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Social Processes and the Invisible Exclusion of Autistic People

Trying to get included in neurotypical society is an endless struggle that goes far beyond communication

There is plenty of academic literature on the role that social structures play in the discrimination of certain groups of people. Discrimination on the basis of race and gender is widely discussed, while discrimination on the basis of ability is somewhat ignored. What is completely ignored in the literature is the structural discrimination that is inherent in the impersonal informal rules of social processes, largely favoring neurotypicals while excluding autistic people.

This invisible structural discrimination can be found both in employment and in relationships, especially dating, where there is more complexity and the stakes are higher than in friendships. The pattern is generally the same – the rules that govern certain social processes are self-evident to neurotypicals but are completely invisible to autistic people. As a result, autistic people consistently fail to succeed in these social processes. To make matters worse, these social processes tend to be competitive, pitting individuals against one another. We are all on our own in the process, it's not a process that we can have help with. For instance, in the process of getting a job, an interview is usually required before someone gets hired. Autistic people are generally not good at such interviews as we often fail to follow unspoken social rules and fail to meet social expectations of performance. The same is true in the dating process, though dating is significantly more complex than job interviews.

Part of the problem is that, as autistic people, we are unaware of how the social processes work and what the informal rules are. When trying to engage with these social processes, we often make mistakes due to our lack of knowledge. To make matters worse, we not only don't know them, we often don't know that we don't know them. For example, until last week I thought that being a boyfriend was the same as dating. I am almost 40 years old and I didn't know something that any neurotypical teenager knows. I made no distinction between the "dating step" and the "relationship step", or whatever it is called. As a result, when I was interested in girls in the past, I often asked them to "be my girlfriend", completely skipping the dating step. Completely unbeknownst to me, I was unintentionally rushing the process. This perceived rushing gets interpreted as a red flag, which leads girls to reject me and distance themselves from me. After several rejections, I inevitably started wondering if there was something wrong with me. If I had less self-esteem, I would probably have spiraled into self-hatred, like many others do.

Lack of knowledge of the informal unspoken rules and social processes is only one way in which autistic people are left out of jobs and relationships. We also miss social cues, which leads us to fail to engage properly within the social processes. An extreme example of that is autistic people who have difficulty with facial recognition. If you don't recognize people when you look at them, how are you going to engage in the "courtship" process? I can't even conceive of the problem because that is not part of my personal experience. Still, while I can recognize faces, I have a difficult time recognizing unspoken social cues. Part of the dating process requires me to be able to recognize when someone is interested in me. While gender norms have changed for the better over the years, one of the persistent gender norms that are still followed by most people is the norm that men are expected to be the ones to initiate a connection with women and ask them out on a date. This means that if a man doesn't initiate it, it doesn't happen at all. To make matters worse, if you try to initiate in the "wrong" way, whichever way that may be, you get admonished. While neurotypical men may know how to initiate, the same is not true at all of autistic men. Autistic men may be socially awkward (which is itself perceived as unattractive) and even socially inappropriate without realizing it. We may behave in a way that is frowned upon and that is perceived as intentional when it is completely unintentional. In the process, we often end up rejected, and may even end up socially reprimanded and ostracized. The result is that we end up excluded, either due to our failed attempts or due to self-exclusion for the protection of others. We mean well and we don't want to hurt or bother people, so we end up excluding ourselves for their sake. All of this is particularly problematic for autistic men because due to gender norms, we are the ones expected to initiate and, if we don't do it successfully, nobody reaches out to us. So we are left completely alone. Autistic women don't have this problem because they are not expected to be the ones engaging, so they are far more likely to end up in relationships than autistic men.

There are further complications. We not only have a hard time with these rules and processes, but we are also not like neurotypicals. We may be perceived as "weird" or "awkward". Many of us don't follow gender norms and are often trans or "non-binary". Many of us are also not monogamous, so we don't fit into the largely monogamous society, making it difficult for us to navigate relationships. Since monogamy is considered "natural" and "good", when we reveal ourselves as polyamorists we may be admonished and excluded. But that is not all. Monogamy itself makes the whole dating process more difficult. If everyone can only have one partner, that means that once someone is "taken", you can't date them. That, in turn, decreases the number of potential available partners to us. That is part of the reason that makes the dating process so competitive because everyone is competing for a limited number of possible relationships. Since autistic people are perceived as less socially valuable due to our disability, that makes it even less likely that we will be chosen. But that's not all. It is possible to reach out to someone once they leave a monogamous relationship. But autistic people can't tell when that occurs. Neurotypicals can. That puts us in a disadvantageous position. It's like playing a game of music chairs. All the neurotypicals can hear the music and see the chairs, as they change partners, but autistic people are deaf to the music and blind to the chairs. We can't participate in the competitive dating game due to our disability.

All these factors come into play to ultimately foreclose the possibility of social inclusion for autistic people and especially autistic men, thanks to gender norms and expectations. We end up socially isolated, and that social isolation ends up perpetuating itself. Unable to get jobs, we end up never getting job experience. Or we accept a lower paying job that is considered "appropriate" for us because we are supposedly too disabled to work in the field we want to work in. Meanwhile, the same dynamics work in informal relationships. Our lack of relationships also leads to a lack of relationship experience, which exacerbates the problem and further isolates us.

I write all of this partially in the dark, of course. I have some logical recognition of what is going on and I have borrowed some words from sociology and made up my own concepts to describe rules and processes that are largely unspoken. That is, in fact, part of the problem for all of us. If we don't have the language to describe social rules and processes, then we can't really know when these rules and processes are, in fact, detrimental to us. As I have observed neurotypical behaviours and relationships, it has become clear to me that the unspoken rules and processes are, in fact, not only detrimental to autistic people but also to neurotypicals. While neurotypicals are capable of engaging with the rules and processes effectively, they fail to realize how these rules and processes shape their behaviours and cause all sorts of dysfunctional behaviours and relationship outcomes. All dysfunctional behaviours in society can ultimately be traced back to our social interactions, which shape our behaviours. The unspoken rules are processes that generate the dysfunctional social behaviours that we perceive. Our perception of these behaviours may be tied to specific individuals, since we cannot see, hear, or touch rules and processes, but these individual behaviours are, in fact, shaped by the unspoken social rules and processes. Therefore, making these rules and processes more explicit in our language is the first step to addressing dysfunctional social behaviours by ultimately changing unhelpful rules and processes.

Why do we need these particular rules and processes? We need to question whether they are helpful or detrimental to us. There are also contradictions in the social rules. For example, communication is perceived as important in relationships, and yet a lot of that communication is required by the unspoken social rules to be unspoken and implied, leading to miscommunication and misunderstanding even amongst neurotypicals. It makes no sense. These social rules and processes are not serving any of us and are excluding autistic people by default. Until these social norms are widely exposed as unhelpful and discriminatory and until we finally change these unhelpful social norms, I see no way that autistic people can hope to be truly included in society.

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