Autistic Insights: Terra Vance on Relating Through Autistic Identity

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In this webinar, presented by Terra Vance with support from Kate Jones of NeuroClastic, Terra explores the topic of relating to Autistic people through Autistic identity, and how to forge authentic relationships.


Hello everyone. I’m Terra Vance and I’m the CEO and Founder of NeuroClastic. We are an Autistic-led nonprofit and have with me today, Kate Jones, who is the Chief Communications Officer at NeuroClastic, and is here for executive functioning and tech support for me, so thank you, Kate. And today we’re gonna be talking about relating to Autistic people through Autistic identity and building authentic relationships.

But before we do that, we need to talk about what identity means. And so, identity is defined thousands of times across literature differently, but I tried to take all of the more mainstream definitions and condense them to one smaller definition, and that is a person’s identity or their core sense of self is where they are, how similar or different they are to others in their same social intersections. And so when we talk about social intersections, these are things that you are born with and/or things that you come into on your own. And so things like race, ethnicity, and culture are things that you’re born with, but also your practice of culture and how similar or different you are from others in your intersection defines you. So you might be more defined as being different from an intersection. So you might be nothing like other people from the same culture and might actively rebel against that, that dominant culture that you come from. And so that also is a part of identity. So it’s not just sameness. Okay, it could be differences too.

Religion, that’s a big one that people often are the opposite of their identity intersections. And that’s still very important to them, but differently from the mainstream or exactly like the mainstream, just each person is different, gender, age, life stage, whether or not you’re married or a parent, your native culture and language, if you’re disabled or not, your profession, political orientation. And that one is a lot bigger in some countries than others. In the United States, that has become a huge identity marker that for a lot of people, socioeconomics, class, and family size. So all of these things and more make up a person’s identity.

And if you look at this, this is Liz, just a hypothetical person. She’s Latine, a woman, an EMT, (That’s an Emergency Medical Technician. Someone who drives or works on an ambulance usually), a spouse, middle class, Christian, heterosexual and non-autistic. And so if you look at the dials, they show how similar or different she is or how much of her core self is made up of these identities. You look at EMT and it’s turned all the way up. So that’s a huge part of her identity. Spouse is a very small part of Liz’s identity. So if you ask Liz who she is, she might not even mention that she’s married because that just isn’t a huge part of her core self. She’ll probably start with telling you she’s an EMT because to her, that’s very important. And I want to propose a different theory of what it means to be Autistic because Autism is not all the co-occurring conditions that we often have, it’s not sensory dysregulation. Some Autistic people do not have sensory issues in any substantial way that impairs their quality of life or makes them need to do things very differently. So you can’t say that that’s what it means to be Autistic. And lots of people have sensory processing differences who are not Autistic. So I want to propose, and this is not a casual theory. I worked on this for six years, that Autistic people, what it means to be Autistic is to have an identity construction that’s different. So I spent six years asking people, hundreds of thousands of people one question, who are you? And their answers were pretty uniform across non-autistic people and pretty uniform from Autistic people. So that it became pretty easy for most people, though there were outliers on both sides, to just kind of immediately determine if they’re probably Autistic or not. And so when we ask, “Who are you?”, non-autistic people almost unanimously answered by naming social identities, usually beginning with race, parental and marital status. So they would start with, for instance, I’m a Black mother and a military wife, or somebody might say that if I ask within a group like a social media group or forum that was specific, they would often start with something related to the group that they were currently in. But when I ask Autistic people, they almost never mentioned anything external and almost never mentioned anything related to other people. When they answered who they are, their answers started with things like I am honest, I am a lover of justice, or they might talk about an interest that they were extremely invested in like Autistic advocacy or trains or astrophysics and black holes and theoretical physics. But they started with things that they really loved to describe themselves. And that’s not to say that they didn’t sometimes mention other things about themselves, but for the most part, that’s how Autistic people identified themselves. And so when we think about this construct, we can start to apply it to lots of things related to the struggles that Autistic people face socially. And this identity difference is at the core of all of them.

And so, Autistic identity is value and passion based and how similar or different you are to other people has no bearing whatsoever. It’s just which one of these, which of these things specific to you make up the dominant sense of who you are as a person. And so this is my, Kate drew these, uh, these slider boards, and this is my best attempt at showing where I am right now, but these numbers have differed over the span of my life. I was a teacher for 14 years, so that’s always gonna be a part of my identity, but it’s not a huge part right now because I’ve rejected a lot of, you know, I’m unlearning a lot of what I had learned during that time to be not that effective for all students.

Anti-racism has always been a huge part of my identity since my earliest memory. So I put that at an 11. And Moby Dick and Invisible Man, those are literature, those are novels. And those are huge parts of my identity, really into antique glass, all things glass. So that one, but not… it doesn’t come anywhere near as close to defining me as things like the Autistic community. And I’m Melungeon, which is a tri-racial group of people from the Appalachian region in the United States. It’s a small group of people with native American, Romani and Black heritage, that to stay alive, had to kind of erase their ethnic identity and try and pass as white so that they could own land, vote, pass an inheritance to their children and so forth, avoid genocide. And that is a huge part of my identity right now, but hasn’t always been because I just didn’t, it just wasn’t in my awareness. So it’s been something that I’ve focused a lot on lately, and these things all begin to meld into each other and how they overlap and relate. And I feel like that is a much better way to look at an Autistic person’s core self. So these things differ from a non-autistic person because they’re entirely unique to me, but that doesn’t mean anything.

This doesn’t mean that I have less intense or less meaningful relationships. It just means that I’m not defined as much by my relationship to other people and vice versa. And that doesn’t mean that non-autistic people don’t have values and passions. It’s just that their core self is more defined by their social intersections.

So let’s look at the social impact of what this means. If your identity construction or your core sense of self is different from everyone around you. And no one talks about these differences, you’re going to end up with people around you who are very similar on paper, but you are at constant odds in ways that are super hard to explain. And hopefully the identity theory will help you to understand those conflicts and those differences. And if you are non-autistic to support and make room for Autistic identity, because there are values to Autistic identity and just to communicate across neurotypes in ways that are more effective, that you can actually see each other.

So with problem solving, because Autistic people are not self defined by their social intersections. When they problem solve, they’re looking at the net gain for the greater good, which includes all people, the environment and everything else. And non-autistic people tend to problem solve based on the net gain to their most dominant social intersections. And neither of these things are conscious. We kind of all just live, assuming that others operate the same way because on paper, and even with their words, they say the same things. Oh, I see I have a typo in “appear”, please apologise. I mean, forgive me for that, I apologise.

So non-autistic people subconsciously protect their social intersections, which is not inherently bad. You work at a place that you love. You are very invested in the vision of your workplace. So you are maintaining the health of your workplace as a priority because that’s inseparable from your core self if that’s a social intersection for you, that’s that matters a lot to you. And so you may be making decisions based on how that benefits your social intersection as compared to how that benefits all people in the world equally, neither of these are better or worse. There are definitely benefits. You would, your family is a social intersection and you would probably more quickly run into a burning building to rescue a family member than you would a total stranger. Because it’s not inherently bad or wrong to protect your social intersections.

But if there is a person who protects the greater good, because they don’t feel their identity is tied up in that social intersection, then they may be proposing something that everyone should be listening to, right? Because that’s that novel thinking that gets ascribed to Autistic people. And this might be why, because their identity is different. So their priorities are different and professional roles, non-autistic people tend to advance within their field. They tend to take advantage of opportunities and things that advance them within social hierarchies.

And so, if you don’t feel that your core self is defined by social intersections, you don’t feel any, hierarchies don’t even feel real to you. They just are a non-entity. Everyone has a role that contributes to the greater good of society in Autistic minds. And again, all Autistic people are different. I’m not saying that this is every Autistic person at all times, but these are trends that hundreds of thousands of Autistic people have read this and agreed, yes, this totally fits them.

And the way that they’re wired and it totally explains how Autistic people tend to be the perpetual whistleblowers, right? Because if your social identity requires you to stay quiet about a problem to maintain the health of your group, because it seems too hard to solve, the Autistic person is gonna call that out because they don’t have, they’re not trying to protect the social identity or the hierarchies in place. They’re trying to protect the greater good. So, instead of contributing to the social identity, they might be contributing more to like overall innovation and how it serves the greater good or that it accommodates for those with the least amount of privilege, not just those in that social intersection, not just ensuring the health of the hierarchies that are in place in relationships.

So this one’s a big one. Autistic people tend to relate the most based on shared interests and values. And at the beginning of any relationship, it usually appears that everyone is relating based on shared interests and values, but there’s that subtle undercurrent of you’re … if you’re non-autistic, the person that you’re in a relationship with will also have you as part of their intersection socially. So to become one in quite a literal way, meaning that other people, sorry, I just dropped my phone. Other people become a part of your core identity because they’re in your social intersections, but that doesn’t mean the same thing for Autistic people.

Other people do not have any or very little weight on our core sense of self. And so we don’t naturally behave in ways that might rank you up socially. So our behaviours might be embarrassing because they’re threatening the group norms. In all places, we are always a threat to group social intersections and group norms and group hierarchies, because we don’t see or value them in the same way. And you can move that forward, Kate.

So I know this is a lot to cover in a short amount of time, but there are resources that we will link in the description that you can explore this in more depth. I’m sorry for buzzing through here. So to relate across neurotypes, how do we do that? Because what Autistic people protect, nurture, bond over, admire, like, dislike, desire, need, those things are prioritised differently in ways that without identity theory, it’s very hard to define. So if you understand the identity differences, you can start to understand and get some insight into the tools that you need to thrive in mixed neurotype or Autistic and non-autistic relationships. And also two Autistic people can learn about these identity differences and better support each other through identity, right?

So what does it mean to be in a relationship for a non-autistic person? Most people, neurotypicals and other neurodivergents who are not Autistic, inherently, their socially derived identities are social, right? So their relationships are a part of their identity. And that means your children’s behaviour is a part of you. And so you might feel more pressure to get your children to conform, right, to assimilate, to mesh and thrive within existing social intersections that you’re already in, to fit them into your world, without making your world change. And no matter what you get that Autistic person to do behaviourally, it’s never going to work out well because they’re never going to be wired to care about social hierarchies and social intersections in the same way. They might do it for survival. They might understand it, but they won’t feel fulfilled and they will never feel like they’re truly being themselves.

So relational health for non-autistic people often depends on pairing with people who have the same social intersections and the same status within those social intersections. So when you go to a school cafeteria and you see lots of attractive, athletic, wealthy people sitting at one table, and you see lots of like the counterculture kids, the skater kids at one table, and the Goth kids at one table, these are people falling into social intersections, right? And having their own internal hierarchies that are a part of the larger, more systemic social intersection of student. And this kind of social division might get more sophisticated the older we get, but it continues throughout entire lives, right? And so, relational health kind of depends on who is contributing to your social intersections, right? Who is helping you be where you want to be in the world because other people and your social identities matter to you a lot. And so, that’s your core self.

For Autistic people, it’s not the same. Inherently value-driven identities and interest-driven are personal, right? They’re only within you and not related to other people. And so that person doesn’t feel their core sense of self is very impacted by other people in social intersections. And the instinct for Autistic people then is to pair with other people who have their values at the forefront. So for me, anti-racism has always been a huge value for me. It’s always been a driver, like, I used to get in trouble in kindergarten for like calling out racism in history class, right? Because American history and I’m from the United States is very wrought with things like slavery and genocide. And so, I used to get in trouble for protesting these things. No one taught me to do that, it was just my values. That was important to me that we not promote that, but that made me a troublemaker, even if other people said they hated racism. They also did not want to think of themselves as being complicit in that so they … My challenges were calling teachers out and that wasn’t okay to them because I was challenging their core self, I realise now. And I would ideally take a different approach, but kindergarten self wasn’t here yet. But anyway, so Autistic people tend to look for others who have the same values or the same passions. And so the things that they do together tend to be in a spirit of advancing those values and passions, as opposed to advancing within fields and within social intersections, like on a social hierarchy, it’s more about the calls than the place in relation to the other people. Okay, you can move that forward.

So how do we build, authentically, relationships with Autistic people using the identity theory? First of all, a lot of your conflicts, you need to explore to see if they are in some way, challenging an Autistic person’s passions or values. Most Autistic people I’ve met and that’s literally hundreds of thousands, I interact with the Autistic community all day, every day. Most Autistic people, very much value autonomy, right? The human right to make your own decisions and live your life in a way that works for you without being influenced by people outside of you. So you need to explore your conflicts to see if values might be, is your conflict impinging on their values and their passions? Is it challenging their values? Are you shutting them down and treating them like they’re rude or they just don’t understand when they’re trying to tell you why something bothers them? And these are your bigger conflicts, right? Your more existential things, not like pick up your shoes, which there again, there’s your autonomy piece because you’ve given an order. But I mean more like you might think that they’re arguing with you, but they believe that you are as… that your core self is made up of values, ’cause nobody talks about these differences. So we don’t understand that we have different identity constructions until hopefully now we can see things that way, realise that two people do not become one.

You may feel that when Autistic people don’t do these demonstrations of affection that are socially typical, that that is a reflection of how much they care for you. Or if they’re not trying to be seen with you in public, they’re not participating in the things that you do, explore these with that person through the lens of identity differences, right? Because… you may feel like they’re neglecting a core part of you because to you, their existence is a part of your core identity, but it likely is not the same for them. And your existence is not a core part of their identity. So if you need to be in a team with an Autistic person, then you need to evaluate how you can engage their passions and identities, as opposed to putting them in social situations where they know from experience that they’re going to be at odds with other people. And it’s just going to either force them to mask and hide their true self and become what others need to be socially advanced in hierarchies, or they’re going to be at odds because that’s not a core part of their true self and they’re performing that. And their passions are their core identity. We start with Autistic kids at, you know, a very young age saying that they have inappropriate levels and restricted interests.

No, they have intense passions. And so, as adults, Autistic people have been socialised to tone down and mute their passions, their whole lives. And so they’re gonna be filled with resentment, even if they don’t consciously know that, they’re going to resent efforts to cause them to tone down their passions all the time. And when you don’t want to listen to it because you think it has nothing to do with you, is it because it has nothing to do with advancing you in a social identity because that is their true identity. So you need to think about how much pressure has been on this person as the minority in a world where most people do have a totally different identity instead of priorities.

How fair is it to ask this person to to be the things that you need without even considering how core to their true identity their passions are that they’re not allowed to talk about? So we see Autistic people are solitary and no, we’re not. You’ll find a lot of Autistic people in like, like Minecraft groups or other special interest groups online. And they might be advancing and doing great as experts in fields because that’s their core identity. They often get painted as a rogue because they do things differently, but nurturing your relationships with Autistic people needs to start with nurturing their passions and realising that that is a part of their core self. And you can move that forward, we’re about done now.

So, thank you so much. And thank you for having NeuroClastic on this platform. We’re so excited to be a part of it, and you can, we’ll add some links to the presentation description so that you can easily access, or you can just go to NeuroClastic and search the keyword “identity” to get more information. And we’ll even link you to some handouts that you can use to plot your own identity and think about what it is that makes you who you are, your core self, and use this with your clients, your children, your partner, your students, and try and understand these identity differences, how you’re similar and different at the core level, your whole sense of who you are. And hopefully, this can be the beginning of building bridges and adding to the depth and nuance of your relationships. Kate, did you have anything to add? Nope, well, thank you so much for doing this and thank you for having me.


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The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh peoples.

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