Why do autistic people struggle with ‘inappropriate’?


Ah, inappropriate. My least favourite word in the whole of the English language.

But the English language has over a million words. Why do I hate that one so much? (Especially since it’s used 29 times in this article?)

Because I just don’t get it.

And of course, plenty of other autistic people struggle too. On Autistic not Weird’s Facebook page [all links open in new windows] I asked people if they were willing to share some of their stories about themselves or their kids doing something inappropriate without realising.

 

The results were amazing.

So, the pictures in this article will be made exclusively from their stories.

Well at least he's paying attention to the beautiful world around him.

Like this one.

 

As a child, every time I got interrupted I’d start my whole story again right from the start. That annoyed people, so in their eyes I was being socially inappropriate. (You know, kind of like interrupting people mid-story. That’s inappropriate too, but they were older than five so they could get away with things like that.)

In all fairness though, people stopped interrupting me pretty quickly once they learned I always started the whole bloody story again. Inappropriate or not, it worked!

 

These days, I’m an adult who goes really really high on park swings, rather than just sit back and watch the kids do it. Nobody has ever been able to explain why it’s inappropriate for me as an adult to have a go too. It just is.

I’m a person who has no problem discussing religious beliefs in large groups. It’s ‘inappropriate’ to talk about it here in Britain, but nobody can tell me why. It just is.

I’m also that dinner guest who takes the last potato rather than let it go to waste, once it becomes obvious that it’s just going to get thrown. Nobody has ever convinced me why wasting food is ever seen as appropriate, or why taking the last potato is a bad thing when literally nobody else in the world wants it. It just is.

I actually went into a nice rant about the ‘last potato problem’ in a recent talk I did. Watch from 1:44.

Nancy happens to host this site too. Which is kind of her.

Nancy happens to host this site too. Which is kind of her.

 

The problem with ‘inappropriate’

Now, very shortly I’m going to answer the titular question and attempt to explain why ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ are tricky for autistic people. But before I do, two reasons why I shudder whenever I hear my least favourite word in the dictionary.

 

Reason 1) In my experience, people often use ‘inappropriate’ as a synonym for ‘I don’t personally like this so I want everyone else to stop it’.

And that’s the magic of ‘inappropriate’: you can cast it like a wizard’s spell. Just take something you have a personal dislike for, slap the grand title of ‘inappropriate’ on it, and it bans everyone else from feeling able to do it themselves.

(If you doubt me, try it yourself. In fact, take the last potato at dinner whilst saying “I don’t like wasting food. It’s inappropriate,” and see whether anyone dares to object.)

 

Reason 2) People often use appropriateness as a substitute for morality.

People, generally speaking, know the difference between right and wrong.

They also know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate.

But not everyone seems able to distinguish between right/wrong and appropriate/inappropriate.

I remember plenty of times when I fell short of other people’s appropriateness standards, and was made to feel as if I had done something morally wrong.

 

You may notice, both of those reasons related to how other people treat appropriateness. Neither of them describe any problem with the words existing. ‘Appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ should exist, but they should exist in much more accessible ways than they currently do.

inappropriate3

He’s just looking out for his mother.

Anyway, presumably everyone opening this article wanted actual answers to the question. So…

 

Why do autistic people struggle with ‘inappropriate’?

I can think of four reasons.

  • Appropriateness is fluid.
  • Appropriateness is discreet.
  • Appropriateness is vague.
  • Everyone has their own definition of ‘appropriate’.

I’ll cover them one at a time under their own headings.

Note that ‘because we’re deficient’ is not one of the reasons. Just because our understanding of appropriate is different to yours doesn’t mean we have to be wrong!

It made perfect sense to him at the time.

It made perfect sense to him at the time.

Now, the detail.

 

Appropriateness is fluid.

Like many kids, I grew up placing a lot of value on right and wrong. And, like many kids, I was hilariously inappropriate at times.

And remember that bit about how adults get right/wrong and appropriate/inappropriate mixed up? Well it took me until I was 18 to notice it… although clearly I noticed it quicker than many of these adults.

 

My main issue with using appropriateness as a form of morality is this:

Right and wrong have been the same for thousands of years (by and large). Yes, evolving cultures have changed our attitude towards certain things over the years, but killing and stealing have always been wrong, whereas kindness and charity have always been right.

There’s a lovely sense of consistency about right and wrong, which is another reason why it’s so appealing.

 

Meanwhile, appropriate and inappropriate can depend on:

  • What time of day it is.

(Drink alcohol at 11am and it’s inappropriate. Drink it at 9pm and it’s fine. Kill someone at either of these times and it’s wrong.)

  • What time of year it is.

(Dressing in fewer clothes is fine in the summer. In winter it becomes inappropriate. Give money to charity at any time of year and it’s still a good thing to do.)

  • What decade you’re in.

(Swearing is far more acceptable in the media these days than it used to be. Then again, certain words to do with racism are less acceptable. So things have changed for better and for worse.)

  • Who you are with.

(Getting drunk with your best friend is socially acceptable. Doing the same with grandma, not so much.)

  • Which country you’re in.

(In Calais, France, it’s socially acceptable to kiss someone else’s child on the cheek when saying hello. Twenty miles away in Dover, England, people would get very worried.)

(Oh, and it’s acceptable for German kids to casually use the word ‘Scheiße’. Seriously, the S-word is fine over there.)

  • And which exact place you’re in.

(Let’s just say there are things you’d do in the bedroom that you wouldn’t do at the library.)

 

So, not only have I always found appropriate and inappropriate harder than right and wrong… I also trust them a lot less. You never know when the cultural ground may shift beneath you, or where it will go.

Right and wrong are so much simpler.

I'm honoured to know Morgan myself. And I could pretty much write a quote list of my own for this kid.

I’m honoured to know Morgan. And yes, I could pretty much write a quote list myself for this lad.

Of course, not everyone agrees.

Because the sad truth is this: there’s The Right Thing (which I’d like to think is obvious to most people) and then there’s The Done Thing. I’m not sure whether non-British people use that phrase, but “the done thing” is simply what’s socially acceptable to do.

E.g. “He’s annoying me, but I can’t slap him in the face. It’s not the done thing.

 

So, now we’ve defined what “The Done Thing” is, picture yourself in this situation.

You’re walking down a crowded street, and another person is walking in the other direction. As they approach, you see that tears are streaming down their face. You have never met this person before, but your heart goes out to them. You’re tempted to say something nice to them because you’re a caring person, but you’re in a busy street in a town where you’re not really ‘supposed’ to talk to random people, since you don’t know each other.

Being totally, totally honest, what do you do?

 

This exact example happened to me three days ago. I’d bought my lunch and was heading back to the workplace, and I passed a teenage lad on the way. He was clearly crying.

Me being me, someone who loves helping vulnerable people and someone who’s good with teenagers, I wanted to say something positive to him. Just a one-sentence reassurance or something to lessen whatever he was going through.

Then the time came, and we walked right past each other in silence.

 

I’d like to think I was simply too slow to come up with something good. And there were plenty of “what if?”s in my head to slow me down- what if it would make him self-conscious? What if my words did more harm than good?

 

But a part of me is afraid that I’ve turned into an adult, and my questions were attempts to justify my inaction. Because adults, all too often, will only do The Right Thing if it also happens to be The Done Thing. After all, morals are so much easier to follow when they’re socially acceptable too.

 

I hope that lad ended up ok, but I’ll never know. He doesn’t have the faintest idea I cared either.

But it’s ok- we were both socially appropriate. And that matters to people.

 

Appropriateness is discreet.

A lot of being appropriate depends on how you say your words. For example:

It’s inappropriate to say “urgh, you should put some deodorant on because you smell really bad.”

But it’s fine to say “mate, you might want to freshen up a bit.”

Both of those sentences mean the exact same thing, but are interpreted differently. And without the social wisdom to know that two ways of saying something aren’t always interpreted the same, it’s easy to offend people.

 

Tone of voice is important too, and I’ve never been good at that. For example:

“Sorry I can’t help you.”

“Oh it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

Is better than:

“Sorry I can’t help you.”

“Oh it’s fine. Don’t worry about it!”

…It’s difficult to phrase sarcasm over the internet, but you get my meaning.

 

Finally, being appropriate means knowing what not to say.

Well, this picture kind of sums it up.

Warning- this quote’s a bit rude! Oh wait, this caption’s at the bottom of the picture, so you’ll have read it before reaching this warning. Never mind.

Warning- this quote’s a rude one! Oh wait, this caption’s at the bottom of the picture, so you’ll have read it before reaching this warning. Never mind.

 

Appropriateness is vague.

When we first learn about appropriate/inappropriate, we are made to understand that ‘appropriate’ is good, and ‘inappropriate’ is bad.

So ‘appropriate’ must have a lot in common with all the other good words, right? After all, kindness, compassion, friendliness and helpfulness all fit together so well.

 

Not quite. ‘Appropriate’ tries to sit down next to these other good words and share in their beautiful picnic, and it doesn’t work.

 

Because, being kind is not the same as being appropriate. For example:

Yep, same Rachael as the last picture. I don’t know this lad, but I like him already!

Yep, same Rachael as the last picture. I don’t know this lad, but I like him already!

From this kid’s perspective he was being kind, and kind is good. I can sympathise with autistic children’s confusion whenever someone tells them their kindness is ‘inappropriate’ (you know, the bad word. Which tells you you’re being bad.)

 

Heck, even being correct isn’t being appropriate! For example:

I'd be proud of this one if it were me.

I’d be proud of this one if it were me.

Some autistic people really just need things to be correct. That’s why a lot of us can’t bring ourselves to lie, and why a lot of us can’t stand liars. And again, I can sympathise with how alienated some autistic people feel when they’re told they’re ‘being bad’ by telling the truth.

 

Everyone has their own definition of ‘appropriate’.

And like I said before, some people use it like a weapon.

 

I once had friends whose kids went to the youth group I run. These boys led very action-packed lives, and (like me when I was younger) their parents had no problem with them climbing trees.

Now, I’m a huge advocate for tree-climbing. It’s adventurous, it’s challenging, it gives you a sense of achievement, the views are great, and it’s only ever dangerous if you’re not bothering to think about what you’re doing. (Unless you accidentally pick a tree with rotting branches, but that’s why I always rested my foot gently on each branch before pushing down. Just be careful and you won’t get hurt.)

But not all parents think that way. My friends were out with another family, who saw both sets of kids up a small tree (low enough that you could reach up and shake their hands) and went ballistic. My friends were told how wrong they were (there’s that word again, as if it was a moral thing) to let those boys climb that tree, and how it’s inappropriate to put children in such danger.

 

Then of course, there’s the divisive issue of hugs. I hugged a child in church last week because someone very close to us had died of cancer that morning. I knew the parents were fine with it, otherwise it simply wouldn’t have happened.

A career working with children has taught me to think carefully about these things. There’s a time and a place for hugs: in professional settings there are specific guidelines that you follow (and with good reason), and in social settings it depends on everyone’s collective opinion of what’s ‘appropriate’. Pick the fussiest person and go with their opinion. It’s the safest option.

Of course, people's opinions vary widely.

Of course, people’s opinions vary widely.

In conclusion:

There are probably more reasons than the four stated above. But whenever you find yourself wondering why sometimes autistic people “just don’t get it” when it comes to social norms, think about these:

 

  • Appropriateness is fluid.

And, as people who love consistency, how are we supposed to grasp something that’s ever-changing?

 

  • Appropriateness is discreet.

And, as people who work better when people are direct, how are we supposed to grasp a hidden etiquette?

 

  • Appropriateness is vague.

And, as people who need others to be specific, how are we supposed to even begin dealing with that vagueness?

 

  • Finally, everyone has their own definition of ‘appropriate’.

And, as people who find others difficult to read, how are we supposed to learn new and different rules for each individual person?

 

A few things to think about.

And to finish on a good note, I’m going to end with this nice long Facebook comment- the most “liked” one of the evening.

 

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bonnello/Captain Quirk

inappropriate10

Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).

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40 Comments

  1. Brilliant, filled with fact and sprinkled with the right amount of humour to keep any reader interested. You are a true genius x

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    • Awesome feedback. 😀 Thanks!

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  2. Love it 😀

    (BTW I think there’s a typo – I realised right at the end, after some confusion, that you might have meant discreet rather than discrete.)

    Really well written and made me laugh with recognition in a couple of places.

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    • Or actually maybe not. I’m not sure. Appropriateness confuses me. Sorry 😀

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    • Come to think of it… I have no idea what the right spelling is! It’s one that I never learned. 😉

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      • “Discrete” – individually separate and distinct
        “Discreet” – careful and prudent in one’s speech or actions, especially in order to keep something confidential or to avoid embarrassment.
        They’re both perfectly good words, they just have different meanings.

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        • Aaaah, I’ll remember that. 🙂 Thanks!

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          • Thanks for a helpful article! I too was confused for most of the article because as a math person I couldn’t figure out how “discrete” was related and finally I realized you meant “discreet.” But hey, that actually has the effect of helping me sympathize with what you’re describing. 😉

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            • Oh wow. 😮 As a mathematician myself (and as a writer), I can’t believe I got the spellings mixed up! Will fix now. 🙂

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              • Then it makes sense that would be your default spelling! 😉

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    • I was just about to make the same comment. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how your argument was supporting how appropriateness is separate/distinct. I eventually figured out that it was supposed to be discreet, meaning circumspect/unobtrusive, though.

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  3. BRILLIANT!!!
    there’s so much to take in here and I appreciate that a great deal.
    I’ve taken to suing the word “unexpected” with my son where others might say “inappropriate” — mind you I am on the spectrum too so i may well be telling him so at “inappropriate” times! I am NOT into trying to get him to conform and “pass,” just to not get alienated…
    Thanks and love,
    FSM

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    • lol, I may try that for myself in the future! 🙂 It’s a much friendlier word!
      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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      • See Michelle Garcia-Winner. Great body of work

        Post a Reply
  4. I’m working with an autistic kid and I thank you so much for having this blog… 🙂

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    • Glad it’s helped you- thanks for reading! 🙂

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  5. I ought to know about appropriateness/inappropriateness, and a lot of the ASD community hates me for it!

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    • David, they do not hate you because of your inappropriateness. They hate you because of your deliberate choice to be nasty to other autistic people.

      In the last hour alone you have posted messages on here such as:
      “My aim will be to steamroll the ASD community, it’s not as great as it thinks! From an Asperger male who prefers to tell this aforementioned community to go to Hell.”
      “It’s the ASD community whose brains are messed up, not the neurotypicals!”
      “HERE YOU FAKERS, HAVE THIS FROM A DRUMMER WHO BELIEVES HE PLAYS WAY BETTER THAN THE NAMESAKE OF THIS WEBSITE!” (with literally no knowledge of how our skills actually compare).

      It’s clear that you’re not at peace with your own Asperger Syndrome, and I’m sorry that it troubles you the way it does.

      But the comments above are NOT social misunderstandings.
      They’re not even being “inappropriate”.
      They are being deliberately hurtful to vulnerable people, and that is why people within the community do not like your words.

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    • And you’re a pervert hiding behind aspergers. You do know better. You’re playing stupid which people can see through it. David if you don’t change you’re going to be in jail or in a hospital because you’ve sexually harrased the wrong person.

      Post a Reply
    • Regardless of your opinions on David, you’ve picked the wrong community. We don’t bully others here.

      Post a Reply
  6. This is actually reall helpful in dealing with my husband, who never seem so I take on board what I mean when I say something is inappropriate. The issue comes when I try to give the longer explanation, if it isn’t what he wants to hear, he isn’t listening anyway. For example, time and again, I have to tell him it is not ok to tell the children to keep secrets from me – he does it when he can’t figure out what my response will be to something he has done, so assumes negative and tells them not to tell me. The children now know this is not ok and make sure to let me know, whatever it is. For thei safety, it is important not to mix the messages, but he can’t see why it is an issue. Also, he has no grip on what will get a positive or negative response. And there has never really been a consequence if I didn’t like what he did, so again no real issue to be hiding. I am desperate to find the right words to use with him, so he can understand and not think he has to infer something else altogether. It is exhausting to have to figure out how to phrase every request, etc so it is understood. Any thoughts?

    Post a Reply
    • Really sorry for the late reply!

      Would you like me to share this with the Facebok page? There are plenty of married couples there, several of whom will be Aspies or married to them. 🙂

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  7. “I’m a person who has no problem discussing religious beliefs in large groups. It’s ‘inappropriate’ to talk about it here in Britain, but nobody can tell me why. It just is.”

    It’s considered inappropriate because religious discussions often get heated, and that can cause rifts in an otherwise friendly group… so the best way to deal with it (for people that value harmony over truth) is to just-not-talk about it (and to publicly shame people that try into being silent).

    “I’m also that dinner guest who takes the last potato rather than let it go to waste, once it becomes obvious that it’s just going to get thrown. Nobody has ever convinced me why wasting food is ever seen as appropriate, or why taking the last potato is a bad thing when literally nobody else in the world wants it. It just is.”

    Taking the last thing is considered a status-play… it’s a variant on that “you go first, no you go first” situation… everybody has this polite fiction that they are the most generous, most giving, most self-effacing person… and thus they leave the last thing for somebody else. If you actually take it upon yourself to be that other person… they consider that you are saying you are actually better than everybody else.

    Note: I don’t actually agree with either of these two situations – I also discuss religion, because I value truth over harmony. I also take the last thing on the plate because I agree that waste is worse than some social status-play… but you did say nobody had ever explained it to you, so now I have 🙂
    Mostly I think people often aren’t even aware of the games they’re playing, which is probably why they couldn’t explain it to you – or it is too taboo a subject and therefore they *wouldn’t* explain it to you. (they’d lose “face” if they did).

    Also – I have no idea bout the swings-as-adult thing… if I had to guess I’d say that people have a mental box into which they put activities for kids vs activities for adults… and you are breaking their stereotype

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    • Brilliant, insightful comment. 🙂 Thank you!

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    • The swings (and the tree climbing, actually) isn’t just a matter of “adult vs child” play. Most swings aren’t built for the weight of a full grown adult. I stopped swinging when I realized my weight (and I was 120 lbs at the time) was rocking the _entire_ structure. That was kind of scary, actually. (Somewhere there has to be swings built solidly enough for grown ups … There has to be.) And trees–I was always climbing trees and only stopped when once (as an almost-adult) I was climbing an apple tree to help my parents pick apples, and I broke a branch. A huge branch. Just from my weight–the branch wasn’t damaged or anything. And these weren’t my trees, so I felt horrible about it too. (It was a farm where you paid money to go pick your own apples; less money than if you bought them already picked.)

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  8. One of the things I’ve learned this year, my son is now in high school, is the difference between appropriate and expected. Expected my be a better term. Still all the problems listed above, but maybe more clear to the results.

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  9. Just sat down to read this entire post ( when i should have been doing housework!) Amusing,insightful and thought provoking..I still get mortally embarrassed at my DD when she comes out with these comments…I just smile and seem to say sorry to the person the offending comment was aimed at. when in actual fact “M” could not care any less X

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  10. Saya juga mengalami masalah yang sama. Sebagai contoh; bila kawan saya meminta pendapat. Saya berkata secara jujur. Saya dimarahi kerana tak menjaga emosi dan perasaan mereka.

    Padahal saya tiada niat langsung memperkecilkan hati serta perasaan mereka. Ah, persetankan.

    Bagaimanapun, info yang anda berikan sangat berguna. Terima kasih.

    Yang benar,

    -Fadzly-

    Shah Alam, Malaysia

    Clue/Tips: Use Google Translation language – Bahasa Melayu to English. Waiting your reply.
    Good Luck. ?

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks for the comment. 🙂 You’re certainly not alone in having those experiences! Sometimes people don’t really want honesty. Or sometimes they do, but they want honesty wrapped up in something else. 😉

      Post a Reply
  11. Fab article. My son understands that personal remarks can be upsetting (though he is often at a loss as to why) and so he tempers any such comments by adding, ‘no offense’ or ‘I’m sorry to say this, but…’ Like, ‘I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t like the way you smell.’ Sometimes, he tries to generalise his comment, in situations where they can only truly be personal – such as when I was getting changed after a shower and he made the apparently casual comment that “I think that people look better with their clothes on.” 🙂

    Post a Reply
  12. Are you familiar with Michelle Garcia Winner’s work and her Social Thinking curriculum? She recommends using the terms “expected” and “unexpected” which I think are much more appropriate (pun intended!)

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    • Hi! (And sorry for the late reply.) I love that idea- that seriously needs to be a thing. 🙂 thanks!

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  13. Some of those rules are what I call good common logical sense, while the others I would call the unwritten rules of society. One of those categories makes sense, while the other one doesn’t. One is arbitrary and illogical and a horrible guessing game to have to play, especially when playing in-the-blind as Autistics do. The other one is comforting because it is so user friendly and easy to figure out. Too bad they don’t mix together very often!

    Living in such a dysfunctional society as we do in today’s world, just makes all those unwritten social protocols even harder to comprehend when you don’t have a socially-mindset to begin with, and I think Renee hit the nail on the head with her comment. I never think of what is appropriate or inappropriate (most of time I am unable to do so), rather I think about what I am expecting for a reaction to something I say or do. For example, if I tell a joke expecting to be funny and my audience is offended, that is unexpected and I know I need to immediately go into “damage control mode”. Believe it or not, sometimes it goes in the other direction, i.e. — I’m trying to be offensive and I comes across as being funny. I know this because it has happened between me and my wife (Sorry ’bout that, honey!).

    Without that gift of sociability, your or my reactions are often not what we expect, but it isn’t because we are being or trying to act inappropriate, it’s because we have different expectations. There are exceptions, but you know what I mean.

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  14. Back in the day, children were raised on the mantra to “be nice”. Somehow neurotypical children are able to infer from these vague entreaties, a complex and very detailed lexicon of exactly what to say to who when.
    When adults realized “Be nice” meant absolutely nothing, there was a school of thought that you should be more concrete with a child, which quickly devolved into “That’s not appropriate.”
    There is a perfectly good meaning to that word; it is not appropriate to feed rabbits raw chicken. All we have accomplished is to completely rob ourselves of the ability to communicate when behavior is truly inappropriate, for instance certain gestures, innocuous to us, highly inappropriate in other cultures. At this point, if you say “inappropriate”, a child hears “bad”.

    Substituting a different word didn’t change a thing. “Nice” works fine because neurotypicals are social geniuses.

    For those advocating going to the word “unexpected”, please, STOP. Garcia-Winner is a genius. She was first to begin to develop a way to communicate with us about living with neurotypicals. She was incredibly insightful in realizing that “appropriate” means “follows unspoken social rules”. It is completely unrelated to morals, or usually to rational deductive logic.
    Neurotypicals get uncomfortable when people do not follow these rules. I can’t really say why. The message to us is that there is not a reason for the rules, and we can’t figure them out. At best we can familiarize ourselves with as many as possible, to help people see US beneath our “oddities” (unexpected behaviors).
    However it is *not* the case that to be unexpected is to be inappropriate, or not nice. Unexpected, together with a novel juxtaposition, is the basis of most humor. The most loving gestures are unexpected kindnesses. We are often most brilliant and most valuable to society because our thought patterns are unexpected.
    And, for those of us who are logical, saying someone is old, fat or has red gums is simple observation. Very few of us would be able to construct this thought as a negative, much less to then utter it. Very few of us are able to lie or be malicious.

    Please, Garcia-Winner’s word means exactly what she says, and explains to us why you act the way you do. Please do not rob us of this insight by using the phrase to mean “Be nice.”

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  15. As an aspie myself, I struggle with being inappropriate because I don’t care how it affects people. I’m rude to most people, because I don’t like most people; everyone gets what they deserve, whether it’s good or bad. Maybe it’s because I have Asperger’s syndrome, or maybe it’s because I’ve had the most difficult life imaginable; I don’t really know, but I don’t fucking care to know, either. I’ll never be nice to most people, whether they like it or not.

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  16. You sound super annoying

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  17. Hi I’m 15 and I’m friends with an autistic girl on the bus and I need some help with a situation. One of the kids on the bus was having a problem with her neighbor’s kids banging on her mailbox. My friend said the kids should be shot and everyone was appalled. I tried to explain to her why this is wrong but she shrugged it off. In the future if something like this happeneds again, what should I do, I care for her very much and I don’t want her to get bullied more (I delt with earlier bullies by telling the principal and the issue resolved).

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  5. We need to stop saying “we’re all a little autistic” | Autistic Not Weird - […] If everyone really were ‘a little autistic’, society would be driven more by ‘right and wrong’ than ‘appropriate and…

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