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This past week has been nothing short of amazing on many fronts in the world of cognitive dissonance. At work, I was honored by being offered a key position in a critical program at one of the largest high tech companies in the world. On the day, I received my official offer letter, the word started to trickle out in my group. I have been receiving handshakes, congratulations and assurance from my boss and other leaders that this is a great honor and opportunity. Everyone is thrilled for me and for the company. I rest knowing that I am amongst the top in the world at the work that I do and brace to continue towards being even better. I am proud for this work that makes such a contribution to the world at large. I wore my favorite black hoodie to my job interview. This is a world where I feel acceptance and am valued and it is good.


In the past few weeks, I have been taking some vacation time to attend some Autism related conferences in an effort to expand my knowledge and make my work better there. This is a world that is uncomfortable for me at best and downright hostile at worst. Don’t get me wrong. I realize that these professionals are trying to do well. I know they have good intentions. But I was literally brought to tears in one of the events. This is amazing because I am so strong. I fear today for those who are not so strong.

One of the professional sessions I went to was particularly hurtful to me. I do not know if it was because it was the last of many but I think that doesn’t matter. Suffice it to say that ALL of them had elements of this person’s sessions so all of them should listen to this perspective. The session began well with the speaker talking about ASD versus NT as a culture. I was happy to hear this opening. I also know that I had some influence on this perspective as I had given this to him privately in email and also through at least one of the clinicians that he works directly with. From there, however, the cultural perspective thing sort of went downhill. The speaker was dynamic, quick, fluid and exceedingly witty. Humor was his main way of reaching his audience and he delivered well judging by the audience who was laughing several times each minute. He was very good overall as a speaker. The problem was that he used humor about autistic people primarily and he spoke ONLY to the NTs in the audience despite the fact that he knew we were there.

Think about going to a conference on Women and who Women are as a culture. Then think that you show up and 90% of the audience is male and the speaker is male. He opens up with kind words but then delivers the whole rest of the day with imitations of women and how women feel from his perspective. Each time he makes a different perspective than a male perspective the audience laughs with him. Think about how creepy that might feel.

So it was with me in that (and the other) sessions. This session was worse than those others because humor was such a big part of the communication style. An example of this is when he talked about how he knows when a Mother (or Father) of a child is autistic during the session where he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child. He said, “I have a good picture of how it looks when an NT Mother hears this message…” (and here he does NOT describe what that looks like but assumes that I will just know so I sit there with a blank picture) Then he goes on to say that he knows the parent is autistic when he sees the following… He stiffens his body up then and puts on his robot voice and he says, “Okay, so let me see if I got this. I need to see about OT, ABA, understand about sensory integration….etc…) As he is going through this I am thinking to myself that YES, this is the good way to approach the information that there is a diagnosis. Facts will help the child and this person was seeking facts… But my thoughts are disrupted by an audience who is in full belly laughter at this person’s imitation of an ASD person. I found myself wondering what was so funny. Then I wondered if I said anything if it would not be turned around on me as not having humor. My heart grew heavy as I realized that these people were supposed to understand and accept me. That these are the people who are committed to making my life better.

You see if he really was wanting to be funny AND to make it about respecting cultures, he could have pulled it off IF he made fun of both equally AND he understood that there were ASD people in that room so that he did not assume that we would know what it looks like when an NT parent receives a dx for their child. Alas he did not do that. He did make some references to how funny NT people were but mostly the day was spent with me missing pieces of the conversation (the NT perspective of the scenario he was setting up) then followed by me thinking “Yes, that is how I too feel” as he imitated how the ASD person thought.. but having those feelings be interrupted by an entire room full of parents and professionals laughing at me.

Ironically, I was wearing the same black hoodie that I wore earlier in the week when I was interviewed and accepted into this key job at one of the largest high tech companies in the world. And yet the goodness of my new position and all the praise and accolades by my coworkers and friends was completely lost in the moment that the room burst into laughter when this professional speaker made fun of the “ASD uniform” (the one which I was clearly wearing).


Related Articles (seems I am not the only one that feels this way) Since posting this story, so many people (Both ASD and NT) have come forward to say that they feel the same way. Mine is hardly an isolated incidence.
A breakdown of my story here
Here is yet another example of this humor from that presentation and why it is NOT funnyAnother story from earlier this decade (It seems this has been going on for awhile)
Here is Tony getting called out by ASAN
In this interview he explains his humor approach and defends it citing he does it to NT equally (uh.. no, he does not)RCR does a GREAT article on why mocking a disability is the wrong thing to do...
Corina Becker take on the story
I wrote to tony to explain to him that he hurt me. Rather than apologizing (admitting that he had done any sort of thing wrong), he suggests that I am too autistic to understand his sophisticated humor. Then he offers me psychotherapy for my "obvious" mental health issues. This is one of the most patronizing emails I think I have ever received as a grown up human being. It is very clear that Tony does not see Autistic adults as being capable or well human beings.
You can read how the Autistic community responds to this apology here and also read my response. I do not expect him to ever speak to me again but hopefully he will grow from this.




From: Tony Attwood
Sent: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 5:49 PM
To: Fisher, Karla;
Subject: Laughter


Dear Karla,

First, congratulations on your new job. Second, my sincere apologies that you were hurt and
offended during my presentation. I value your abilities and insight and have reflected on your e-
mail.


You may remember during the presentation that I spent some time focussing on the psychology
of laughter. I explained that psychologists consider there are 3 forms of laughter, based on
ridicule, social bonding and incongruity. Unfortunately, people with Asperger’s syndrome
primarily experience a great deal of ridicule, especially at school when being subjected to
bullying and teasing. They are frequently laughed at. This is an extraordinarily painful
experience, and one that I try to prevent.


Neurotypicals also laugh ‘with’ rather than ‘at.’ This is not derogatory and is a social bonding
activity, an essential characteristic of neurotypical friendships and social groups. A situation of
emotional significance is recognised and shared and the bonding is through laughter.


The third form is incongruity as occurs with Monty Python humour. The confusion regarding
incongruity is sometimes described in England, as a difference between funny ha ha and funny
peculiar.


You describe your feelings that the “entire room full of parents and professionals laughing at
me”. My perception of the event was that the laughter was an expression of neurotypical social
bonding, not ridicule, and certainly not directed at you personally. I realise that the laughter may
have reminded you of times when you have been the subject of ridicule through laughter, hence
your understandable distress.


Again, my apologies, it was not my intention at all to make fun of people with Asperger’s
syndrome, people who are my family members, friends and colleagues. I will absorb your
comments and concerns but I hope I have explained my perspective of the situation and I
certainly appreciate your perspective.


Best wishes,

Tony


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My response to Tony....

Thank you for your response but I think you cannot be more off the mark. You cannot just brush this off Tony with "the Autistic is simply misreading you and so everything is okay"... You need a new perspective on this one. Please do not patronize me in this manner. I am not a psychotherapy client. I am not socially insecure or damaged by a childhood of bullying. I am in the very top percentage of the world for IQ and have always been given/shown much respect for that piece of my neurology. I am self-made with more money than I can spend, more titles than I can remember, more awards and patents than I can list. I am also single parent to 2 adult and thriving children (1 NT and 1 ASD) who both love me dearly and are my BFFs. I regularly give presentations to hundreds in my line of work. I have nothing to feel inferior or weird about when I am in that room full of NTs. I am very comfortable in my way of living and find you people to be the weird ones. LOL! I also am known to have very good humor and understand well the different types of humor. Most of my friends are NTs.

When my “context” is the same as yours, I am more than capable of laughing WITH you….

What I do not have Tony is skills in the area of Abstraction and I am surprised that this is not obvious to you as the root cause. This means I do not have ability to see things the way you see them as an NT nor do I know what that looks like even. In other words I am left with NO context of the jokes that you lay out. You need to be able to support someone with that sort of disability in your presentations. You cannot assume when you are setting up jokes that I know what it looks like when an NT person does xyz… You have to explain it clearly. And since you are in the business of making fun of people you should make fun of them too. (You do this occasionally in your presentations but very seldom in comparison.) See THEN it would be funny to me too perhaps.

If I was some single voice in the world complaining about this, then perhaps you could brush this under the rug. I am not. Since my story posted, I have received a lot of feedback from people NTs and ASD who have been to your presentation and felt the same. You are hurting a lot of people. Is that okay?

Finally Tony PLEASE read this very important post by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg about why this sort of thing that you do is VERY slippery slope for you to be on as a white/male/NT/Authority. No matter how you look at it, you are setting up the NT caregivers in that room to laugh at us Tony. Make no mistake about it. I love the fact that you do not teach doom and gloom. I also love most of what you have to say. But when you teach it like this it does not help us and you are not an ALLY. In my work in ASD-Land I am presented with suicidal kids all the time because the whole world thinks that it is okay to laugh “with each other at the situation” when in reality the world is laughing at us because they do not understand our context/perspective.

Tony you have MUCH to learn to be an ALLY to autistic people like me. If ever you are open to learning, I will be happy to work with you a bit on perspective taking and ASD social skills as you are missing some MAJOR pieces of these two things in your presentation to being able to support autistic people as a culture. There is a saying in Anthropology that, “to walk in my shoes you will first have to remove yours.” So far, I am not seeing that you are interested in this with your justification/attempt at apology after being prompted by Craig.

That said, I appreciate the attempt. There are no hard feelings from me as I feel that you are truly just ignorant. My hope is that you will reflect on this some more and decide you want to grow from it.

-Karla