Somewhere online I read a blog post written by a nonautistic person who claims that when an Autistic child lies people should celebrate, as the child has reached a cognitive milestone—as if lying is inherently human rather than learned behavior. This blogger, who doesn’t seem to understand Autistic culture, seems to have subscribed to neuronormative myths, among them the myth of developmental milestones, and the myth that honesty is naivete, rather than good behavior.
Dishonesty breeds paranoia. Honesty fosters trust. Where there’s honesty, there’s trust. In my experience, Autistic culture is a community of trust, where I don’t have to question meaning or intentions. Autists are authentic: honest, factual, direct. We don’t use subtext, hidden meanings; nor do we speak in confusing riddles.
When interacting with my neurokin, I don’t experience the sleepiness or confusion that burdens me when I’m speaking to neurotypicals; nor do I have to puzzle my way through a social performance. Unlike Autistic people, most people communicate with hidden meanings, applying strange facial expressions. As Jamie Heidel, the Articulate Autistic, writes:
From what I understand, neurotypical people communicate largely by subtext. There are words, but the tone of voice, facial expression, and body language convey the bulk of the meaning.
With neurodivergent people, the words themselves are the most important. Unfortunately, since NT culture is so used to looking for subtext, those words are often lost behind ‘blank’ facial expressions and ‘flat’ vocal tones.
This makes sense as neurotypicals speak in vague hints, apply social judgment, and ask insincere questions such as, “How are you?” without seeming to care about the answer. They tend to talk in circles, too, taking entirely too long to get to their point, if they have one.
When people behave this way, when people are inauthentic with me, I not only feel sleepy, I feel unsafe because my experiences have taught my mind to connect inauthenticity to dishonesty, and dishonesty to lack of safety.
Lies are widely accepted, even encouraged in Western culture, neurotypical culture. People lie to avoid confrontation, to avoid taking responsibility for misbehavior, to gain power, such as jobs they don’t deserve.
From a young age, people are taught to lie as a form of politeness; “white” lies are thought of as harmless by many, but white lies, like all lies, are confusing and unhelpful. If someone says they want to “hang out”, I believe them. Then, I’m confused when they don’t want to make plans to do so. I then lose my trust in that person.
People of all neurotypes lie to survive toxic environments, such as an abusive home or school. This is the only dishonesty that makes sense to me. While dishonesty is not our natural state, Autists may find themselves lying due to stress or trauma—while experiencing bullying at work or with medical professionals. When I told lies, I did so in childhood and adolescence to survive abusive environments. Each lie made me physically ill while ensuring my safety. Even now, the mere thought of telling a lie makes me physically ill. Which is why I don’t lie.
Though many children, like many adults, lie simply to manipulate others, to get what they want, however unfairly. In an essay I love, “Honesty: Be True to Love”, late writer bell hooks shares that a “friend of mine who lies a lot tells me she loves fooling people and making them act on knowledge that only she knows is untrue; she is ten years old.”
Clearly that was a nonautistic child.
In the same essay, hooks writes: “Among any other group of kids it is never clear why some quickly learn the fine art of dissimulation (that is, taking on whatever appearance is needed to manipulate a situation) while others find it hard to mask true feeling.”
What’s clear to me that wasn’t clear to hooks is that these children who manipulate those around them are not Autistic. Autistics do not have deficits in honesty as many neurotypicals do because we don’t have deficits in logical reasoning or empathy as many neurotypicals do. Fortunately, we don’t learn the “art of dissimulation”. The practice of manipulation has never made sense or appealed to me.
“Widespread cultural acceptance of lying is a primary reason many of us will never know love,” hooks writes in “Honesty: Be True to Love” because people who use dishonesty to manipulate and control others cheat themselves out of meaningful, loving relationships.
Glorifying lies, however “small” or “white” they may seem, creates and reinforces toxic environments. When an Autistic child lies, it’s time to examine the environment that pressured them to behave outside of their neurotype. A lie is nothing to celebrate.
- hooks, bell. All About Love: New Visions. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2001.