What does autism have to do with cultural outsiderhood? On aspies, third culture kids and hybrids.

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.


International groups

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.


Resources mentioned:

Third culture kids

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.


Do you relate, have thoughts, or know of related concepts/resources? Please feel free to comment or inbox (e.g. tweet) me.

8 thoughts on “What does autism have to do with cultural outsiderhood? On aspies, third culture kids and hybrids.

  1. You make a lot of good points, and I agree that a broader perspective on the world might make it more likely to find someone or someones you can consider “home.” But I also think that some aspies (not all, by any means) have a turn of mind that is is unlikely to ever find a home. A core difference in brain wiring and processing that owes little to culture or language.

    1. ya. i didn’t actually edit this article so maybe it’s too ambiguous. because actually i partly agree with you – i don’t think it’s about just finding the “right” (sub)culture. even though that’s what i thought in the epoch before i realised i’m an aspie. yes, in my opinion some are clearly a better fit than others. in my experience.

      but at least for me, there’s never a “perfect fit” – where i can do what’s logical to me and it’s not at some point a disaster. and trust me i’ve sampled really a broad variety of places. so that’s why my current idea is that the “solution” is just to build connections to individual people manually, gradually, and that’s it.

      since autistic people are a neurological/biological minority, not being part of a “soup” (some kind of immersive group-feel) … unless it’s the small group of your carefully selected close friends … is probably just part of it. dunno. is that what you meant, or sth else?

    2. wow sorry, i only noticed this comment now! hm, actually really curious if you had anything specific in mind considering that “turn of mind”? yes, i can certainly think of examples.

      perhaps myself am one, in that it seems that basically i’ll never hold opinions that conform with a specific group norm for too long, because i’m too addicted to critical thinking. i’ll find stuff that doesn’t fit even in utopia. and i’ll probably find stuff that makes sense even in my country’s current near-fascist regime, or in religious fundamentalism. i think not many people like that, or even get that – that a person may have nuanced and evolving views (based on constantly needing to learn more stuff) that aren’t tied to rigid friend-enemy alliances or factions. that are primarily factual considerations, basically, not social signals.

      i also had a friend who is like that. always challenges everyone on everything, as a matter of principle, as a kind of intellectual sport. (tho completely not out of ego or a desire to fight, but simply out of a need for intellectual activity and exploration.) well his fate seems to be homelessness so far.

      but perhaps you meant sth more interesting?
      again sorry, no idea how this drowned away in my mailbox.

      1. You mentioned clarity and authenticity, which rang the bell for me. I’m not absolutely sure that the “turn of mind” can be limited to aspies, though maybe we’re more likely to have it. Clarity means insight without biases (at least to the extent we can eliminate biases in our thinking), and that’s something I find extremely rare. But I have very little experience with aspies *as aspies,* and that’s primarily on a forum on which I’m marginally active. I don’t find a lot of insight there, which could just be an artifact of a self-chosen population. Most people aren’t there for intellectual stimulation; they’re there to find companionship and solutions to their problems. I’ve found much more content and intellectual stimulation of the kind I crave on blogs, though it certainly isn’t a superabundance.

  2. Omg yes. I spent my formative years in the US and then moved back to Malaysia. I never really fitted in and I’m not rich so I only started travelling when I was 30. I found that I “fit in” as an individual with my Western friends but there were cultural values that still didn’t match and Asian/Western mindset clashes that hurt me.

    Third culture kid articles usually refer to rich kids and I felt it didn’t describe me. I have wondered if my mum or me were Aspie’s or at least exhibited some symptoms of Aspie’s. I don’t think I’ll ever find a place where I feel at home.

    1. ya. for the some psychological aspects of the “third culture kid” thing fit and were useful, but i also emigrated from a poorer country to a richer one, and i believe in that case there are additional factors. well cause you’re not privileged / protected in the new country basically.

      i imagine your clashes might be much bigger than mine, in my case i moved between the Soviet block (still existed back then) and western Europe, so yes major differences but still kind of all white Europeans.

      and yes, basically for all my life i have regarded what i now consider my aspie traits as an effect of the cultural mix-up. although i saw (puzzled) that other migrants didn’t have it that much; many of my friends are bi-cultural or bi-lingual, and most of them basically seem to assimilate somewhere at a point and don’t torture themselves endlessly over alienation and identity like me. if that makes sense?

      so i’m still not sure which part of the “not belonging” is cultural, but at least learning about the aspie stuff i do think it’s a significant element (explains why other migrants still seem to blend in more easily than me). and it can really get overlooked when there’s just so much other stuff going on in terms of being a cultural outsider. i’ve also seen autistic black and asian people in the US say that (that essentially the autism becomes invisible, as all social difficulty is assumed to be cultural difference).

      so i do actually think that these two things have similarities, and can be confused with each other. and when they are both present, it’s even more complex.

      also i’d be quite curious how “aspie traits” look different depending on the cultural background you compare yourself with. i imagine if you see yourself on a Malaysian “background” you come to another conclusion than if you take the US as the “norm”/reference point.

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