The Perils of Passing

“Third Rock from the Sun” television show:
One of the human characters, Mary, was explaining to Dick (one of the aliens trying to impersonate humans), her reservations regarding dating him.

Mary: “It’s as if you were out of sync with every other person on this planet!”
Dick: “What do you mean? Every day I go out of my way to do things that appear normal!”

There’s a lot of attention placed upon trying to make people with various differences appear to be “normal”, everything from in-the-ear hearing aids (that often are not as useful as behind-the-ear aids), to prostheses, to training autistics to mimic NT social behaviour. Not all of these are bad things necessarily. Given the current popularity of going around wearing a Bluetooth mobile phone on one’s ear like some kind of of cyborg, I can see hearing aids turning into equally high-tech decorative bits.

Unfortunately, emulation works against the overall health of the autistic, for a number of reasons.

Emulation is not a viable goal because it creates additional stress.

Spending extra energy to appear normal is stressful. Spending time trying to make eye contact and worrying if it is being done enough, and suppressing little mannerisms or tics adds to the work load of existing. Spending mental energy attending to these things means having less to devote to other activities, such as decoding speech or organizing and monitoring the visual environment.

Even if depression has a partly genetic basis, extra environmental stress worsens that.

Emulation is not a viable goal because even if the social rituals like eye-contact are performed, that does not mean the autistic will gain the same information from the activity.

Whether or not emotional perception on the part of the autistic is due to less eye contact and facial observation or vice versa, may be a chicken and egg question that will doubtless take more neurophysiological study to unravel. However, the result is the same, because even if the autistic attends to facial observation, that does not necessarily mean the same information will be perceived.

Emulation is not a viable goal because an impaired ability to do so results in ostracism from the community.

If it isn’t done well all the time, people feel fooled. Trying to normalize me or make me “indistinguishable from my peers” isn’t going to work. I don’t do it well. My little weirdnesses aren’t that noticeable at first, but they pile up like snowflakes obscuring the scenery. Then people get annoyed at me because they feel betrayed and fooled, thinking I was a one-of-them normal person.

Emulation is not a viable goal because it devalues the inherent qualities of the person.

Lack of acceptance for who or what one truly is leads to additional stress, depression, increases and/or aggravates the types of stress-related health problems. Lack of acceptance for who or what one truly is leads to increased self-esteem problems and increases the difficulties in social interaction.

My recommendation:

Quit trying to forcibly mold autistic children (and adults) to emulate neurotypical behaviors. Focus instead upon working with the person rather than against them. Work with their skills and aptitudes, work upon stress-reduction techniques, and work on methods for interacting with others that are natural for both the autistic and neurotypical people. Work beyond denial or tolerance toward acceptance and appreciation of diversity in schools, work places, medical care settings, and other arenas of social interaction.


  1. swan said,

    18 September 2007 at 21:23

    (I just found this post via google, I hope you read comments.)

    What if the mildly austistic person lives with someone who is profoundly disturbed by the stimming? To the point that the other person feels beseiged by the noise or the motion, and cannot function normally (because they have their own problems, and are not “normal”).

    How do you get two non-normal people to accomodate each other? In my case the austistic is a 10-year old boy who simply cannot understand how profoundly bothered the other person is, and gets angry when told so, as though it wasn’t his fault, and is beyond his control (well, perhaps it is, in all fairness…). Sometimes it’s like I want to throw up my hands in dispair… Will it always be like this?

  2. Miss All-Gone-Wrong said,

    18 December 2006 at 3:45

    “Spending extra energy to appear normal is stressful. Spending time trying to make eye contact and worrying if it is being done enough, and suppressing little mannerisms or tics adds to the work load of existing.”

    You said it! I never could figure out how to express it; I always feel as though I’m constantly counterfeiting acceptability when I’m at work, and I can’t get my parents to understand how difficult that makes this job. Some days I’m a deft forger; some days, though, my hand slips and my fakery is exposed. Actually, that’s a poor metaphor; when I fail to successfully counterfeit acceptability, I’m censured for being a jerk.

  3. notmercury said,

    8 November 2006 at 19:05

    Excellent Andrea

  4. mcewen said,

    8 November 2006 at 14:33

    Thank you for promoting this viewpoint – I’ll try and keep it in mind during my ordinary day. Cheers

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    7 November 2006 at 3:31

    … and as for reading someone’s blog post and meaning to comment upon it and then forgetting, well, I meant to mention this earlier.

    and then I got busy and forgot!

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    7 November 2006 at 3:30

    Mum, I think you’re quite right about discounting our own feelings as a consequence of trying to pass for so often. We end up subverting our own realities to ourselves as well as others. The “radical freethinkers” in history were so often people who were able to retain or to rediscover their own viewpoints and shock people with the truth hidden in plain sight.

  7. 6 November 2006 at 14:31

    I’m also guilty of reading good blog posts, planning to comment on them later when I’ve got my thoughts more in order, and then getting distracted and never getting back to it. It’s much too easy to do! I ought to make notes to myself when I read a good post… maybe have a permanent file in Word for keeping rough drafts of blog comments, or something like that, rather than just keeping them in my mind and possibly forgetting about them.

    I like your snowflake image, Andrea. People really do expect a certain sort of “scenery” in their interactions, and they feel annoyed when they see something else. It’s all about misplaced expectations, as most problems are.

  8. 6 November 2006 at 5:46

    Same here, Camille. I read, then sit and think :) I should comment more often.

    I keep going back to read the poem you posted recently. Been there, and it means a lot to know I’m not alone (though I’d prefer neither of us could identify with that).

    This post in particular strikes a cord–I wrote recently about a grandma I met at one of our speech classes. One of the things she said during the class was to the effect of ‘making our children act a certain way that’s against their natural inclination *just to make other people happy* will make our children start to hate themselves at some point’ And I just sat there and nodded, stunned. It’s always startling to me when someone says something like that, or like you’ve said here, because I’ve come to assume over time that no one else understands how I feel. It still startles me to see that there are people who DO understand.

    I think too many of us have come to discount our own gut feelings.

    And that can be part of the consequence of learning to pass, as well.

  9. Camille said,

    6 November 2006 at 4:43

    This is great, Andrea. I haven’t commented on all your great blog posts, but I read them all, and I always like them.

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