When he’s no longer cute

This is a post about the combination of being autistic and male and how this leads to some gender-specific problems as autistic boys grow into men…

The Bean is a lovely looking boy. He’s cute, very cute. I say that with full awareness that all parents think their kids are beautiful. Nonetheless, I will happily go on record as stating that, objectively, my son is beautiful. That may sound like a slightly odd turn of phrase to use about a boy. “Handsome” would be the more common descriptive, but I’ll go with beautiful because this is not just about physical looks. The Bean, like many autistic kids, has a kind of ethereal look about him. He often seems slightly aloof. Not quite attached to the material world, not “away with the fairies” but actually fey in and of himself. Hans Asperger (the discoverer of the autistic spectrum) commented on the beauty of the children he was studying. The beauty he observed was almost part of the early diagnostic criteria. So, I’ll go with ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘handsome’. Ethereal beauty is a thing, but ethereal handsomeness just does not seem right.

The Bean’s mannerisms are odd, due to his autistic nature, but they have a certain charm. His turns of phrase, whilst definitely not normal, often seem to betray a wisdom or connection to the aesthetic’ beyond his years. For example, right now he has a fascination with trees. Particularly the big oak at the bottom of our garden which he calls “my tree”. We can’t see the base of the Bean’s tree from our garden due to the presence of a fence which blocks the view. The Bean told us one day; “I want to see my tree standing”. This meant he wanted to see the whole tree and where it met the ground. He repeated his request until, one day, we relented and took him over the fence. He now saw ‘his tree’ whole for the first time. He looked at where it met the ground and gazed up into its leaves. With a smile on his face he simply stated; “It is perfect”. Who could not be charmed by this?

There are many other examples of Bean’s behaviour that melt the heart. All children do cute things, but some of the decidedly strange ‘ways of the Bean’ have an extra dimension of cuteness because they come from a more innocent and vulnerable soul. Many strangers witnessing his autistic behaviour instinctively get this. It’s like they can sense that he is ‘specially different’, so his oddities have an extra “aww bless” factor.

Even when he is kicking off and melting down in public, most of the time it is forgiven. Sure, you get the odd crusty old crone that purses their lips in disapproval of your ‘brat’, but most, even vaguely aware members of the public, get that this is not ‘normal’ brattiness. They seem to understand that something else is going on. So, for the most part, we receive sympathy in these situations. As I mentioned in another post a while back, I rarely have to explain things to the public and when I do, as soon as I mention autism we just get kindness and understanding.

 

But this will not be so forever…

What worries me currently is that much of Bean’s ‘cuteness’ relates to him being a child. Indeed, much of the forgiveness we receive from Joe public (crusty old crones aside) is because he is a child. We humans are hardwired to find the young cute. Obviously this has excellent evolutionary advantages for a social species like homo-sapiens. The very young commit many social faux pas. They don’t know the rules of the social game. So our hardwiring to find them cute, and so forgive them their transgressions, means our children have less chance of being killed by non-family members. This may sound a bit brutal to our desensitised modern minds, but go back a few thousand years and ‘being cute’ and having that infantile cuteness recognised and acted upon was an important survival adaptation.

But this hard-wired reaction does not last forever. As children grow they lose their cuteness. On a physical level their eye size to face ratio lessens as their heads grow (humans are born with eyes much the same size as they have as adults). This eye to head ratio is a key visual cue for cuteness. It is so deeply embedded in our ape brains that we find the young of other animals cute for the same reason, but these and other physical traits change as we grow up. So, at about 12 /13 kids no longer have the protective mantel afforded by evolution.

As kids enter the teenage years, they are expected to behave in a more adult fashion. The phenomena of “teenage strops” is, in part, due to the sudden loss of their cuteness protection. The kid’s behaviour may not change that much as they enter the teenage years, but adults’ reactions to it do. We are no longer so forgiving. We expect them to act more like adults and slowly, over a 5-7 year period, most teenagers will get with the new program and become civilised, social human beings.

However, children on the Autistic Spectrum often develop socially very slowly, but physically quite normally. Thus, the Bean will lose his protective coating of cuteness at the normal age (around 12) but his behaviour will probably not catch up until much later. Indeed, much of his autistic behaviour (that strangers may find cute today) will remain for the rest of his life. What we find charming in a child rapidly just becomes weird, or even creepy, in an adult.

The woman to protect

I used to see a particular homeless woman from time to time when I lived in London. There was nothing unusual in this, homelessness is sadly a feature in any large city. She was clearly (for want of a more PC phrase) not all together there. I don’t think it was drugs, as she didn’t display any of the tell-tale signs of addiction. It could have been mental health problems, but also, looking back, she could well have been on the spectrum. My gut reaction to seeing this vulnerable person on the street was one of concern and sympathy. I worried for her, there was never a hint of fear or threat in my thoughts about her. She was someone I wanted to protect. I present this in contrast to………

The man to avoid

There is a man I see around my village. I don’t know his name. I have seen him going about his business for many years. He is always on his own and it’s clear that he is ‘not normal’. I suspect strongly that he is on the spectrum. I had observed this chap pre-Bean, so I can remember how I viewed him then. There was nothing cute about this chap. I just saw him as strange. Now, I was educated and compassionate enough to know that he was, in all likelihood, not a threat to anyone. So there was no fear present in my reactions, but I definitely had an icky feeling like I didn’t really want to engage with him. I also know that for many people he would be ‘the man they tell their kids to avoid.’

Is this the Bean’s future? Will his cuteness transmute to weirdness or creepiness as he becomes an adult? Will that instil a fear in mothers? Will he become ‘the man they tell their kids to avoid’? Sadly, this is a real possibility.

This is particularly true for male autistics. As a society we have developed a somewhat unhealthy view of men in recent years. Men are seen as the predators, the domestic violence perpetrators, the rapists and the child molesters. Some of this is justified. Men are more aggressive and violent than women. This is particularly true when it comes to violence against other men. The clear majority of victims of violence are also men. Rape is also a heavily male perpetrated crime (although if one considers rape in prisons, the victims of rape are far less gendered than one might think). Other negative stereotypes about the violent nature of men are less justified though. Domestic violence and child abuse are not particularly gendered. Women are just as capable at committing these horrors as men are. But, regardless of the ‘fairness’ or root cause, it remains a fact that the clear majority of men are not violent or sexual predators. It is only a small minority that commit these acts and yet, it seems, we are all tarred with the same brush to a certain extent. This is, of course, precisely how prejudicial stereotypes work.

Prejudice bares fruit

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the gender sentencing gap in our criminal justice system. Women get far less prison time for the same crimes (even when accounting for severity or the crime and previous convictions) than men. They are also far less likely to be convicted in the first place. This gap is so large that it dwarfs the sentencing gap present between white and black people. Indeed, the sex sentencing gap is about 8 times as high as the race sentencing gap. It is perhaps a sobering thought that our criminal justice system is about 8 times as sexist (towards men) as it is racist towards any ethnic minority.

This shows us that society judges men more harshly for some of their actions, than women. Also, that society is far more suspicious of the male than the female. Without wishing to labour the point too much, it is easy to google a number of social experiments with lone men taking photos near a playground vs women doing the same thing. Or with couples fighting in public; one set with a female aggressor and the other with the male being the aggressor. You know what the outcome of such an experiment is before you even watch them, don’t you? You know this because you have the same in- built prejudices as I do. A bloke taking photos near kids is instantly “dodgy as fuck”, whereas a woman doing the same is ignored. All this despite the fact that child abuse is NOT a gendered crime. A male acting aggressively towards a woman instigates intervention from the public far more than the other way round. I won’t go further into the reasons for this prejudice, as it’s a complex subject, but I would guess that the popularisation of terms like “toxic masculinity” are somewhat to blame.

Note: To any feminists reading, I know right now you have the urge to tell me about how women have it so much worse for a variety of other reasons. You might well be correct, but please note it is irrelevant to the point I am making. In the respects outlined above, men do have a raw deal. We are viewed with more suspicion and fear than women. This is simply a fact about our society and it is a fact that has particular consequences for autistic male adults over and above their female peers. Female autistic people do have their own specific gendered issues to deal with, but that is not the topic being discussed here.

 

But anyway back to autism…..

So what does this mean for the Bean? Potentially, a toxic mix of being seen as a weird because of his autism and, because of his sex, also being a source of fear. His oddness (once the protective cuteness of childhood fades away) will feed into people’s engrained fear of men. The educated, who understand a bit about autism, may well be able to put this fear aside, but most people don’t know much about autism. It is somewhat egregious to me as a man, that I am viewed by society with unwarranted fear. But, the fact that the Bean will be subjected to an amplified form of this prejudice because he is autistic, is doubly grieving. It is trebly galling given the fact that he is far less likely to be a threat to others than those who sit in judgement, including the women.

The fact is, autistic people are far less likely to cause their fellow humans harm than us neurotypicals. This is true regardless of their sex. The pervasive myth about autistic people lacking empathy is just that, it is a myth. It is true that autistics often can’t read social cues and facial expression and so often react in ways that appear unempathetic, but in reality, this is simply a communication problem. It is not that autistic people don’t care. Indeed, once an autistic person understands how another human feels they will have as much, if not more, concern for their well-being as neurotypicals will.

Labelling autistics as “lacking empathy”, with all its connotations of sociopathy, is incredibly harmful. Yet we see this happen in the media. Mass murderer Elliot Rogers was swiftly ‘diagnosed’ by the media as probably being on the spectrum because he “lacked empathy”. Yes, Elliot did clearly lack empathy because he went on a killing spree and murdered xxx innocent people, but to conclude that this meant he was “probably on the spectrum” (as some media outlets did in the aftermath of his murders), was so harmful to autistic people that it beggars belief!

The Bean is already showing far more innocence than his NT peers. I have commented on this before in previous posts, but if he and his brother are around other children I know damned well that any ructions and fisticuffs that occur will not be instigated by the Bean. I am perfectly aware that Zoo (his younger brother) can exhibit thug-like behaviour towards other children, and am under no illusion that most conflicts are probably six of one and half a dozen of the other. He is as likely to be the instigator as the victim. But, with the Bean, I can say with almost certainty that he will not have deliberately bashed another child. Any problems that do occur between him and other kids will either be down to them being mean to him or perhaps due to some misunderstanding on his part. Deliberate malice is simply not in his nature.

The nature of evil

This innocence carries on into later life with autistic people in general. I am not suggesting that autistic people are all saints or are incapable of deliberate cruelty, they are human beings with the full range of graces and flaws that we are all imbued with. But I am saying that the propensity towards cruelty and malice is diminished in autistics.

The nature of evil stems from understanding one’s own vulnerability and then extrapolating that onto others to cause them pain and discomfort. The deliberate infliction of pain, be it physical or psychological, is the definition of what evil is. In order to enact such action, one must understand what it is that causes another pain. The more emotionally smart a human being is the greater their ability for evil is. The very nature of autism means this capacity for evil is diminished. Many autistic people find it difficult to understand their own emotional states and doubly harder to extrapolate those into theories about how others may feel. This results in behaviour that others may interpret as “lacking empathy” but at the same time it means that the ability to engage in deliberate acts of cruelty are diminished. So, unlike the sociopath who understands how to inflict pain but does not care, or the sadist who understands and enjoys it, the typical autistic person will simply not be able to engage in evil as much as an NT person.

The cruelty of strangers

Another point to consider is that many social interactions backfire on autistic people. They say the wrong thing or act in a way deemed inappropriate by others. This results in judgement and hostility from their peers. As a result, autistic people will experience violence at the hands of their fellow humans at a higher rate. Most of these negative reactions do not come with any kind of explanation. So, from the autistic person’s perspective, neurotypicals react negatively and possibly violently in seemingly random ways. The poor autistic simply does not know what has caused the vitriol and scorn they receive. As a result of years of these reactions, many become introverted and shy. NT’s are mysterious and unpredictable (a bit like dangerous wild animals) and, like anyone with even the vaguest sense of danger, autistics are certainly not going to poke the bears by teasing them!

This means autistic people are far less likely to cause harm to others than neurotypicals. They are less likely to act in a malicious way, be deliberately cruel or physically violent. Yet, we see that autistic men in particular are viewed as more threatening. They are seen in the exact opposite light as to that which their nature should shine. This, to me, is grossly unfair. It is a prejudice within our society that needs to be addressed. Part of the problem is bigger than autism and stems from the negative stereotypes we have of men and masculinity, but when this is combined with our natural fear of the “odd” we have a truly destructive combination.

What really gets me!

It is the sheer unfairness of this stereotype that gets to me when it comes to autistic men. The unfair stereotypes about men in general at least have their roots in the reality of the more aggressive nature of men. We (men) do make up 95% of the prison population and the gender sentencing gap, although real, can’t explain away this stat. So, in general, men are indeed more likely to commit crime than women. So at least the fear of men is grounded in something concrete. But, as with all stereotypes, generalising is a dangerous business. We need to remember that most of men-kind are not sexual predators or violent in nature and the sub category of “autistic males”, for the reasons discussed above, are actually far less likely to be a threat than the general population and this includes the women.

The prejudice and fear of the different has no such basis though. It is completely unfair and has its evolutionary roots in the same dark places of human psychology as racism and xenophobia. The fear of the different, the other, may have served us well in more archaic and violent times but its place in the modern global village is a well-documented blight on all societies.

The fact is that adult Bean, due to his gentle, innocent and autistic nature, will be far less of a threat than the average man and, I would posit, also far less of a threat than the average woman. And yet, he will be judged as the weird, creepy guy who poses an imminent danger to children. Partly because of sexist stereotypes and hysteria over “toxic masculinity” and partly this is due to a general prejudice against the different. It’s a double whammy of prejudice. One which is so unfair to anyone who knows him. I know these unfair judgements exist because I have made them myself.  The homeless woman in Kentish Town was an object of sympathy and concern regardless of her clearly odd manner. The chap in my village elicited a far less charitable response. I consider myself a compassionate and caring person. If gender can create this dichotomy of reactions in myself then I know damned well it will do so in others. As such, I can only conclude that the Bean’s oddness, combined with his maleness, will mean a future of unjustified fear from Mr and Mrs Joe Public. It breaks my heart that my gentle little boy will one day be; “the man to avoid”.

3 Comments

  1. Autistic AMAB here. What I often see, is that people will try to toteach that toxic masculinity (and how to be [gender] stereotypically) to those who seem… ‘too innocent’ to realize their ‘roles.’ My mom is a disabled athlete and I see that her couch (not disabled) often reinforces stereotypes on the male athletes, as if they had to ‘get’ a lot of women (assuming they’re straight; they’re already disabled, they can’t be ‘too different’) and shove if on others’ faces to be treated as normal, for example, in opposition to being ‘childish’. Equally, I notice a bunch of people throughout my life have commented that I ‘seem’ like a ‘heartbreaker’ or that I’m ‘ready to get married’ as a way to compensate for my naïveness when they talk about romantic relationships, which is like a language I can’t understand to me. What I mean to say is that I get the impression many times people [are taught to] give men, in this example, the right to make them afraid of us.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful piece of writing. I wish I was reading this in the guardian. My heart breaks that people do not understand this. My son is autistic and the most beautiful kind sweet person. He was the one tonight that came to cuddle me when I was crying. He is different at school. Seen as weird and at the parents evening the English department enraged me by telling me my so was not empathic. Bloody hell. He is the most empathic person I know. Yet I am autistic. However, I am a women. unfortinately we have our own set of challenges. The problem though is again society. And a lack of understanding. Has anyone ever considered autistic people have a telepathy that bypasses neurotypical ways.

    1. Thanks for the comment. My son is also amazingly caring often he does not pickup on the social signals so it seems like he does not care but when is does understand he’s the first one to try and comfort someone who is upset. He’s a beautiful soul and that’s whats so unfair about how he will be seen.

      I agree entirely that autistic women have their own set of unique, gender specific issues, I can’t imagine how, for example, you keep a teenage autistic girl safe from predatation by those that would sexually exploit them. Their autism will often make them socially naive and easy to manipulate so that’s one huge issue that is, sadly, just greater for girls than it is for boys.

      With regards to autism “telepathy” I have actually heard a theory that autism is not a lack of empathy but actually having too much empathy. Autistic people feel others emotions too much all the time and so get overwhelmed by it. As such they often find it hard to focus on any one persons feelings and so it seems to others that they don’t get it. Its similar to the sensory overload issues many on the spectrum get. I’m not sure how valid that idea is but my son certainly seems to be very sensitive to other peoples emotions. For example, when I’m ticking off his younger brother he start to tell me off an get distressed that his brother is receiving a bollocking! But then at other times he seems totally oblivious so who knows!

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