04 September 2014

Letter to a Stranger

Hello. You may or may not ever read this letter, but as much as I'm (perhaps irrationally) afraid that you'll stumble across it, part of me hopes that you do indeed find it and read it and think for a long, long time about it.

The way we met was so common, so everyday, so ordinary that it would be easy to forget. I was sitting on the stairs with my friend eating ice cream and you were about to go up those stairs. So we moved to give you a path, and I made a brief quip about not knowing where a certain state is on the map. It's a normal social thing to say, comments like, "Just trying to get a snack before my fifteen is over," or "Really excited about the Patriots game tonight," or "Wow, I almost forgot to get my phone before leaving." And most folks will reply quickly, say something like, "Good luck!" or "Yeah, I hope they win," or "Hey, you could always carry it in your briefcase," and then they'd move on and you'd move on and the entire interaction would be over in around thirty seconds.

You decided right then and there that because I didn't know where this state was, I must obviously be from outside the country. You asked me where I was born and if I was born in the U.S. When I told you I wasn't, you were almost satisfied with that answer -- assuming that I'm foreign and so it's acceptable for me not to know where this state is on the map -- but then you asked when I came here, and I told you I was one. At that point your condescension started erasing what small amount of social nicety you might have had at the start. You started talking to me like I must know nothing at all, like I'm oblivious to everything and ignorant about everything, just because I've lived in the U.S. most of my life and somehow don't know where this one damn state is on the map.

But that's not even the half of it. That was warm-up for what you did next.

Somehow or other, the topic of what I do came up, and I mentioned that I work in disability rights and public policy advocacy. (Fancy schmancy way of saying, I go to people in power and try to get them to change the way things are so they'll be better for us disabled folks.) You asked me why I was so involved in disability, and I told you, like I tell anyone who asks this (very tired) question, I'm disabled and so are most of my friends and colleagues.

For the next twenty minutes or so (hell, it might have even been closer to thirty), you decided to interrogate me about my experiences, while invalidating them, delegitimizing them, erasing them, individualizing them (and I don't mean that in the positive way), and outright mocking them. Yes, I watched you rolling your eyes at me when I decided to suck it up and answer your questions. And you want to know why I stayed there and kept letting the conversation (if you can call it that) continue? Because I believe in cultivating allies, in raising awareness, in developing public conscious of ableism and disability justice and neurodiversity. Because I'd like to think that most strangers, if ignorant at first, are willing to learn and that if they ask questions it's because they're coming from a place of wanting to understand.

Instead, you went full-blown self-narrating zoo exhibit and kept pushing me to explain what it means that I'm autistic, how my autism manifests, all the way down to insisting that I explain my thought processes. In case you're wondering (though I very sincerely doubt it), my thought processes are pretty private stuff.

You were arrogant as you rolled your eyes at me, conveying quite clearly that you believed hardly anything I was saying and in fact probably assumed that I'm incapable of either understanding what it "really" means to be autistic or that I'm not competent enough to accurate interpret my own experiences. You were entitled as you pressed me for personal details about myself, my life, my history, and my neurological fucking processes. You didn't read my signals to stop the line of questioning, to return to discussing my work or my ideas but instead decided that my innermost thoughts were suddenly yours to examine and inspect to your own invasive curiosity while simultaneously dismissing everything that I said as fabrication, delusional, inaccurate, or otherwise symptomatic of a defective mind.

It was so obvious that you refused to so much as entertain the possibility that something I said might be valid or relevant or right -- whether about existing and new paradigms of disability, or about my own personal experiences -- that I'm surprised, honestly, surprised, that I didn't lose my temper at you. I could have. Easily. Your body language communicated hostility and incredulity; your voice communicated condescension and arrogance; your questions communicated nothing but entitlement and the presumption that you, as a well-educated person, automatically know and understand far more about my own experiences that I do.

Somehow, I was not surprised when you started talking about the Deaf community as a legitimate cultural group because they are a linguistic minority but in the same breath assumed that speech is the most legitimate or highest form of language/communication. Somehow, I was not surprised when you in as many words began to talk down to me about "people who are profoundly autistic" as though I can't possibly be truly autistic and as though those who are labeled "profoundly autistic" don't have agency, don't have voices, don't participate in activism. Somehow, I was not surprised when you eventually turned to interrogate my friend who was with me, to ask if they were also autistic, as though autistics only ever socialize with other autistics (or are only capable of being around other autistics). Somehow, I was not surprised when you insisted on visually observing this friend toe-walk and then made them do it again, like, what, a well-trained dog? Somehow, I was not surprised when you asked me am I good at math -- because all Asians are good at math and all autistics are math savants, so I must be a total genius at math, right?

And you know, it's people like you who say that autistics can't understand nonverbal cues, that autistics can't control their impulses or feelings, that autistics can't communicate with other people, that autistics can't respect other people's boundaries. How ironic is that.

The next time you meet a stranger who makes an offhand comment to you, please respond with another offhand comment and then walk away. (Hint: It's a social skill.)

And I hope that if you ever speak to another autistic person again, you remember that actually, individual people are the experts on their own experiences. Do we know everything about everything? No, we don't. But you need to stop assuming that you somehow know us better than we do ourselves, because where I come from, that's called arrogance, condescension, and general assholery.

I sincerely hope you have a good evening.


  1. Jesus. You are a better person than I am, Lydia. When I encounter people like that I usually wind up melting down. The sheer unfairness, the sheer bigotry of people like that is like a knife in the gut, I fit the autistic stereotype of being 'obsessed' with fairness to an absolute T. And it always bites me in my ass.

    This is an eloquent, firm, statement, but you'd have to be a fool not to read the justified fury underneath. Though I'm sorry that you had to experience it, this is an extremely well-written piece.

  2. I'm sorry you had to go through that! Yes, some people are educable and others are not. I'm sorry that so much of your time, energy and emotion was wasted on one of the latter. I've met too many of those in my day. I hope you can get this jerk out of your system sooner rather than later. They really don't deserve space in your head. Pat yourself on the back, you gave it your best shot, but I don't think anyone is going to reach that one!

  3. Wow, what an entitled asshole! I'm sure I would have completely melted down or if I were lucky, just shut down. So sorry this happened.

    *sending silk hugs*

  4. they (i assume this is not a person, this is a group) speak to autistic people in this manner everyday. in their collective arrogance they simply don't know it.

    1. Encounters like this are such frequent occurrences that it's almost rare I become actually enraged by them anymore. The fact that this is simply ordinary... that fact is disturbing.

  5. no kidding. i find the autism tiering to be particularly offensive and annoying.

    sometimes i think that throwing out a random number would satiate their impositions:

    "well, today I would say I am 53.463%. I dropped an eighteenth of a percent because I forgot to say, 'excuse me' today when i bumped into someone."

  6. I'm sorry that you had to put up with that. You deserve a medal for your patience and tolerance. This is a very eloquent post. If it could fit on a post it note sized paper you could print out a thousand copies and hand them to all the asshats that you run into

  7. Your letter reminded me of how it felt to be interrogated by my special ed teacher, and they invalidated me and my reality so much, I couldn't trust my own perceptions anymore. No wonder I became a stereotypically depressed Goth.

    1. Do you want to be Goth? Then be it. I think being Goth is cool. Maybe I'm wrong.

  8. As a very introverted and shy person (I experienced selective mutism in childhood) who likes people in general and assumes the best of everyone, I totally can relate to the shock, embarrassment, disappointment and sadness of encountering a person who is disrespectful, ingracious and arrogant. In the moment it is just incomprehensible. It is so against my personality and world outlook that it just doesn't compute. I have a career that encompasses customer service, so I have now seen it all and have developed a thick skin, as well as tactics to help me deal. Lydia, I know it's hard to comprehend this behavior, and frankly, this person isn't worth your effort. This person has issues. Hostility, confirmation bias, bigotry, narcissism etc. They don't care about you. I have a feeling these type people have a long line of people who are left feeling as you do. Just be glad you get to wake up as Lydia each morning and not him.

  9. Timely. I had to justify/explain my autisticness to a mental health professional (who was essentially a stranger) this week. AGHH!

  10. I am sorry you had to go through this...I go through it a lot too. It sucks.

  11. Glad you wrote this, Lydia. That guy was an entitled jerk.


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