Showing Respect

Some parents were discussing the trouble their AS-diagnosed kids got into for failing to "show respect." I responded:

I think it is important to "unpack" the concept of "respect." Most NTs seem to know automatically that there are many different ways to "show respect." The appropriate way to "show respect" in any particular situation depends on the status of the person to whom the "respect" is being "shown." I put those words in quotation marks to emphasize that this kind of "respect" is a ritual that literally is "shown." It is "enacted," demonstrated by means of often subtle combinations of body posture, spacing (how far one stays from another person), tones of voice, choice of words, and no doubt many other factors of which the NTs are unconscious and which I haven't yet been able to perceive after decades of observing and reading about NT behavior.

No wonder an AS child has trouble "showing respect." There is no one way to do it, every way to do it is a complex ritual, and one must be able to "read" signs of status in another person before one can chose the particular form of "respect ritual" to enact. Plus, each interaction with a person who requires a "show of respect" will be somewhat different. One needs to be able to "read" the emotional content of the situation (often this information is provided by body language invisible to an AS person) and analyze the NT perspective that makes the NT feel entitled to certain behaviors on the part of the AS person.

I was brought up to *feel* respect for everyone, based on the belief that everyone deserves at least a basic level of respect. The times when I found my respect for a person eroding was when adults refused to recognize that I deserved respect also. Of course, those occasions often occurred when I came into contact with adults whose insecurity (or upbringing) caused them to require a specific *display* of ritualized respect rather than accepting my version of respect. My version of showing respect was to treat everyone the same, expecting all to be decent, rational, well-intentioned, intelligent, and open-minded. Sometimes I was disappointed, almost always by adults who felt their authority threatened by a little girl who didn't perform (in body language and verbal language) rituals acknowledging and thus reenforcing their status. It still seems pitiful to me that some adults need that kind of support from children.

I think helping children learn to *feel* respect for others is much more important than teaching children to "show respect." For AS/autistic children, learning to "show respect" appropriately may be simply impossible. It depends too much on what we don't have -- the ability to "read" non-verbal communication. Acknowledging that all deserve a basic level of respect (and then increased respect based on their behavior and qualities) will help the child throughout his/her life and also makes a person feel more at ease in the world, more optimistic.

If it is necessary for a child to be trained to "show respect" in a ritual manner in certain situations (as with police), it's probably best to approach the training in a very open manner. Not "this is how we show respect," but more like: Interaction with police can be dangerous, even life-threatening; therefore we all need to learn ways to behave that will prevent conflict or defuse potentially dangerous interactions. Then teach specific body postures, tones of voice, pacing (moving and speaking slowly), etc. Some autistics carry a card to give police; it describes some of the common communication difficulties and encourages the police to ask for clarification rather than acting on the assumptions that apply to NTs.

That would be good advice for teachers, too: Don't assume lack of respect if a "show of respect" is missing." Unfortunately, teaching autistics how to "show respect" in order to have a smoother ride through life (to get better treatment from teachers or co-workers, for example) sometimes backfires. We are accused of being "manipulative" when we perform respect rituals that NTs perform all the time below their level of consciousness. We can't do it that way because we are autistic, and when we do it deliberately, our imitation of NTness may not be good enough to be accepted as "natural."