser. Claudia retired early from antitrust law to fledge her nerdy children on a working horse farm and write speculative fiction. From people to horses to parrots, none of the farm’s denizens could ever be classified as neurotypical.
We, the literal-minded neurodiverse, don’t perceive the world the way you do. We interpret your words literally, and we trust you absolutely.
You know this, but you still teach us about the world as if we were neurotypical children; except you shield us from unpleasant realities even more vigorously than you shield them. You do not think through what this means when we step outside the house.
Your shielding sets us up for a fall every day. Every day outside your cocoon, we relive the same emotions that neurotypical children feel when they realize Santa is not real. Even in our fifties.
Because we literal-minded neurodiverse are also over-sensitive, these emotions taint our lives. Because we trusted you absolutely (we don’t understand that there are degrees of trust), we feel betrayed. Because we don’t understand that something exists between truth and lies, we feel like you made a fool of us. And we suffer the same bad feelings even when we know, intellectually, that there was no bad motive behind your deceptions.
By the time I was in fourth grade, I had already learned that my mother could make mistakes of fact. I corrected her mistakes daily. My physician father, however, who probably was on the spectrum himself, never told me anything he wasn’t sure was accurate.
One day, I told my much admired fourth grade teacher that I was “ambivalent” regarding the desirability of participating in a project. Unfortunately, I pronounced it am bi VAL ent, as did my chemistry-oriented father. My teacher corrected me. I corrected her, telling her my father said it was pronounced with the emphasis on the third syllable because the Latin morphemes were (i) ambi and (ii) valence, and my father never lied to me. My teacher demurred. I was outraged she dared imply my father had lied. This argument escalated into a fit that lasted until my mother picked me up early from school.
When my father got home from the office, he consulted a dictionary, recanted, and apologized to me.
Of course this is funny now, but back then it was devastating. It shook my world.
By the time I entered the “grown up” world of middle school, however, my inappropriate feelings of outrage and betrayal became an almost daily trial. Why?
Because parents and teachers and religious figures and books taught me moral and legal rules nobody followed. Well, rules people followed some of the time but not all the time, which, to me, was even worse.
For example, out of naiveté, laziness, or the desires to over-protect, control, or exploit, those in power over children teach:
We are a nation of law, not men.
Rules and promises must be kept.
Good people follow the rules and keep their promises.
People who violate rules or promises will be punished.
Religions endorse these myths, except some admit that sometimes rule-breakers aren’t punished until an afterlife. Children’s books nearly universally reinforce the myths.
It is bad enough to drench neurotypical children in these lies, raising false expectations that society actually operates according to them. Neurotypical children at least instinctively know to add qualifiers like “most of the time,” or “unless it conflicts with a more important rule,” or “unless you can get away with it,” or “unless it is too much trouble to you,” or “unless you are powerful or have powerful allies.”
The literal-minded neurodiverse do NOT instinctively add these qualifiers.
What is worse, the literal-minded neurodiverse do NOT generalize the experience of discovering that “good people” don’t always follow Rule A, to the understanding that “good people” probably don’t always follow some or all of the rest of the rules. They do not even imagine that some rules, like speed limits, “are honored in the breach.”
(We cannot conceive that neurotypical “good people” don’t even feel remorse or cognitive dissonance from most of their rule-breaking. Even when the literal-minded neurodiverse realize that exceeding rather than conforming to the speed limit is the “norm” (in both senses of the word), we still feel cognitive dissonance when speeding. At the ripe old age of 63, I still hear “bad girl” in the back of my mind as I race down the highway.)
So what can parents do differently to prepare their literal-minded neurodiverse children for the real world? Prepare us to protect us.
Clearly explain to us the way the world actually works, as well as how people pretend it works. While you are explaining to us that insecure people and jealous people and unhappy people may take out their pain on us, also explain that the only rules without numerous exceptions are mathematical rules (because they are merely consensual definitions and their logical corollaries). Tell us that even important rules like “thou shall not kill” can be swallowed in their exceptions.
Forewarned is forearmed, or at least allows us to begin constructing coping and defense mechanisms. My favorite was to envision each poisoned dart from a neurotypical peer as a grain of sand in an oyster, and, like the oyster, to cushion the poison irritant in layers of pearl, making something beautiful out of it.
In particular, I suggest you do the following, starting from the earliest possible age of your child:
- Emphasize that everyone, even Mommy and Daddy and Teacher and the President, makes mistakes.
- Emphasize that I can trust no one absolutely, not even Mommy or Daddy, always to know the right thing, or to do the right thing. Everyone has weaknesses. Most people’s weaknesses are different from mine.
- Explain that most people act in their own self-interest, or in the interest of their loved ones, and are not even interested in rules themselves except to avoid punishments.
- Clarify that if someone has no intent to deceive, then their false statement is not a lie, it is a mistake.
- Clarify that if someone has no intention to break a rule, it is a mistake.
- Clarify that different groups have different rules. Give examples of how your family rules differ from those of some or most other families. (FREX, when one member of my family suspected a second member was joking, misdirecting, or affirmatively misrepresenting, one could always find out by asking, “Truthfully?” This was a magic question. In response, you could neither lie nor prevaricate; you had to either tell the truth or stand mute. It never occurred to me that people outside my family treated the question “Truthfully?” as no more sacred than any other challenge to their statement. So I absolutely believed whatever absurdity my older sister’s boyfriends maintained after I uttered the magic question. When I finally realized my mistake, I was crushed and humiliated.)
- Clarify that most people believe it is worse to break some rules than other rules, and people rarely get punished for breaking the rules most people believe are less important. And clarify that how people rate a rule on the scale of importance changes every day. Or, at least, not infrequently.
- Explain that substantive justice is impossible to achieve in today’s world or the foreseeable future: every human being is stuck accepting some things that are “unfair.” Give examples. Explain that reasonable people may disagree about what is “fair.”
(For example, in my home, my parents were fanatic about fairness between me and my older sister, down to ensuring that, in grade school, we each got half a Hershey bar (5 little squares) for our Saturday night treat. However, my sister thought it was substantively unfair that she, four years older and hungrier than me, got only the same number of squares as me. Her argument persuaded me, so each Saturday, without telling our parents, I gave her one of my squares. Do you think the original fifty-fifty division of the Hershey bar was fair, or the revised sixty-forty division?)
- Explain that emotions often cause otherwise good people to intentionally break rules. Explain nepotism, other kinds of favoritism, and discrimination, as well as the fact that people rarely get punished for it.
- Explain idiosyncrasy credits (a big reason why it looks like the rules my neurotypical peers apply to me are different from the rules they apply to themselves). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiosyncrasy_credit
In short, I recommend proactively educating your literal-minded neurodiverse child about the unpunished rule-breaking and unfairness they will encounter outside your home. In the long run, it creates much less stress for us than your efforts to protect us from unpleasant truths. Each new “violation” of the rules and personal “betrayal” we perceive outside your protection may still pain us. But forewarned, these “outrages” won’t confound us.