Over and over again I’ve read that people on the spectrum struggle with perspective taking. I’ve even written that my own perspective taking skills suck.
I’m about to take that back.
This morning I was reading an article about teaching Autistic children. It emphasized that teachers are more effective if they take the perspective of the children they teach.
My first thought was can an allistic (non-autistic) teacher truly take the perspective of an Autistic child? They can try. They can educate themselves about autism and autistic traits. They can observe Autistic people and create situation-based rules. They can make assumptions about what an Autistic child is thinking or why they are behaving in a certain way. They can ask Autistic individuals for input and apply that input to their interactions with their Autistic students.
But they can never, ever truly take the perspective an Autistic child. Why? Because they aren’t Autistic. They can’t know what it feels like to be Autistic.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
When you think about it that way, Autistic people aren’t any more impaired than allistic people in perspective taking. We can take the perspective of other Autistic people quite easily.
It’s taking the perspective of the other 99% of the population that’s challenging. Why? Because allistic thinking doesn’t come naturally to us, no more than Autistic thinking comes naturally to an allistic person.
Experts say that Autistic people don’t realize that others have thoughts that are different from their own. If we’re talking about Autistic adults, this is just silly. Of course we know that other people have thoughts that are different from our own. We don’t always have a good idea what those thoughts (or feelings or motivations) are; for better or worse, we make assumptions based on our own thoughts, feelings and experience.
Allistic people do the exact same thing. Luckily for them, the majority of people around them are also allistic. By default, the odds are quite high that they’ll make a correct assumption about another person’s perspective based on their own perspective. And when a non-autistic person makes an error in perspective taking, we don’t say they’re impaired, we call it a misunderstanding.
If an allistic person tries to take the perspective of an Autistic person based on their own thoughts, motivations and experience, the results can be wildly off the mark. A good example is when teachers and caregivers treat meltdowns as an intentional behavior designed to elicit a specific response. Equating a meltdown with a typical temper tantrum is a massive failure in perspective taking. So much so, that from an Autistic perspective it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad and harmful.
If 99% of the population were Autistic, it would be easy to label the allistic minority “impaired” when they failed to instinctively grasp why their family members all regularly had meltdowns or why everyone on the bus except them was stimming or why their new landlord communicated by typing instead of speaking.
Does that sound like a scary world to live in? I suspect for some it might. It’s hard being surrounded by people whose behavior you don’t understand.
Welcome to the Autistic experience.
We are not born instinctively understanding the allistic world, any more than allistic people are born instinctively understanding the Autistic experience.