When I meet someone new, it really is meeting someone completely new. This sounds like a Mr. Rogers saying, doesn’t it? “There is no one else exactly like you in the whole world!” We grant it lip service, that we are all unique like snowflakes or the prints left by our fingers. But how much do we actually rely on stereotypes (preformatted cognitive categories) when dealing with strangers, or new acquaintances?
As an autistic, every human I meet starts off on a more or less equal grounding. The fact that they are female/male, rich/poor, ignorant/highly over-educated, tall/short, fat/skinny really doesn’t shade my first acceptance of them. I’m being completely honest here. If I will put forth the effort of getting to know someone (a very significant task), I will learn as much as I can about them as possible.
Because they are themselves and like no one else.
Studying humanity as an autistic is like being a biologist or a constant anthropologist. Biologists have it easy, however, because they can classify a beetle and move onto the next beetle. People are not so easy to classify, especially when they are living in an atomized society.
So does this mean I live without the confines of social stereotyping? Actually, I am plagued by stereotypes. On the one hand I face each person as an individual species, on the other, I try to figure them out according to all the other individual species I know. Let me use an example. A small child learns that the small, fluffy four-legged friend is a ‘cat’. Then the child visits the zoo and his parents exclaim that the lions and tigers are ‘big cats’. All he knows is the brown tabby at home. How can the 300 pound “kitty” in front of him be a ‘cat’? His categories are broadened.
The same is true when my mind approaches a social encounter. Ahhh….a homeschooling mother of 4, who drinks rice milk, and watches Antiques Roadshow. Is she like the other homeschooling mom I met three months ago? Nope…here is why…she has three boys and a girl, the other mom has two girls and two boys. She went to college; the other mom did not. She watches a lot more tv; mom 1 did not own one at all. And so on….
I memorize all these details to form a broader schematic with which to meet other Homeschooling Moms. Each person is still a fascinating person…but I have a handy reference book of sorts for the next one I meet. Instead of an unconscious process, stereotyping becomes a conscious tool. Yeah, this can get pretty exhausting, which is why we autistics are selective about our social energy.
The benefits of having a non-stereotyped categorizing system is that I approach people based on their character. Nothing in the world will put me off more than someone who is rude (breaking social conventions to make themselves superior) or self-aggrandizing. If you are rich and ‘act rich’, barf! You ain’t worth my time. The same goes for people who act stupid when I know they have brains. I call this “willful ignorance”. Believe you me, I see this more than I should in academia.
A side affect of living with an equality-based social system is that I treat everyone pretty much the same. Senator, pastor, lady behind the Starbucks counter, it really doesn’t matter. I can ‘speak truth to power’ just as easily as I can to those who have no power at all. Truth matters. This gets me into heaps of trouble at times, but that is where I have learned tact, a vital socializing element. 😉 SO, if you need a buddy to tag along when you meet the President or some other Big Wig, I would be a good bet.