I had a very specific experience the other night that I would like to share with y’all. Normally, it would not occur to me to talk about myself in this way, but I’m trying to learn and grow through this pandemic so I’m trying it out. Through this post, I would like to explain some common traits of many autistic people I’ve met that I also relate to very much and end with my personal story. I hope it will resonate with and educate some neurotypicals as well. Here goes!
I read an excellent article published last week on the Neuroclastic site about how autistic people can tend to act based on a set of internal ethics, regardless of whether or how their actions would be seen by others in a public way. For background, you can read the article here. As an example, given the choice to contribute to a good cause, at a financial cost to oneself, both autistic and neurotypical people would give in the same way, regardless of whether their donation would be seen by others or not. However, in another scenario, there was a choice to contribute to a “bad” cause and receive a personal financial gain, autistic people generally would choose not to. Neurotypicals, on the other hand, would do so if their participation in the scenario was a private matter, out of view of others, but not if it would be made public that they had done so. Astounding! This can make autistic people inherently uncorruptible, could it not?
This has profound implications in how autistic people and neurotypicals interact. Without information indicating otherwise, people generally assume others are like them, motivated by the same things and would choose to act in the same way they would, given a specific set of circumstances. I have been in situations at my job where my motives were clearly being questioned over an action I took and I had NO IDEA why. On the other hand, I don’t relate at all to how public “shame,” for lack of a better word, plays such a role in most other people’s decision-making. The truth is they probably don’t consider that consciously either. This is the essence of “virtue-signaling,” where the public perception of one’s actions are taken into account or even prioritized as part of initial decision-making, which is an epithet often used by conservatives against liberals in political arguments, but I digress.
So now that we know this, here’s another implication… many autistic people will VERY RARELY toot their own horns, so to speak. What is the point of self-promotion or working on your “personal brand?” All that is marketing, and because autistic folks’ decision-making processes aren’t affected by whether or not others see what they are doing, why would we take the time to talk about what we’re doing? It ends up feeling like looking for a justification for our decisions/actions, or unnecessary attention-seeking, which we are typically not. At least not solely for self- promotion’s sake.
Now with all that fresh in your mind, I’m going to talk about what I DID the other night. Not because I want to promote myself, but because it’s a good story, I’m proud of myself for overcoming some personal hurdles and because I want to inspire others. I DO NOT WANT readers to congratulate me or anything like that. If that is your inclination, do it for you, but not because you think I want to hear it or need the public affirmation, because honestly, it just makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious.
I have a neighbor who is a single mother of 5. We have been friendly for a couple years now, although we don’t socialize and we text occasionally via Nextdoor. If you don’t know, Nextdoor is a neighborhood-/ location-based social network where people often ask for and receive assistance from local neighbors. She has gone through a lot over the last few years, kicking out an abusive partner and raising all 5 girls on her own. She has been out of work for a while and, at some points in time, has needed food and financial assistance above and beyond what she was able to get from the state programs that were available. She is also a Black woman.
My neighborhood has undergone a ton of gentrification since I’ve lived here for going on 15 years. Honestly, I was probably one of the initial gentrifiers, sadly. Now it is much more common to see young families with 1.5 small children and single professional women in their 20s-early 30s as first-time homeowners. Rents have gone up with the home values and most of the racial diversity has been flushed out of the area. This actually saddens me quite a bit. The diversity is part of what drew me to the area in the first place.
Anyway, we have helped this woman on multiple occasions, buying groceries for her family, giving her money for bills, etc. Sometimes she has reached out to the broader community on Nextdoor and, without any great bit of information, I have seen many racist responses come her way. The replies generally come from white men (and some women) and accuse her of being a mooch, not going out and getting a job and using Nextdoor to try to scam people. The ensuing comment conversation devolves more often than not into self-righteous proclamations of trying to protect the integrity of the community, yadda yadda.
This woman reached out to me privately a week or so ago to say that she got a job at UPS and needed some good boots for the job. If she didn’t have them on day one, she would be sent home. I reached out to a few friends who I know wear her size and struck out. So I asked her if she wanted me to ask around on Nextdoor as well, which she was cool with. So I put up a request to “raid someone’s closet” for a pair of gently used boots someone would be willing to part with, offering no money, but karma points in return. I got 3 “likes” and one legit reply around 9:30 the other night.
Within a half mile of my home, the woman who replied dug through her closet and found the like-new Carolina boots, in the right size, and invited me to come and get them off her porch anytime. I jumped right up! She also told me the story of the boots, that she was given when she was doing hurricane relief work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. She had just arrived and found the sole of her boots had separated, leaving her out of commission. One of the other relief workers who was leaving the island passed the Carolinas on to her and refused any payment. She told me that paying it forward was the only right thing to do with these boots now.
So at 10pm, I drove to the generous stranger’s house, picked up the boots, and dropped them off on the porch of my neighbor. She happened to just be walking back from the grocery store as I was getting back to the car and she just looked lighter, happier, relieved. She starts work at the new job this week and now she can go in knowing that she won’t be turned away.
None of the things I did took me much time/energy. I can write a Nextdoor ad in my sleep and driving from one place to another was literally a 5 minute trip. Anyone could have done what I did. The fact that I did it won’t make a difference in the long term or to many people. I don’t think I’m changing the world. But I made a small difference in one person’s life and her ability to support her family, by using my open heart to create an opportunity for someone else to give. To make better use of a thing, a pair of boots, that was otherwise collecting dust.
I feel whole, like I have firmly aligned my actions with my beliefs and my identity as a builder, rather than a witting or unwitting agent of destruction. This is why I’m proud. And I need no validation.
Nothing but love to all.