Many parents of autistic children come to me for help with behavior. Sometimes, they have legitimate behavioral concerns – self harm, harming others, destroying property. Other times, well….
I get a lot of questions about social… stuff, for lack of a better word. Eye contact is a big one. Yelling and other very obvious forms of stimming come up often. Voice tone is another topic that is brought up in visits. And then there’s some of the sensory avoidant behaviors, usually teenagers who want to be in their rooms most of the time, even when guests are present.
The common thread? They’re being rude.
Manners and Etiquette from the Queen of Manners
When I think of manners, I think of Emily Post. For nearly a hundred years, she’s been a beacon of civility in an ever-changing world. So who better to take the lead on this issue?
“…I wish that those whose minds are focused on precise obedience to every precept would ask themselves: ‘What is the purpose of this rule? Does it help to make life pleasanter? Does it help the social machinery run more smoothly? Does it add to beauty? Is it essential to the code of good taste or to ethics? If it serves any of these purposes it is a rule to be cherished; but if it serves no helpful purpose, it is certainly not worth taking very seriously.”
Isn’t that something?
The autistic community is diverse in background and preferences. But there are a couple of common threads that continuously pop up. Eye contact is one of those things that never seems to go away. So let's look at eye contact as an example of how etiquette impacts the autistic person.
In Western culture, eye contact is just good manners. It’s a sign of interest and respect. It’s a way to show that the listener is engaged with the speaker. It’s just, well, right. But Western culture is heavily driven by neurotypical norms. Though unspoken and largely unseen, the values and comfort of neurotypical people are absolutely the priority of Western beliefs of right and wrong. And this is where things get complicated.
Because there’s a different take on eye contact that’s worth considering. Think about the romance and intimacy of gazing into another’s eyes. We talk about the eyes as the window to the soul. There’s a belief that we can look into another’s eyes and know what they’re thinking, or if they’re lying. That’s powerful. For some, it’s too powerful.
The autistic aversion to eye contact is more often the rule than the exception. And the intimacy of that act is a large part of the reason why. It’s not hard to understand why someone might not want to be that intimate with someone they’ve just met. There’s also a threatening feeling to some eye contact. The “look at me or else” feeling is very real when speaking with a neurotypical person. It can produce a threat-like fight-or-flight response in some autistic people.
But it’s good manners, right? Well, let’s ask Emily. Her definition is a 4-point list.
Does eye contact help to make life pleasanter? Well maybe for the neurotypical person, but certainly not for the autistic person. In fact, it may be quite painful for an autistic person. And both parties matter in this. So, that’s a no.
Does eye contact help the social machinery run more smoothly? I’m fairly comfortable saying that eye contact is not necessary for social interactions to be functional.
Does eye contact add to beauty? Umm, no.
Is eye contact essential to the code of good taste or to ethics? Eye contact is not an ethical issue. Nobody is unethical or being tasteless or crude by not making eye contact.
Emily is Telling You to Calm Down
Run every manners question through this test, and you’ll find something interesting. Many of the things that we think of as typical manners don’t actually pass this test. The failure point is always the same. While the rules of etiquette may make neurotypical people feel more comfortable or be more beautiful in the eyes of the neurotypical world, autistic people may be made very uncomfortable. And in manners, both people’s experience matters. If both people don’t get something positive out of the interaction, it’s not good etiquette.
But more to the point, etiquette is not a weapon. It’s about being a good person, and no rule of manners makes it acceptable to make others feel bad about themselves.
“Etiquette, if it is to be of more than trifling use, must go far beyond the mere mechanical rules of procedure or the equally automatic precepts of conventional behavior. Actually, etiquette is most deeply concerned with every phase of ethical impulse or judgement [sic] and with every choice or expression of taste, since what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be.”