Autistic behavior as the presentation of the «other» in the society

The aim of this essay is to view the struggles that autistic people (diagnosed with ASD/autism spectrum disorder) face through the lens of Erwing Goffman’s theory of social interactions. Goffman (1959) argues that individuals present themselves based on the perceived audience in their front stage. In other words, people alter their behavior to guide the expected impression of the ones they interact with. Yet, autistic people rarely produce socially «normative» behaviors due to the disorder. However, there is the term «masking», meaning that they try to artificially fit in, but it causes them quite a lot of suffering and possibly even identity loss. Therefore, this essay applies Goffman’s social interaction theory to look at autistic behaviors and hopefully find the answer to the research question of whether such behavior can be perceived as «normal». 

We should first look into what norms are in general and how they are formed. Then we will proceed to the diagnostic criteria of autism. We will compare the social expectations and normative acts, listed in Goffman’s books, and see whether autistic people comply. Lastly, we will look at the limitations of the social interaction theory in application to the issue. 

Norms formation

What are social norms and who forms them? According to Cislaghi (2009) “social norms are the beliefs about which behaviors are appropriate within a given social group.” (p. 5) These beliefs shape rather strict rules about the ways one is supposed to behave. Although such rules are often informal, typically unspoken and unwritten, people absorb, accept, and follow them without critical thought. (Mackie et al, 2015) Behavioral norms exist when a certain behavior is expected in a situation, with a regulatory policing from the observers or people involved in the situation, and sanctioning may take place if a person fails to express the “normative” behavior. Everyone can feel “familiar distinction between acts that are approved and acts that are felt to be improper” (Goffman, 1963, p. 4) If norms are widely accepted and if strong sanctions go with the norm, it is likely that they lead to behavioral regularities. (Opp, 2001) As Goffman (1963, p. 5) puts it “An act can, of course, be proper or improper only according to the judgment of a specific social group”.

Since almost every action in society seems to lead its spectators to decide whether an individual “fits in” or not, there are a lot of decisions needed to be made, although they don’t move the collective towards any goals (e.g. sartorial norms, the state norm of driving on the right or left hand side of the road or variations in greeting norms do not serve any collective to reach its goals), yet they definitely help a person feel recognized as an accepted part of the society. (Goffman, 1963) Therefore, at first there is some behavioral regularity, which later grows from a habit to be a norm, with no prior aspiration of a public good. It is however assumed that norms are needed to aid cooperation. (Bicchieri et al, 1997)

These notions come from early conceptual review, conducted by Gibbs (1965): “A norm …involves: (1) a collective evaluation of behavior in terms of what it ought to be; (2) a collective expectation as to what behavior will be; and/or (3) particular reactions to behavior, including attempts to apply sanctions or otherwise include a particular kind of conduct.” (pp. 586-594) The problem with the collective evaluation is that, according to philosopher Jaques Derrida (1972), there is no neutral binary oppositions, one pole of binary is dominant, the one which includes the “other” in its fields of operations, so if the majority, the collective, is white, they hold a certain power of judgment and action over the people of color. If the majority is neurotypical, they can police and sanction the action of neurodivergent people (people with autism, ADHD or other disorders). As a mental exercise, we can try to imagine a world, where autistic people are the majority, and the norm is to avoid eye contact, to rock in reaction to emotions and to flap one’s hands to express happiness. The mothers then would teach their children not to smile politely, but to politely flap their hands in order to communicate content. 

Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein (1980) note that the important component of the norm, in contrast with just a habitual behavior, is the feeling of shame and/or guilt, when the norm is broken. When the norm exists, the emotional attitude towards a behavior starts its formation, so that when a different behavior is expressed, the automatic reaction towards the new expression is strongly negative, with the desire to exclude such performance from view. Then, what about the people, who don’t seem to fit the norms?

Autism depiction

Autism or ASD is a neuro-developmental disorder, meaning that it emerges in childhood and is a significant part of a person’s identity, that can not be cured or outgrown. The societal stereotypical idea of the visible performance of autism differs immensely from the actual diagnostic criteria, which can be divided into two main groups: the social ones and the restrictive patterned ones.

The social deficits symptoms are: (1) deficits in social‐emotional reciprocity (reflecting problems with social initiating and response, meaning that an autistic person may have troubles initiating conversations, either in the way of a disability to approach a person or in the way of being to eager and pushy, and maintaining balanced connections with people, either in a non-responsive way or in a manner of oversharing and info-dumping); (2) deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction (too little or too much eye-contact, too little or too much face expressions, too little or too much gesticulation, and so on); (3) deficits in developing and maintaining relationships (ranging from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit different social contexts to an absence of interest in people).

The restrictive patterned symptoms are: (1) stereotyped or repetitive speech, motor movements, or use of objects (idiosyncratic language, rocking, hand flapping or finger flipping, nonfunctional play with objects, e.g. lining them up); (2) excessive adherence to routines and excessive resistance to change (compulsions, repetitive questions on a particular topic, difficulty with transition, overreaction to trivial change, inability to understand implied meaning, rule‐bound behavior); (3) highly restricted, fixated interests, abnormal in intensity or focus; (4) hyper‐ or hypo‐reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment (atypical focus on sensory information, troubling reactions to bright lights/patterns, loud sounds, fast movements, etc.) (APA, 2013)

Autistic behavior

Autistic people typically do not participate in the minor normative expressions that Goffman calls ”the “negatively eventful” kind, which gives rise to specific negative sanctions if not performed, but which, if it is performed, passes unperceived as an event.” (1963, p. 7)

Research shows that autistic self-expression truly is perceived negatively — 80% of the stereotypical traits associated with ASD are rated negatively by non-autistic people. (Pearson&Rose, 2021, p. 6) 

“The exchange of words and glances between individuals in each other’s presence is a very common social arrangement”, says Goffman (1963, p. 18), but autistic people can’t seem to perform the normative eye-contact naturally and have to spend a lot of time and effort to fine-tune their glance choreography. 

The whole face expressivity is a problem for neurodivergent people, known to have a «flat affect» or neutral or inexpressive faces, or, contrarily, over exaggerated emotional expression due to alexithymia. This also contrasts with the normative behavior, when people are “… appropriately controlling through facial muscles the shape and expression of the various parts of this instrument [the face].” (Goffman, 1963, p. 27)

Such seemingly minute acts are not the only problem, but the whole concentration and prioritization processes are built differently in autistic people. “In our society, it is recognized that certain activities are to be carried on only as main and dominating involvements… It is also recognized that certain other activities are to be carried on only as side involvements and subordinate ones, as, for example, chewing gum”,  argues Goffman (1963, p. 45), however executive dysfunction and sensory fascination may bring people with ASD to fully engage themselves into chewing gum or feeling the wind on the face. They also may pay too much attention to their bodies in public (it’s called «stimming» — self-stimulatory behavior), although, according to Goffman (1963, p. 65) such acts “are perceived as subordinate side involvements, usually out of place in public spaces”. 

But while trying to perform «normally» autistic people do not gain any special validation of their effort. Bargiela et al. (2016) and Bradley et al. (2021) depict that the autistic adults do not experience acquisition, trying to fit into the societal norms, performing “masking” (also known as “camouflaging”), yet time spent camouflaging led to exhaustion, isolation, poor mental and physical health, loss of identity and acceptance of self, others’ unreal perceptions and expectations, and delayed diagnosis.

Theory limitations

However, even without full acquisition in society, autistic individuals have different levels of support and may to some extent adapt and learn. This presents a limitation for applying Goffman’s theory, since he has developed it based on the etiquette books and his observations of the mental hospitals patients, who were, allegedly, in a state of a very high support demand. Yet, performing normatively in society doesn’t change the level of struggle that autistic people face, doesn’t change their diagnosis, and only makes them less visible. 

Goffman also studied expressive norms in a European country, and more research is needed to make sure whether autistic people face similar issues in the cultures with different self-presentation patterns (for example, Asian countries, where less eye-contact may be seen as an act of politeness and respect). 

The societal norms are changing as well. With the development of technology and the presence of mobile phones in our everyday life,  it has become more typical to fix one’s eyes on the phone. With the rise of social media usage, it has become more typical to have less face-to-face interactions at all, mostly texting the information, and such asymmetrical communication allows an autistic to ponder over the answer and take their time to create the response. In the COVID-times, most  jobs provided the opportunity to work from home ,and communicate via Zoom — or other video-platform. Quintessentially, this gives autistic people less time in a crowded transport with many sensory distractions and allows them to wear comfortable familiar clothes, Most importantly, they can stim in a way that would be invisible through screen. Therefore, in some scenarios, neurodivergent people may need even less accommodation, and can be less visibly different and less ostracized. 

To conclude it is unfortunate that norms are formed by the majority of allistic (neurotypical/non-autistic) people. So, it would be too optimistic and unreasonable to expect  the disappearance of the perception of the «otherness» of neurodivergent people. Lack of communicative skills and motor differences will keep attracting attention to the non-normative behaviors of autistic people . Whether they wear  a mask or not, whether they perform as visibly autistic, whether they try to shape their behavior according to the neurotypical normative standards, it does not change their identity, but only dims their struggle and helps the society question, doubt and dismiss their experience. We cannot encourage the autistic people to stop masking and perform their autism in a more clear way, due to the dangers of exclusion they may face, same as we cannot judge them according to our socially constructed norms of maintaining eye-contact, side involvements, lack of concentration on sensory stimuli, etc. As Goffman claims “a social order may be defined as the consequence of any set of moral norms“ (1963, p. 8), As a society, our moral norm should be to be more conscious about the levels of stigma we have, and believe, support and accommodate autistic people who have already come out. 



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