Understanding Neurotypicals: A Guide for Autistics – Part 1 (Respect)

An image of two hands reaching out to each other across a superimposed bridge. Text reads, "Understanding Neurotypicals - A Guide for Autistics - Part 1 - Respect".

Hello, if you’re new to my website, my name is Jaime A. Heidel, and I’m The Articulate Autistic. I write about living life as a late-diagnosed autistic woman. My main goal is to help neurotypical people understand autistic behaviors, intentions, and motivations so they can communicate more effectively with their autistic loved ones.

I hardly ever write for other autistic people as I’m so focused on making sure we are understood by neurotypicals because I don’t want any more of us to be mistreated, left out, misunderstood, and abused due to the way our brains are naturally wired.

Even though I believe the large majority of the neurotypical population doesn’t intend to cause harm to the autistic community, it happens daily because we speak two different neurological languages.

I feel like I’d like to expand my reach and do some backward translating, if you will. For that, I’ve asked a generous group of open-minded neurotypical volunteers who are willing to do the deep dive it takes to understand their own behaviors and motivations (which are usually automatic and not much scrutinized).

In this new series, I will present one facet of behavior or a social rule that autistic people often struggle with when it comes to understanding their neurotypical counterparts, and I will share the answers I received from my neurotypical volunteers.

Welcome!

Respect

So, part 1, respect. The concept of respect is something I have often struggled with. When I was a child, I was told I “had no respect for my elders” and “no respect for authority”, but, try as I might, I couldn’t get anybody to explain to me what that meant.

What is respect? What would it feel like in my body, brain, and heart if I were to feel respect for someone? How would I know when I felt it? What was its purpose?

As I’ve grown older, I have discovered respect in a way that I understand it, and there are people in the world that I do respect, but it’s because I feel that due to who they are, not who society told me they are.

For example, “respecting elders” or “respecting authority” to me means that I’m expected to automatically defer to someone who is older than me or carries some type of status according to the social hierarchy model of neurotypical society.

I don’t do that. Full stop. I never have, and I never will. Someone must earn my respect before they will have it.

Amazingly, to my autistic brain, neurotypical people appear to be hard-wired to respect those they deem in authority. Even if they don’t agree with their position, the way they handle things, or the way they conduct themselves, they seem to feel that they have to have and show some at least a certain degree of respect for them.

The Doctor Example

A good example would be a doctor who is dismissive of his patient. Let’s say a woman comes in complaining of horrible menstrual cramps every month and the doctor tells her it’s normal and to stop making such a big deal about it. Even though that was her very first appointment with that particular doctor, she automatically respects him because of his status and doesn’t think to question him, ask for medical tests, or get a second opinion.

Two years later, after collapsing at work, she sees another doctor who diagnoses her with severe endometriosis. She now has to have risky surgery and is told she is unable to have children because she was not diagnosed sooner.

Now, for myself, I’ve always experienced severe stomach problems. Doctors hated me. I questioned literally EVERYTHING they told me. I did my own research, I brought it in, I made suggestions, I asked for tests, and all of this was when I was in my 20s! Because of my persistence, I was eventually diagnosed with celiac disease.

But I had no idea that it was considered “inappropriate” to question a doctor, so I never did understand why they got upset with me, but they did. Now that I do know, I’m glad I didn’t back when because I may not have gotten diagnosed at all, and, at the ripe old age of 41, I might be looking at a colon cancer diagnosis right now!

What Respect Means to Neurotypicals

I only have a few neurotypical people helping me out right now by answering these questions, so I will preface this by saying, they are not speaking for all neurotypical people, they are simply offering some insight into the neurotypical mind.

I will keep their names anonymous because I don’t want to risk them getting unwanted messages from others who are (understandably) desperate to understand the NT brain.

(If they ever offer their “translation services” in the future, however, I’d be happy to connect you to them.)

Meanwhile, here are some answers to my question:

“What does respect feel like to you in your brain, body, and heart?”

NT (Neurotypical) 1

“It feels secure like there is an element of safety in the interaction. I’m more relaxed. I watch how they behave. I watch how kindly they treat themselves and other people.”

NT 2

“Respect for others is about valuing their right to be different from me, valuing their right to have their own boundaries.

My respect for others is about sharing my boundaries and hearing theirs so that we can be with each other comfortably. This can be acknowledgment of professional boundaries, or simply telling my partner I’m really tired, I need to be alone.

I feel emotional warmth, physically I am relaxed, and I would smile and enjoy eye contact if it occurred. I would be able to listen with focus as my attention was on the person. My body language would indicate an openness, perhaps sharing similar posture.”

NT 3

“Respecting someone feels warm, kind, easy. When I’ve been disrespectful my body gets tense and the fight or flight response is kicked in. I generally respect everyone until they do something that is scary or disrespectful to others. I have worked really hard to not be disrespectful back because that generally isn’t helpful. I don’t think authority figures are deserving of any more respect than anyone else. Respect is something everyone deserves as a living being.”

NT 4

“Do you mean if I think someone respects me how does that feel to me? If so, I would feel it like a swelling in my whole chest physically. In my heart, I suppose I’d feel a warmth towards that person because to me respect is largely reciprocal. In my mind, a calmness and a surety.

I respect others who have knowledge and share it for the purpose of adding value for others, like you do (as opposed to showing it off just so everyone knows you know it). I respect people who care about other people. I respect people who try hard and build their lives and businesses quietly but with determination. I respect people definitely from a personal or professional experience, as firsthand experience like that can be very different from a public persona that person is putting out. I don’t necessarily respect people because others do, although if someone I respected, respected someone else, I would be more likely to respect them too because I would value that person’s view.

If I respect someone I feel appreciation, gratitude towards them, & inspired and often motivated by them. If I am with someone I respect, I would feel grateful for their company, so warm physical feeling in my heart. I also might feel slightly anxious maybe that they would be disappointed in me for some reason, and I would want their respect back, so maybe the physical feeling of butterflies in my stomach.

I think when adults demand respect from children they want your unquestioning faith in them. Which is hard when you know they are wrong. My daughter used to get into trouble for correcting the teacher. NT teachers believe by their position alone they should be respected without question – instead of thinking wow that kid knows so much I’m really pleased they shared that knowledge with me.”

My Thoughts in Conclusion

From what I’ve gathered from these responses, it seems like respect for neurotypical people is a warm feeling of safety and security. They have specific reasons why they respect someone, and that respect motivates and empowers them. To me, this does make sense. It doesn’t, however, answer the question of “blind obedience” or deference to an authority figure one does not know or trust.

We might have to circle back to that.

Has this been helpful to you? Are there any questions you’d like me to pose to our focus group?

Books for Better Understanding the Autistic Brain

(Whether you’re an autistic person who is newly diagnosed, or you have a loved one on the spectrum, the books below can help you better understand the autistic brain.)

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6 Responses

  1. K says:

    How sure are you that these people are NT? I feel like the type of “NT” who may have come across this page via their autistic child(ren) and is motivated and able to translate their inner experience for autistics may not be so NT after all.

    • jaimeaheidel says:

      I’m not sure how to answer that question. I can’t verify whether or not they are NT, but they say and behave as though they are. NT people can actually be quite self-aware, it just doesn’t seem as common or a sought-after way of being as it is for NDs?

  2. O. M. says:

    Thank you for this. I think you and your NT volunteers are using different definitions of respect, both of which are correct in different contexts. Based on what you write, it seems that you understand ‘giving respect’ to a person to mean ‘showing deference, obedience, and submission’ to that person. This is generally the meaning when adults tell children to respect elders or respect authority.

    The NT volunteers seem (to me) to be talking about mutual respect between adults, which is a very different thing. In this interpersonal context, ‘giving respect’ means something like ‘recognizing a person’s inherent worth, and treating them as if they have value’. In this context, when you say something like “I don’t respect anyone until they have earned my respect” you may be interpreted as meaning “I view other people as worthless, and treat them like they are worthless, until they have proven their worth to me”.

    I don’t think that is what you are trying to say, but I think if you are not very clear that the context is ‘respecting authority’ then NT adults will assume you are using the second definition here, at least most of the time. Thanks again!

  1. February 25, 2021

    […] I’m working on a new series to help autistic people better understand their neurotypical loved ones. This is the second in the series. (If you missed the first one, check it out here.)  […]

  2. March 19, 2021

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