Google the “signs of autism” and the very first thing that pops up on most of the lists is, “social-interaction difficulties.” As I have had the privilege to live in different cultures, and as culture determines what kind of social interactions are deemed appropriate, I’ve long wondered about how hard and fast this determination of autism can be, since social rules vary greatly from culture to culture. This was extremely apparent when we arrived in this country in 1998 when my son was 3. While I am not disputing that my son has “social-interaction difficulties,” the habits that he had that were inevitably identified as social issues were actually cross-cultural issues.
He was born in Israel, where culture, and therefore social norms, has certain obvious differences from mainstream American culture. For one thing, people in the Middle East are more emotionally expressive than in the US. When you greet someone who you know and like, you hold their arms and kiss them on both cheeks. So this is how my son learned to say hello. That was immediately flagged by early therapists as a “social-interaction difficulty.” I tried to explain that he was just being friendly in the way that he had seen people be friendly…no go.
The list goes on and on…he was too animated when he spoke, he was too physical when he played, he stood too close to people. All true, but only a display of “social-interaction difficulties” in the West…none of those things ever stood out as problematic when we visited back in Israel. Different cultures have different rules. (Autism, as a culture, has different social rules too, but I’ll leave that thought for a different blog.)
Another way his “social interaction difficulties” have always expressed themselves have been through his tendency to talk freely about the “elephant in the room,” whatever the elephant happened to be on a particular day. I always felt like he had a radar sense when something unspoken was going on in a room. Therapists always felt that he was woefully unaware of socially acceptable conversation.
One thing I have learned from raising my children was that so many things in life are a case of and/and, not either/or. Yes it is important to think before we speak, yes it is important to consider other people’s feelings, and yes, often it is really helpful to be the one to be able to point out the elephant in the room. The act of stating the elephant in the room is not a “social-interaction difficulty” in and of itself. The sensitivity involved in social interaction and mature communication takes a lot of thought, and one needs to figure out whether or not each particular elephant should be pointed out, or not.
As we all know, we are currently living through one of the most bizarre presidential elections in American history. One candidate prides himself on saying whatever he feels like. He scorns “political correctness” and doesn’t seem to care who he hurts. Perhaps he thinks that he is doing a good thing by talking about all of the elephants in the room that he thinks no one else is mentioning. On the other hand, perhaps he never learned the lesson, which should precede talking about the elephant: that of thinking before we speak and considering other people’s feelings.
Educators and researchers have written numerous articles over the course of this campaign season about the effect this type of discourse has had on school children, and have watched in horror at what seems to be an uptick in incidents of bullying, racism and hate-speech in schools. Others have reported that people who have been bullied and abused in their life feel traumatized anew in watching a presidential candidate behave this way.
My son was badly bullied throughout his school years. In his inimitable manner of pointing out the elephant in the current room, he left me this voice message yesterday as he was on his way to college for the day: “Mom. I just want to tell you that I am really tired about Trump. He reminds me of all of those people that bullied me a long time ago. I know that I shouldn’t hold on to those memories, but it’s hard to let go, Mom, it’s hard to let everything go when something hurts you. Especially because he is a bully, it makes me remember being bullied and it really hurts. I’m sorry Mom; it’s just hard to hear things about Trump. I hope he doesn’t win Mom, because bullies shouldn’t win.”
That would be a case, in my humble opinion, of just one of the many elephants in the current room that should be addressed. Long live my son’s ability to name the elephant in the room. Because thankfully, he has come a long way in learning how to think before he speaks and consider other people’s feelings. In his case, naming the elephant in the room can no longer be considered a “social-interaction difficulty.”
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