14 April 2021 – Michael Melvin
While people with autism may sometimes exhibit behaviors that are outside of conventional social norms, we need to be more accepting and understanding of their perspectives. Oftentimes, neurotypical people will show a lack of consideration, impatience, and frustration when interacting with autistic people. For someone not accustomed to dealing with people on the spectrum, it can be easy to discredit their arguments as statements, when in reality they are just offering information to the dialogue. This kind of treatment can be harmful to people with autism whether it is intentional or not. As someone whose friend is on the spectrum, it pains me to see this play out first hand. Considering this, I would like to delve into an uncomfortable situation I found myself in where a guest was harassing my friend based off of his inability to argue concisely. Due to the fact that this is based off of real events, I have changed the names to protect those mentioned.
A few weeks ago I was at my friend Kevin’s house for dinner when we were confronted by Sal, a friend of Kevin’s mom. Sal exhibited obvious signs of insecurity, such as frequently discussing his status as a fashion designer. These initial warning signs quickly became red flags when he began insensitively questioning Kevin on personal topics. Kevin, who lies somewhere on the spectrum, was completely oblivious to this guest’s manipulative nature and became very agitated. In the star wars films, Anakin Skywalker is cited saying, “Only Siths deal in absolutes.” This is definitely true for Kevin, who doesn’t have a neurotypical thought process. He builds his reality off of what he sees and takes offense to anyone who makes him question his beliefs because it could tear apart everything he trusts as absolute.
Sal’s incessant questioning put Kevin in a situation that he could not control, which made him visibly uncomfortable. Kevin saw his words as an attack on his existence and began trying to stand up for himself. This proved to be a difficult task for Kevin, as he became more and more agitated by Sal’s responses. This guest was like a chinese ping pong champion who specialized in sick short lobs or psychological manipulation. He came here to beat the living hell out of someone’s confidence and he succeeded.
Initially, I had no idea how I felt about this situation. Eventually I actually became very intrigued because I have had trouble communicating in the past. For someone like Kevin dialogue plays a vital role in putting his perception of reality together. While Sal was obviously insecure during this interaction, that did not make his actions right. Upon further reflection, I realized that there may have been a greater problem at hand. It was not until I watched the 1944 film Gaslight, that I fully understood what actually went down that night: Sal had the audacity to gaslight Kevin in front of his friends and family.
Gaslighting is the act of manipulating people into doubting themselves. While many great Ancient Greek orators have used gaslighting in the past in order to win debates, we are understanding now that this act of emotional manipulation does not promote diversity in dialogue. In the movie Gaslight(1944), Charles Boyer uses his keen intellect in order to prove Ingrid Bergman’s insanity. Like Charles Boyer, Sal used similar techniques in order to gain control over the dialogue. When Sal was questioning Kevin based on his views, he pushed further even after Kevin appeared to have been upset. Another example was when Sal strategically twisted Kevins words for his own personal gains, this was textbook gaslighting if you ask me. There are many other people in the world like Sal who contribute to the continued stigmatization of autism in society. This pattern of abuse towards those on the spectrum has been going on for years and must be stopped.
Baron-Cohen coined the term “mind readers”, which refers to people whose personalities revolve around their own thoughts. Sal tends to fit this description well, as he is obviously very full of himself. Upon first glance, I knew this guy was a schmuck. Regardless of his ego, he should have never pushed Kevin to the point of silence in his own home. This is the act of a complete narcissist and it is frightening that Sal is employed.
Through this situation, I realized that it is important to be mindful of how you interact with people on the spectrum. Luckily Kevin had two great friends next to him who had his back throughout this complete disaster. I feel that Kevin needs to surround his Autism with positivity, in order to combat the social stigma ‘associated’ with people on the spectrum. In order to promote better dialogue, neurotypical people must be able to have a conversation with anybody regardless of how their mind works. Additionally, a conversation will go nowhere if you only talk to people who share your point of view. By diversifying who you converse with, you can get a better understanding of how people other than yourself think and hopefully improve the stigma and mistreatment of those on the spectrum.
Nastase, Daniela. The Gaslighting Trap. 15 May 2020, kmarshack.com/2019/10/10/the-gaslighting-trap/.
“How to Deal With Gaslighting and Narcissistic Abuse.” Motherhood + Mayhem, 9 Jan. 2021, motherhoodandmayhem.online/gaslighting-narcissist/.
OBE, Dr Anna Kennedy. “Autism and Gaslighting – Joely Williams Speaks on ‘All Things Autism’.” Psychreg, 24 Aug. 2019, http://www.psychreg.org/autism-gaslighting/.
Yergeau, Melanie. “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind.” Disability Studies Quarterly, dsq-sds.org/article/view/3876/3405.
“Gaslight.” MGM, 1944.
Lieberman, Jeffrey. Imagine There Was No Stigma To Mental Illness. Tedx Talks, 2016.