The Four Social Rules every Autistic Person needs to Learn

Trigger warning – although this post doesn’t mention any detail of abuse, it is about the dangers of teaching someone not to trust in their right to say no

From a young age I was taught three things:-

  • The messages I get from my body are wrong
  • Not wanting to be touched is wrong
  • That I must override these feelings to be accepted

From encouraging an autistic child to give up a harmless stim (which may be helping them to cope with negative sensory information), to telling them that eye-contact doesn’t hurt (when it does translate to pain for some), or that hugs are pleasant physical contact (when they may be too much sensory information all at once) or that labels aren’t painful (when the feeling of being clawed at may be very real), navigating what will be believed as real, and what will be dismissed as silly or attention-seeking, can be incredibly difficult for an autistic child.

When you tell the people who love you that you want them to stop doing something that hurts you, and the response is, “No it doesn’t hurt you, I will not stop”, what are we teaching our children?

We are teaching an enormously dangerous message that will follow them into their future relationships.

This is why autism awareness needs expanding into autism understanding.

Awareness says “I know you have autism.”

Understanding and acceptance  says, “I understand how your autism affects you and I respect that.”

It took me a very long time to understand that my pains were real. It took even longer to understand that I had been taught to be compliant to people who wished to hurt me.

I do not physically distinguish between the pains that are specific to my brain-type, and the pains that everyone else feels too. The pain I get when hearing pound coins touch is as real as when I stub my toe. When recognised pain happens (the type that everyone would accept as painful) it has all already been normalised for autistic people. We have already been taught that no one wants to hear us, no one wants to help. Why would we ask again?

This is why treatments like ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) can be so very dangerous for autistic people. If you teach a child to behave in a certain way, regardless of the messages their bodies are giving them, you are teaching that child to ignore their own wishes and needs and to comply. You cannot later add, “Oh, but don’t comply with everyone, some of the messages your body gives you are true, it’s only the ones I don’t share that I mean for you to suffer.” You cannot make a list of real and imaginary needs, present them to someone for whom all those needs are real, and expect them to easily distinguish between the two.

It’s all very well teaching a verbal message of “No means no” and “No one should ever touch you without permission”, but when you also teach, “What you need and feel is wrong” and “I know better than you about what you need to do”, you have handed the right-to-refuse to someone else. You have taken away bodily autonomy.

Autistic people, more than anyone, will learn the rules and follow them. Which means the rules that they need to learn are:-

  1. You, and only you, can say what is pleasant and what is painful for you
  2. No one has a right to tell you what you feel
  3. No one has a right to invade your personal space without your express permission
  4. You are the ruler of you

These lessons needs to be taught in every interaction. They need to be the bedrock of social skills, the first and most important lesson. Otherwise we are failing with the most basic of our responsibilities. The responsibility to teach someone their human rights.

We must bear it in mind in every interaction. We must consider it in every lesson. Teach social skills by all means, but not in such a way as to create a vulnerability. For people who may miss the signals that someone does not have their best interests at heart, for people who when frightened may find it more difficult to speak or reach out for help, we must teach the skills, the social skills, that will protect them from harm.

We must teach them to believe themselves first and foremost. We must listen.

I am not weak or foolish for learning the lessons I was taught – that my body is a liar and other people know best. The people who taught me those things weren’t cruel, they were loving, they just lacked autism awareness and autism understanding. Had they known then they would not have. We can do better. We must.

52 thoughts on “The Four Social Rules every Autistic Person needs to Learn

  1. “Autism awareness needs to expand into autism understanding”—nicely said. Sometimes hard to do, especially when communication is difficult. Very good point that failing to show respect for a person’s autonomy and right to determine what happens with their own body means handing that power to someone else, ie it threatens their basic personal safety. I think many of us parents of kids and teens and young adults with autism mean well, but in “managing” their lives we often fail to focus on understanding what they want for themselves.

    It’s interesting how the term “awareness” has been used, almost as if we must be aware (of something like traffic) so as to avert danger. Or worse, to be aware of the fragile nature of something, such as a glass, so as not to inadvertently harm or break it. Both of these readings of the term disrespect personhood. Understanding, on the other hand presumes not only competence, but consciousness, both of which are beside the point in the quest for neurotypicals to be “aware” of those on the spectrum. Awareness is about the behavior of neurotypicals around people with autism, and understanding is about the right of a person with autism to govern his or her own behavior, if necessary, with the respectful assistance of others.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Really interesting points. Awareness is such an odd term when you start looking at it.

      We are all trying to work towards the same goal, and we need to be careful to make sure that one “solution” isn’t undermining anything more fundamental along the way.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Laina's Collection – sharing Aspergian/autistic writing and commented:
    This!! Although I’m cool with being hugged (by a select few people with whom I feel comfortable, and not *too* often, and with just the right vibe…oh god I’m actually very picky! Lol), I can identify with and relate to so much of this post–practically all of it! A delightful read, as always! Excellent! Thank you! 💖💖

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Interesting thoughts – and very timely too in the current flood of sexual harassment allegations …. There is nothing more distressing than being in a situation where one’s personal boundaries are simply dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant. And yes, “awareness” of autism is nothing without understanding and respect for the person

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I think these are excellent rules to give all children. Adults send out very mixed messages and it is very complicated for children to work through the minefield of what is actually meant. It must be even more difficult for an autistic child. I remember being told I had to kiss a great Aunt goodbye even though I found it most unpleasant. It seemed it was rude to hurt her feelings but my feelings didn’t matter. No wonder we grow up so unsure and confused!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes! Absolutely. These are valuable rules for all, but particularly important for those of us who find it hard to navigate which rules are fixed and which are supposed to be ignored depending on context.

      Children like things to be clear, and no child should have to give physical affection where they don’t choose to.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you. It’s not an easy thing to put into words. I’ve tried to write this many times and it’s not been right. I hope you find your words too. The more voices the better 💐

      Liked by 3 people

  5. These rules are spot on, I wish someone had taught me these things instead of having to figure them out by myself. I expand number 4: You are the ruler of you, adding specifically: It is your right to do what you need to to make the world work for you. This usually applies to stimming and removing myself from stressful situations. I’d also add in a #5- It is not your responsibility to explain what you’re doing, thinking, or feeling. Sometimes when people question what I’m doing, I feel like as an Autistic Person I’m required to education people, but it is my right not to.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you. It can be utterly exhausting having to explain yourself. You’re very right. Some days I don’t have the energy to educate as well as exist. Excellent point.

      Liked by 4 people

  6. Thank you for writing this post. Consent is a 2 way street. Being gaslighted by those who want things on their terms is manipulative, yet setting boundaries that go against the NT mainstream makes ME the manipulative, spoiled brat. I find glancing at someone’s forehead enough of a compromise. I am 38 and have finally got to the point where I think, “I’m older and I don’t give a f*** what others say or think. They can’t mould me. I think of myself as Maxine on the Hallmark Greeting card.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Setting your own boundaries is always met with resistance. It is strength to know your limits and live within them. The older I get the less important fitting in is. It’s another lie we tell young people. Thank you so much for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Melissa Fields, Autist and commented:
    Reblogging this too, because as Autistics, so many of us are taught—and wrongly so—that our bodies, thoughts, feelings, etc., aren’t our own, and are all wrong. And that we can’t say no.

    Yes, we CAN say no. And no, we are NOT wrong, damaged and defective. Nor are we a burden or a tragedy.

    This is a must-read, especially if you are new to autnot’s blog, and my blog, and you want to learn about #ActuallyAutisticAdult people.

    Because real awareness means genuinely understanding us, listening to our stories and what we have to say, and genuinely accepting us and including us.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Having an ABI (acquired brain injury) I kind of have my feet in two worlds; I am neurologically atypical and I remember what neuro typical looks and feels like. At times I feel pulled between doing what I need to avoid sensory overload, while at the same time feeling the social pressure to not offend others by deviating from following the social norms. The desire to be accepted and appreciated can at times put me in situations where the ‘cost benefit’ of not giving my own needs the required value or priority, requires a much longer recovery period.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You certainly have a really interesting perspective, having been on both sides of the divide. We do have to be so careful to balance what we want to do, with recovery time and other costs. Thank you for sharing your experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. All of these rules were violated by those in authority. No wonder I consented to every sexual encounter. I felt that I had no rights, that you had to give them EVERYTHING they wanted, and that any resistance is futile. I wonder even if I might have been assaulted.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I am so sorry that this has been your experience. It is horrible to realise that you had a right that you didn’t know you had. It’s so difficult to work through. This is exactly why I wanted to share this. It’s so important that these messages are a thing of the past. Thank you so much for your comment. I very much hope that you have some support to deal with this 💐 none of it is your fault.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. Absolutely well written and 100% correct nothing worse than someone getting and trying to demand you will hurry up or I am going without you and then keep going on until a meltdown happens then they don’t listen to what they have been instructed to do , shshshs h , he needs his own space right now , just remain quite when his calmed he will call for me to give him a hug or just to me to be with him ( his choice when calm ) the support worker or a non understanding family member of his needs , it was said his just a naughty boy and just wants what he wants NO unless you know how things can be so difficult for him , oh rubbish I was told so many times , in my eyes they were the nasty ppl and bullies n non compliance to the instruction for their own safety , the hell that they caused on other occasions hence the fact they would keep at him then when he was on his way of getting to a meltdown I would give safety instruction go outside remain quite no that was just to hard for these workers or family member , I would place myself so I could protect my child encase they got to close to him so no one got hurt well course his got higher doesn’t know what his doing at this point so I copped the hit , these other ppl then called the police ( they don’t mention what they were doing to him . It’s a very sad situation no longer talk to these family members nor the support workers .For our children it ain’t a police concern . I ts understanding their needs they have the right to say no eg I don’t want to go out in house support oh no she didn’t want to do that , But it was OK for her to say No (double standards ) support worker yeah right where she should of said yes OK n think he might want to go out a bit later nope she left made no difference to her she was getting paid for the 4 hrs regardless totally wrong of her getting paid to go home n study . I am being told I don’t know his needs .Just like going to the park his playing on the equipment another child apparently comes to play on the equipment support workers say his made a new friend , I said that’s good I asked her did you get the phone number from the parent so can organize catch up visits and what’s the name of this child .Oh no there was no parent there , I asked her Did it appear that they were playing or it seemed like they were playing together or there was 2 children playing on the equipment as its a public area all I got was what do u mean .I suppose when you go to the gas station to pUT petrol in your car you class them as your friends well no she said . I asked her to define what is a friend yeah if your thinking the same as what I was at that point ( she just left without a word ) .I have always said If a person can’t learn the way we do , they learn the way they know how . Sorry I could go on about this for pages n pages . Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. It can be so hard getting people to understand and empathise with someone who is different to them. I’m so sorry you’ve felt unsupported and there have been so many times that boundaries were crossed. You sound incredibly strong. I would want you on my side! All the best 💐

      Liked by 1 person

  11. My son has a terribly hard time with body language and believing that other people could mean him harm. This is a great reminder for me, as the parent of an autistic child, to be more patient and accepting of his feelings. I’m so happy found this blog!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I have spent a lifetime going into relationships doing exactly what I knew my partner wanted even though I was not comfortable with it and then having to back out again because I couldn’t cope with it. I don’t know why I do it but I presume I’ve learnt through life that if I don’t please people I’ll be punished for it. Even at 41 I’m still the same and have been accused of wanting everything on my terms and that nobody will accept me if I do not do what’s expected in a relationship. I’m not saying these people are intending to do me any harm, quite the opposite, but it’s very hard for NTs to accept that some people may not be comfortable with the physical side of a relationship especially early on. Reading these words has given me the confidence to try and stand up for myself in these situations.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Very pleased to hear it. I’ve heard similar over the years. I finally realised that I don’t actually want to be with someone I’m not compatible with, and I can only find that out if I’m me. There is no ‘one way’ to be in a relationship.

      I think NTs often say things like “relationships are compromise” without taking into account that if you’re not NT, you may not know that compromise depends on the situation, it’s not a set rule.

      The person who is right for you will want you to be comfortable and happy. It’s far better to be happily single, than uncomfortable in a relationship.

      Liked by 3 people

  13. Reblogged this on The Dependent Independent and commented:
    For anyone actually looking to understand autism (instead of leaving it to stereotypes or misuse of the term), or care about human rights for that matter.

    Every individual is different, regardless of strengths and weaknesses, etc. The spectrum is broad enough, I should know, seeing so many people on it. (And being an Aspie myself.)

    Actually autistic people must be allowed to lead the understanding & conversation.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. You have hit every chord in my body and it’s vibrating! I’ve felt your pained experiences throughout my life. Rejecting to listen to my body with these paradoxical set of social rules we will never understand.
    20 years in the making, I’m finally able to release my body and mind from their restraints. Now, I relish in my socially inappropriate self and blunt manner haha
    I’m so happy you’ve written this ! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you for this insight. I’m an NT and I was highly intuitive and highly sensitive, and had selective mutism. I received the same treatment and had the same experiences. My intuition was wrong and my sensitivities were wrong etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Rhi, you say this near the top, ~When you tell the people who love you that you want them to stop doing something that hurts you, and the response is, “No it doesn’t hurt you, I will not stop”, what are we teaching our children?~

    I can tell you. We are teaching them that gaslighting is an acceptable behavior. Because when you say, “I hurt because X.” and they tell you “no, you don’t. You’re fine. You have SUCH an imagination! What a kidder!” or “Are you nuts? Nobody finds that painful! You’re just trying to get attention, again!” This is CLASSIC gaslighting, a very popular abuse tactic. We are also saying that only people who love you will gaslight you. Which opens young adults up to extremely dangerous and at least dysfunctional adult relationships. I survived a very violent one. Based on this very problem.

    I believe that most people who gaslight others don’t even know it is abusive. They simply don’t understand that it’s unreasonable to apply their personal comfort levels to everyone else they encounter (a common issue with humans). That they do it at all tells me they were raised by (or their parents were raised by) someone who was dangerous – and therefore they learned this behavior as normal and reasonable. I think very few folks do it deliberately. I suspect that mostly they do it because they literally don’t know how dangerous and self-erasing it is for those who are on the other side of the conversation.

    My more recent doctors have said I have an extremely high pain tolerance and I believe them. After all, I have evidence of 50 broken bones in my body based on healed bones. To my knowledge I’ve never had a broken bone. As you say, also, ~It took me a very long time to understand that my pains were real.~ Yeah. This, exactly. Because from parents, teachers, doctors, etc. when i was small came the “What an imagination!” and “It’s psychosomatic.” Which came to mean the same exact thing to me. I’m not real.

    Thanks again for sharing this, Rhi. Your work helps me remember me. #DeepGratitude

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are very welcome.

      Gaslighting is exactly what it is. I did write a post about that back in 2016. It’s a terrible thing to do to anybody, and whilst you’re right and I don’t believe parents or teachers mean to do it, it sets you up for the abusers who will know what they are doing. You have already learned not to trust your own choices, overriding your boundaries has become second nature.

      You are real. I’m real too. All our experiences are completely real and as valid as anyone else’s. What we teach our children they will take on into adulthood. And the first lesson must be that they are real.

      Thank you for your thoughtful post. I’m so sorry they didn’t understand us 💐

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Pingback: The Four Social Rules every Autistic Person needs to Learn – Autism and Expectations – The Queer Autistic

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