The National Autistic Society’s recent Twitter campaign aims to highlight how autistic people often receive judgement and scorn from members of the public. An array of celebrities, autism advocates and ordinary people, some autistic, many not, have shared pictures of their own judgey faces.
The judgey faces on display are like an homage to Kenneth Williams. But it made me think about my own experiences in public, particularly as a parent to a child who can display unusual, challenging and somewhat bizarre behaviours.
Apart from my teen years living in a small town where looks of disapproval were smugly satisfying, much of my life has been spent avoiding being noticed. I’ve mostly managed to escape unwanted judgey faces. Occasionally I forget to filter my thoughts and say something which raises eyebrows or elicits an exclamation of shock. I don’t always notice, however, as most people’s facial expressions aren’t very obvious or consistent.
Struggling to read facial expressions is fairly central to the the ‘social imagination’ part of the autism triad. Social imagination is essentially the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling without them explicitly telling you. Autistic people often ‘fail’ standard tests devised to assess social imagination. This is often mistaken for a lack of empathy.
I really struggle with the claim that autistic people lack empathy. I may not read other people in the same way as a neurotypical person, I may not show the same visible emotional response in the expected neurotypical manner, but it doesn’t mean I lack empathy. My strong sense of justice and fairness wouldn’t exist without empathy.
I cannot help but wonder if it isn’t the neurotypicals amongst us who have the greatest empathy deficit. It is almost always neurotypical people, mostly adults, who judge behaviours they don’t understand. It is almost always an average, ordinary sort of person who makes a judgey face.
Behind the judgey face is often a person who hasn’t experienced a meltdown, hasn’t parented a child who stims, has never felt disorientated and overwhelmed by lighting, noise or smells, who isn’t autistic. It is a person who cannot comprehend or imagine any reason for the behaviour beyond ‘naughty, spoilt, badly parented’.
The judgey faced person’s frame of reference for such behaviour is so narrow, so lacking in imagination, that they don’t imagine other possibilities. It makes me wonder who really lacks imagination.
A great advantage of being an autistic parent of an autistic child is that I’m largely oblivious to the reactions of witnesses to my son’s public displays of autism. Alongside not noticing any judgey faces, I become hyperfocused on the situation at hand. Random strangers, judgey faced or not, become blurred background matter.
This makes me think that the campaign is primarily aimed at supporting neurotypical parents and carers. It does little for me as an autistic parent. By not noticing judgey faces in real life, they don’t matter to me. Except as funny faces.