There is a phenomenon familiar to those who make animated films and robots known as “the uncanny valley.” We are generally comfortable with animation that looks like the old Loony Toons cartoons, and we are comfortable with much of the extremely life-like animation we are starting to see in contemporary movies, but there is a place in between where people feel sort of creeped-out by the fact that the animation is almost realistic, but not quite. This in between place is the uncanny valley.
I have often wondered why people have such a negative reaction to me and many verbal autistics. With my education, I shouldn’t have such a hard time finding and keeping a job. In short interactions, I can appear non-autistic, I can be quite funny, maybe even a bit charming. But I seem to wear on people. I don’t suffer fools lightly, and my bluntness can certainly make people not like me. I generally try to avoid certain topics, especially at work, but even when I do my best to avoid topics that set me off on a rant, or on a lecture, and even when I’m doing my best to be funny and charming, I still find people become increasingly standoffish over time.
I believe what is happening is that people are feeling the uncanny valley when they experience my behaviors over the long term. That is what is making people uncomfortable and wanting to avoid me. There are days when I just can’t pretend, and I’m sure that on those days, the uncanny valley is being felt by others to a higher degree.
The problem, in other words, is that I’m human, but not quite human enough.
I suspect, too, that we autistics feel much the same way toward neurotypicals. In my case, though, while I felt that way much of my life, I stopped feeling that way once I realized I was autistic myself. Realizing that neurotypicals can’t help their behaviors, and no longer wishing I could fix them all and make them better, more rational, more creative thinkers, helped me realize that they were all simply different, not worse. It was a lesson in humility, to be sure.
In many ways, it’s easier for people to simply look to the non-verbal autistics and feel sorry for them and want to cure autism. They are foreign enough that it’s easy to not feel fully uncomfortable–or, perhaps, to feel sufficiently uncomfortable that wanting to get rid of them all is itself a comfortable way of thinking.
Autism is a different way of being in the world and a different way of thinking. In many people, it can be combined with other issues to become disabling. We all know that. But many of the issues people like my son and me (who are diagnosed with autism I and II, respectively) face involve the way we’re treated by neurotypicals, and the environments into which we are thrown. With the right environment, many of us aren’t disabled at all. I mean, we don’t call a fish on land disabled because it cannot walk. It’s simply not in the right environment. Even mudskippers cannot move around on land even as well as a snake. It would be absurd to call a mudskipper a disabled cheetah.
Perhaps if we understand that we are all feeling the uncanny valley when we are interacting with neurodivergent people, we can come to a better understanding of each other. We can come to respect those who experience the world in different ways, perhaps even come to appreciate the fact that there are people in the world who are different from ourselves, who think differently, who experience things differently, and therefore will necessarily make different kinds of contributions to the world than we could.