Argh. I can’t find the reference now – but I’ve bumped into a text mentioning commonalities between autism and cultural outsiderhood recently; even, in sketchy way, conceptualising autism as a type of cultural outsiderhood.
As a person with an extensive migration background, multilingual, having lived probably in around 6 countries, I believe I actually know a bit about “conventional” cultural outsiderhood. That’s why I’d like to comment on this idea.
What’s the link between aspies and cultural outsiders?
As in, aspies marrying foreigners and new immigrants; aspies idealising other cultures, eras, feeling that they’re in the “wrong” one; aspies living in anthropology, in fiction and other representations of other worlds. Other social realities, actually.
I’m like that myself. Since adolescence, I’ve had extensive pen-friendships with people from other continents. In young adulthood, I moved countries like crazy. I didn’t understand why – I think in part it was a thirst for knowledge and experience; but in another part it was a subconscious search for the culture that would “fit”.
Despite the diversity I’ve experienced, none fully did, so far.
Understanding I’m an aspie has helped me understand, possibly, both the source of this decade of search for identity, and it’s – in large part – fruitlessness.
Aspies and third-culture kids
However, not all of it was fruitless.
I’ve never found “my culture” or “my group” (whatever that is, whether a nationality, class, subculture, professional, special interest or other identity group). I just haven’t. However, it may be interesting to have a look at the ones that have come closest.
Groups with people from various countries were almost always better than mono-cultural and mono-lingual groups.
I used to think that was because people in such groups necessarily had slightly broader horizons – at least, they had moved countries, so they had noticed and accepted that there was more than one way to do things. They had had at least a basic a taste of relativism. (This isn’t actually a general truth about migrants/expats and even travellers, but I used to believe that.) That’s why I thought, they’d be more open, also to me as a person who has grown up between cultures, and doesn’t have the “codes” of any one specific culture down perfectly. (And despite/because of communicating in three languages, I periodically produce/invent weird expressions in all of them.)
Thinking about this now, from an aspie perspective, I think that there might have been an additional reason for why these groups worked at least better than others. Apart from just being more intellectually stimulating for me.
The first reason was that doing unusual things (which I always do) is likely to be interpreted as a cultural difference and ignored/forgiven. So less tiptoeing around, less paranoia about banalities e.g. of how I eat, how I move, how I dance, which references I get and which I do not get. Uniformity and perfect synchronisation isn’t expected by anyone. There’s no one-and-only baseline that I’m being compared to and that I stick out from super-strikingly.
At least, that’s what I felt.
Now I think I was actually wrong, or overestimated this, because I was still largely an outsider in these groups. It was just a bit softer than in others, where it was so striking that I didn’t even enjoy being present because of the jarring gut feeling of de-synch.
Language an authenticity
Another reason … was the sense/experience that in a group of internationals, communication often does become a bit more “simplified” and childlike – most of all when people don’t all speak the language to he same level.
This can be annoying for someone who likes word games or intellectual debates.
But I think for an autistic person it can be helpful and convenient that emotional and symbolic interactions/gestures are often stripped down to the more bare-bones approach – a kind of trans-cultural minimum, in which people communicate only that which has the lowest probability of being misunderstood by people from other countries and continents … very clear, visible gesture of friendship, encouragement, etc.
… perhaps everyone kind of trying to approximate some set of “human universals” in communication. That’s perhaps a smaller and more manageable set than in a shared culture.
Immediate understanding of subtleties is not expected, or at least, again, its lack is more likely to be chalked up to ignorance (those crazy Europeans) rather than rudeness.
Human communication universals
Perhaps, in my perception, that also sometimes led to language and gestures coming a little bit closer to the only use of language that I’m really comfortable with, which is clarity and authenticity.
Or, when there are symbolic gestures: simplicity and explicitness.
Actually I wouldn’t say that people in (deliberately chosen) international groups act more authentic – that probably isn’t true. Perhaps what I perceived was more the latter, using simplified and highlighted (in neon colours) cultural symbols – with perhaps less scope for very subtle, elaborate, complex cultural displays that would be directed at expected “cultural insiders” (and that may be lost on the other if they’re from another culture).
Third culture kids and autistic biligualism
I’ve also realised that multicultural, bilingual people – those who grew up between cultures – were often easier to relate to than those that didn’t.
That could have just been based on shared experiences.
But frankly, my intuition is that multilingualism and multiculturalism can affect one’s thinking style – this isn’t a general rule, but I’ve just found it much easier to talk to people who know, instinctively (and not from graduate study), that A isn’t always A. If you go to another context, A may be B easily. There isn’t really a “true” A. A is just a convention / symbol.
Of course this is an over-generalisation, but people who haven’t experienced migration or grown up multiculturally may have more of a tendency to believe that A is simply A. It’s always A (e.g. eating utensils = forks, not hands or chopsticks). It’s a reality. If someone thinks it’s B … well, that’s just … whatever (weird / to be ignored / irrelevant / wrong).
Developing cross-cultural communication styles
A lot of (deliberate or welcome; when it’s forced or traumatic that may be different) exposure to multicultural contexts, in some circles may lead to developing a communication style that’s a little it more “autistic” (straight and literal).
Specifically, to being relatively explicit and straightforward and literal (to avoid trouble with culture-specific metaphors being misunderstood) and also somewhat meta-analytic about language and communication – reflecting more, becoming less instinctual about one’s language use.
Again, I’m actually not sure about this. I’ve seen this happen with specific people, mostly in academic environments. It may not be a general point.
Universal outsiders idealising other cultures
Currently, my two closest friends are aspies. One is obsessed with hunter-gatherers, eats paleo, and seems to idealise that era and lifestyle – completely out of reach today – as somehow pure and real and … presumably … a place he imagines he’d fit in.
My other friend lives and breather through Asian art cinema and thinks she was meant to be born in Japan. People relate better there.
I was born in Poland, and emigrated to Germany as a small kid. All my youth, I thought that the answer is Poland or just “the East” in general. That I’d find my hidden or lost wholeness there again, “fit in”. Needless to say, I didn’t and don’t (after some repeated painful migration experiences).
For a million reasons, not just for having learnt to cook (well to the degree that what I do that can be called cooking) on Balkan and Pakistani food, and having picked up my self-perception from actually Western queer cultures, and for still interjecting yiddish phrasings (I’m not Jewish) and … having generally incomprehensible views and habits regarding almost everything.
That makes me very skeptical about nostalgia for a “home” elsewhere in geography or history.
Maybe others do find them.
Maybe I still will, heck who knows.
But there is something common to the nostalgias of both third culture kids (and other complex migration people) and those of perpetual outsiders, whether aspies, queers, “over”sensitive in whichever way, and perhaps a whole host of other people.
We all need to project “home” somewhere, worst case into fantasies.
What is home, then?
For some people it’s perhaps the painstakingly (and often painfully gradually / scarcely) constructed slow and complex connections with … the craziest tiny collection of people who, for whatever reason, are / have been made human enough to be content to relate on a very raw and perhaps naked human level – with some kind of felt core, ignoring (or jesting about) the incompatible rest of the packaging.
But seriously, I don’t know, because I’m not there.
My first contact with the concept was via Ruth van Reken‘s book, which has a somewhat elitist focus on kids of diplomats, missionaries, military persons etc. who spent their childhood in a country different than where their parents were from.
I’m still looking for comparably good resources (psychology, community and self-help) simply for grown-up kids with complex migration histories but from less privileged backgrounds.