How “Not all a-specs are…” throws me under the bus

Ditch respectability politics and ableism

“Not all a-specs are socially awkward.”

“A-specs aren’t cold or unfeeling.”

“A-specs aren’t disabled.”

We read these things over and over in articles and resources aimed at allo folks. The first one isn’t untrue. The second one glosses over those of us who are cold or aloof, or perceived to be so and are thus insecure about it. The third one flat out ignores disabled a-specs, who do, in fact, exist.

I understand the desire to dispel stereotypes about our community, I really do. Stereotypes are bad. I get it. However, our response to that shouldn’t be throwing members of our community under the bus. This should be enough of an argument for our community to stop doing this.

It’s easy to switch from “not all a-specs are socially awkward” to “some a-specs are socially awkward; some aren’t.” We can add a little line like “just like allo people!” after that for good measure.

The phrasing “not all a-specs are [stigmatized characteristic]” implies that it would be somehow bad if we were. Having a stigmatized characteristic doesn’t invalidate an a-spec identity. Stereotypical a-spec people just living their lives aren’t “proving” stereotypes about our community and they are not harming our community just by existing. Our educational resources and positivity posts need to stop implying that they are doing so. As a community, we need to treat them better.

You might be thinking that it is in fact bad to be socially awkward or to have/express low empathy, and it makes sense for a-specs who aren’t to want to vigorously dispel this stereotype. People who are socially awkward or have low empathy are often expected to just do better, and deal with the others’ desires to distance themselves from their image, i.e. suck up being pushed to the side in their own community.

Please note that I am using “empathy” in the sense of an innate ability to pick up on and understand other people’s feelings, not in reference to whether one cares about others’ feelings.

Please, please take a moment to consider that nearly every stereotype of a-spec people is a stereotype or common characteristic of autistic people. Childish? Naive? Unfeeling? Both a-spec communities and the autistic community are stereotyped this way. After becoming involved in both communities, the difference I’ve noticed between a-spec communities and the autistic community is that a-spec communities are extremely eager to distance themselves from such stereotypes, whereas the autistic community seems more keen to respond with, “So? So what if we all were?” Returning to being very active in a-spec communities after becoming involved with offline and online autistic community feels so disheartening sometimes, because I’m even more aware of what it feels like to be in a community that embraces me.

I am socially awkward. I do lack empathy. Yes, it’s pretty clearly part of my autism. When I was new to the ace and aro communities after finding them at age 14, I read “positivity” post after positivity post repeating the mantra that we aren’t all like that! We aren’t all [the characteristics of mine I’ve been made to feel ashamed of since grade school].

I didn’t know I was autistic. But I sure knew that I wasn’t who the a-spec communities wanted to be associated with. The people making those posts didn’t know I was autistic. They probably hadn’t thought about the existence of autistic people at all. But they sure knew that they didn’t want people like me associated with the a-spec community. And especially when people “like that” are quite often a marginalized neurotype, that’s especially—what’s the word—bad.

If you are about to argue, “well, if you’re autistic, it’s OK to be that way, but otherwise, it’s not”—don’t. Arguing that autistic traits are bad unless someone has enough of them to meet diagnostic criteria doesn’t actually make me feel accepted for who I am. The argument is that traits fundamental and integral to me and so many other autistic people are bad, but if we’ve had those traits pathologized, we get a pass. I don’t want to be “tolerated” the way one “tolerates” one’s heating system not working or a waiter messing up an order. I don’t want to be “tolerated” as long as I take a back seat in a-spec communities. I don’t want to tell myself that I should just feel grateful that a-spec communities generally don’t pathologize my places on the ace and aro spectrums as being a result of my autism, and settle for that.

I am tired of settling.

I want an a-spec community that isn’t ashamed of me and people like me.

Allistic (non-autistic) a-spec community members need to catch themselves when they are quietly, subtly, and often unintentionally marginalizing us, and there’s plenty of opportunity to do so. One quick and easy place to start is in the language we use in our resources. So please, if you write them, consider switching from “not all a-specs are [a stigmatized characteristic often associated with autism]” to “some are; some aren’t.” This small change would have made me feel much more welcome in the communities I was so excited to find when I was fourteen.

Before I started writing my own articles like this one, I scanned article after article from different news sources to decide if they should be shared by Aces & Aros. Sometimes I felt like screaming “I get it! You don’t want me!”

Make the language switch. It’s not a fix to all matters of intracommunity marginalization of autistic people or allistic people who happen to embody stereotypes about a-spec people. It’s just one of the easiest and most basic things you can do to make members of our community feel more welcome and valued.

Note: A-spec, as used here, is meant as on the ace and/or aro spectrums, and is unrelated to the autistic spectrum.

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