grow up, kiddo: the neurotypical adulthood trap

Something of an ongoing internal conflict with myself, only recently realised and made conscious.

The first part I already knew: I do not like the phrase ‘mental age’. It’s something I associate almost entirely with people sat behind me on the bus burbling out some supposedly-spontaneous chatter about their, idk, cousin, niece, the random child they found in their back garden. Whoever.

I say supposedly spontaneous because swear down there’s some sort of secret script that nobody let me in on. You’ve heard the tune, sing along if you know the lyrics.


BUSGOER 1: Yeah, my cousin/niece/garden-baby has [insert diagnosis here].
BUSGOER 2: Oh, really? like…is it severe, or…?

[Christ, again. Why does this always happen on buses? I never hear this on trains, weirdly. Do people congregate here for the sole purpose of having conversations that I personally will hate? Is it targeted specifically at me?! Hey gang, save your efforts: I’m already irritated, because I’m on a fucking bus.]

B1: Kinda. Like, she’s 19 but she’s basically got a mental age of 8.

[She doesn’t. That’s not actually a thing. Barring an improbable head transplant shenanigan, she’s pretty much had the same lump of matter rocking around her skull for 19 years pinging thoughts and connections about. Changes shape over time, but so does the rest of the body. She has not reached some of the frankly arbitrary social milestones for adulthood maybe but her brain progresses as chronologically as the rest of her.]

S, aka ME: [quietly] Gnnanaarghgh.

B2: That’s such a shame. But I [worked with/saw a youtube video of/was visited prophetically in a mescaline dream] by someone with [diagnosis], and they are always just really sweet.
B1: Yeah, they’re so innocent. It’s so uplifting.

[I know that it is pretty much impossible for anyone to do this accidentally but I for one would be really uplifted if you managed to fall out of the window of this bus somehow. A fair and equal universe would balance the scales for me with this. The universe is neither fair nor equal.]

[and scene.]

I think this is a pretty common dislike, especially amongst actual adults on the spectrum/with an intellectual disability etc.

Conflict, though: even without the autism I think I’d have some of this problem, since it’s not always immediately noticeable that I’m autistic but it is definitely noticeable that, makeup free and in my casual clothes, I look like a twelve year old cartoon character and have pretty much done so for the last decade. And I’m female, all of which conspires to relegate me quite solidly to the realm of Cute.

I do not feel Cute very often. I’m mostly just agitated and unshowered and twitchy, which goes down as kind of like “possibly on coke, probably just quirky, essentially harmless either way since she looks like she’d lose in a fistfight against a strong crosswind” (when you’re 5 foot tall and white, this is how it works. I get the easy end of it – somehow doubt I’d get the same kind of patronising lenience if I were a 6-foot-something black guy, or visibly Muslim. One person’s quirk is another person’s ‘suspicious behaviour’, a discussion for another time, deserving of far more than just a parenthetical aside.)

Anyway. Condescension isn’t actually a universal part of the autistic experience but nevertheless it’s one appendage of the many-limbed arachnoid monstrosity of dehumanisation. Dehumanisation wouldn’t work as well if it manifested identically across all identities.

That’s how they keep so many of us kicked to the curb: play us off against each other while the real problems sneak out through the back door unseen. Make some people thugs, some deviants, make some of us eternal infants and some just too damn addled by their hormonal reproductive systems. We’re none of us the humans that those mythical rational/normal/patriotic “real Brits/Americans/whoevers” are, but as long as we all think of ourselves as different types of animal we lack strength.

At a risk of tangenting too far, it’s the reason why you can be a feminist but still be homophobic: you know the lies about your own identity, but can you be so sharp at spotting the lies about others? It’s also the reason why, for instance, I can feel empathy for the experiences of people of colour but I can’t claim to actually know what it feels like to live on that side of a racist society. Even within the community: I don’t know firsthand the difficulties of being non-verbal, others will not understand the difficulties I face as so-called “high-functioning”. “Doing it for your own good” on one hand, abuse on the other. Slurs being yelled from the window of a van, lack of representation or recognition teaching internalised self-doubt and hatred. It may be the same thing when you get down to the bones – dehumanisation, for an effective self-regulating hegemony, the oppressed oppressing others in turn – but the musculature and the skin of the beast manifest so wildly different for all of us that it’s near-unrecognisable. It makes it harder for us to form a coalition, even with good intentions: focusing too much on the broad common thread of our marginalisation, but the subtleties of lived experience get erased.

I do not like to be treated as a child. Children don’t like to be treated as children, mostly. Children are a group of people who have been told they haven’t yet earned their status as a person, and any complaints they may have are dismissed because as a not-quite-person they don’t know any better, they don’t have the rational capability to know. You think you got problems now? You’ll be in for a shock when you get out into the real world, kid! A ‘childish argument’ is not one made by a child: it’s one made invalid by its association with childhood. The only way to gain any kind of traction in this discourse is to meet the criteria for adulthood first. You can’t empower the identity from inside the house.

But I don’t want to have to fake adulthood, and make no mistake, even at 24 I’d be faking: adulthood is another way of framing neurotypicality.

I’m constantly torn between my status as Recognised Human, where I sit around at family gatherings and nod along to stories of Barbara Whatsherface’s marriage problems or Sue From Wherever’s new extension, as if I could possibly care, or I sit with friends and tut at appropriate moments if they talk about how they went round someone’s house and it was a grody mess, when the only reason I don’t know if there’s any mouldy plates in my room is because there’s too much dirty laundry covering everything.

But then there are times when I’m playing with a younger cousin or running round with a group of vaguely-related tweenagers and someone will say “you’re so good with kids, you’d be a good mum”. And I think, good God no, I wouldn’t. I’m a good babysitter for a couple days. I don’t have the stamina or inclination for motherhood. I just like running around with toys making ridiculous dinosaur noises and jumping off things and getting excited about cartoons, and being in the presence of actual children means I’m not risking my already tenuous status as adult by doing that. I get on well with kids who don’t notice (or at least, don’t care) that I’m falling more into the position of peer or at least slightly-older sibling than Responsible Adult because it’s easy, and it’s what I’d be doing all the time if I had the choice.

There’s not a real choice, though: I could, potentially, decide to stop trying to fit in and to simply get on with the things I find most important. Buuuut since the thing I find most important is prodding around at society until we can find a way to make it treat us like the humans that we are by default, and since my efforts and my words would be too easily dismissed (“for your own good”, of course) if I weren’t able to masquerade long enough to hold my own in specific neurotypical-adult spheres of discourse, the show must go on. Pretty much interminably, but if you happen need a babysitter, I could use a fucking break. I’ll even provide the toy dinosaurs.


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